There's no way to turn an audience against a man faster than to show him abusing an animal.
Well, presumably you could show him abusing an entire menagerie, preferably with something fiery. Or inventing a baby-fueled car. But that's pretty much it. A serial killer will get less hate than a puppy-kicker. At least the people that the killer kills probably lied to their parents or cheated on their taxes that one year or something deserving of punishment. The worst crime an elephant's ever committed is smelling kind of bad.
So sure, I didn't kill for the elephant-whacking in Water for Elephants. But I don't think I liked the rest of it any better.
During the Depression, Robert Pattinson is on the verge of graduating Cornell and becoming a licensed veterinarian when his parents die in a car crash. With their house seized by the bank and no way to make a living, Pattinson decides to ride the rails
The first train he hops on turns out to be a circus train, and Pattinson soon impresses owner Christoph Waltz with his ability to treat the animals. But Pattinson's falling for Waltz's wife Reese Witherspoon -- and Waltz's temper is a bad one.
Also there is an elephant. And a bunch of Depression-era and circus characters who are probably supposed to be colorful but are instead akin to toys you'd shake out of a cereal box -- dry and plastic and coated in a fine dust you might be tempted to lick off except it would probably give you cancer. Wait, forget that dust part. But the rest is true. There's no life here, nothing you want to keep around.
The problem with Water for Elephants is it's boring. Especially its main character, who has all the personality of the mole under my arm. I don't blame Pattinson for this, despite besmirching my good name in the Twilight series. He just doesn't have much to work with. In fact, in one hand he has nothing to work with, and in the other hand he has a lump of gray clay that doesn't stick to itself very well and would really rather be sitting in a mound of dirt under a porch somewhere. A dull main character is as hard to overcome as a cheeseburger the size of the plate it's served on. It may be possible to eat it all, but you will probably need a lot of help from those around you.
Unfortunately, Witherspoon's character is no better. Waltz, the semi-villain, is the only one who really registers, meaning you either get to root for a couple generic forbidden lovers or a guy who stabs elephants. That's... that's not cool, guys.
Ah well. I supposed it all fits into the movie's super-sanitized, "we're down but not out!" Hollywood Depression spirit, where the drunks are charming old men, people are starving but they're all offscreen so who cares, and the scene fades away every time any of the implied debauchery threatens to become explicit debauchery.
Water for Elephants is a safe, unthreatening movie. I'm not saying all movies need to rob you at knifepoint and force you to smoke crystal meth from a pipe last touched by a leper, but aside a scene or two of elephant abuse, nothing here stands out. It's a slow and colorless journey to a place you'd really rather not be.