Opening Weekend: ‘Water for Elephants’ and ‘African Cats’

Plus: ‘Bill Cunningham New York’

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Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon with Rosie in 'Water For Elephants'

This Easter weekend we’ve got a virtual zoo of wildlife offerings: an abused pachyderm plays a supporting role with  Twilight‘s heartthrob in the circus romance of Water for Elephants; a lioness and a cheetah mama fight to protect their families from predators in Disney’s African Cats. And in a smaller, urban documentary, Bill Cunningham New York, an octogenarian photographer stalks fashion as wildlife in the streets of Manhattan. My favorite of these films is Bill Cunningham, which I’ve written about in the magazine, a piece that’s now online. The other two movies are rather heavy-handed fables, but that’s intrinsic to the genre in each case. African Cats is kind of live-action documentary cartoon that’s aimed  at kids, and it gives narrator Samuel L. Jackson an opportunity to sink his teeth into a luxurious bedtime story about wild beasts.  Water For Elephants has the kind of Big Game narrative that John Irving might contrive, were he a woman. But while neither picture will win awards for being cool, both are engrossing yarns with lively narratives and rich visuals.

Water For Elephants

Based on the 2006 bestseller by Vancouver-born author Sarah Gruen, Water For Elephants is the Depression-Era tale of Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson), a veterinary student who is struck by a family tragedy as he’s on the verge of getting his degree. He hops a freight that turns out to be a circus train, and through that twist of fate tumbles into a picaresque world of lowlife showbiz and high romance. Pattinson delivers a solid, well-modulated performance that shows there’s a real actor lurking in the skin of Twilight‘s Edward Cullen, but you can’t help feeling he’s still playing it safe, and in danger of being typecast as the tragic lover. Reese Witherspoon lends a stylish period inflection to her role as Jacob’s love interest, Marlena, the equestrian star stuck in a bad marriage with August, the villainous Big Top boss and sadistic animal trainer. He is played by German actor Christoph Waltz, who delivers a more monochromatic version of his Oscar-winning tour de force as a Nazi fiend in Inglourious Basterds. As for Tai, the veteran 42-year-old elephant actor who plays Rosie, the show’s new star attraction, I can’t say enough good things. If there was an Oscar for animals, she would have a lock on it with that articulate trunk.

I wish I could get more excited about the movie, which is directed by Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) and scripted by Richard LaGravanese (The Fisher King). Framed by a flashback sequence starring Hal Holbrook as the elder Jacob, the story rattles along with the raucous momentum of, well, a circus train. But like that shabby roadshow, it’s built on some dramatic illusions that are not fully convincing. The looming ego behind Waltz’s performance tends to throw the rest of the piece off kilter. Finally I wanted more chemistry and substance to the Titanic-ish romance between Jacob and Marlena. And maybe three fewer happy epilogues slapped onto the end.

A matched set of cheetahs in 'African Cats'

African Cats

This is the third movie from Disneynature, which brought us Earth and Oceans. And it upholds the same standard of breathtaking photography. Shot in Kenya’s Masi Mara, African Cats takes wildlife cinematography to new levels. Like anyone else, I thought I’d seen enough slo-mo shots of the cheetah proving it’s the fastest animal on earth to last a lifetime. But speed is not the half of it. There are stunningly intimate sequences of a cheetah stalking its prey, slipping through the grass so you can almost feel it brushing each blade of grass. Close-ups of the cheetahs’ amber eyes are mesmerizing. Their cubs, with their fluffy gray manes, are almost tragically cute. Especially after we’re told that the male cheetahs sometimes eat their young. As for  the lions, they look and act so outrageously regal they should be invited to the royal wedding.

Although African Cats is a documentary, it’s heavily stylized as a retro Disney fable, albeit one with a contemporary dose of female-empowerment. It would not take a great leap to turn it into an animated feature. The story follows two embattled matriarchs, a lioness and cheetah, as they are beset by various predators, from hyenas to a Godfather-like pride of male lions. The bad guys, in fact, all seem to be male, except for Fang, an aging patriarch with a broken tooth. He’s the King Lear of lions in this Shakespearean western, which unfolds as an epic tale of gangs and ambushes.

The drama relies heavily on suspense, and fortunately (for the kids) has a minimum of gore. When a lioness or cheetah takes down her prey, it’s so graceful it  looks like an euthanizing embrace. And the camera doesn’t stick around to observe dinner.  Despite the cat-like prowl of Samuel Jackson’s rich delivery—he turns into an ebonic Bela Lugosi in the scary parts—I developed aversion to the narration’s moral homilies, which are so chronically Disney. Just because the target audience are children, why do they need to be served Happy Meal sermons? We are told that “bullies get bullied” and that “nothing is more powerful than a mother’s love,” and conflicts are resolved so neatly it’s as if the filmmakers have found an UN model of anthropomorphic justice in the wild.

But hell, I would happily see African Cats again with a loved one, great or small. It sure beats going to the zoo, especially with the weather we been having.