Opening with a framing device which instantly invokes Titanic – an old man (Hal Holbrook) recalls a great but forbidden love and a tragedy from decades ago – Water For Elephants flags its intentions for melodrama, nostalgia and romance from the outset. And even without having read Sara Gruen's bestseller (adapted by Richard LaGravenese), I've no doubt that's what fans of the book were hoping for.
Holbrook is Jacob, played for the most part in the younger guise of Robert Pattinson, for the film soon flashes back to 1931 to reveal how a veterinary school drop out became the animal physician for the Benzini Brothers, a second-tier and nigh on broke circus travelling across the US, and how he bore witness to their infamous demise that same year.
As always, there is a lady involved: Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), the circus's star attraction and the wife of ringmaster and circus owner, August (Christoph Waltz), a man prepared to throw workers from a moving train to avoid paying them and who treats everyone, including his wife, as though they were his property.
It seems Waltz has become a victim of his own success. Following his Oscar win for Inglourious Basterds (2009), where he played the charismatically evil Col. Hans Landa, the Austrian actor has been typecast by Hollywood as the villain, though he does get more to work with here than he did previously in The Green Hornet.
Jacob and Marlena are first thrown together then drawn to each other when the circus acquires Rosie, an elephant with a penchant for alcohol, whom August believes will be the Benzini Bros. saviour, and which Jacob must train and Marlena ride. What follows is a series of longing glances and a lot of U.S.T as the pair bond over Rosie, the real star of the film.
But to be fair, both Pattinson and Witherspoon are perfectly fine in Water For Elephants, fulfilling their roles – as star crossed lovers – and the requirements of the film – directed by Francis Lawrence in a change of pace from 2007's I Am Legend – admirably.
It's designed to make audiences swoon rather than scream, which is why Pattinson's younger Twi-hard fans are likely to give Water For Elephants a miss. Their mothers, on the other hand, will be sighing and weeping into their popcorn.
And there's nothing wrong with that. Water For Elephants delivers exactly what it promises: romance and melodrama, though admittedly without reaching the Titanic heights (or should that be depths?) it hints at. Still, in an era where so many rom-coms and chick flicks shortchange and insult their audience, Water For For Elephants is an old fashioned breath of fresh air.