Sunday, May 08, 2011

REVIEW: Thor/Water for Elephants

OK, I know what you're thinking. "Reviewing Thor and Water for Elephants together? Geez, Eric, you're seeing pink elephants! Those movies have nothing in common!"

Actually, they have quite a bit in common. And yes, the "Pink Elephants" scene in Dumbo is wonderfully trippy and one of the greatest animated sequences of all time.

All that said, I promise I have not been drinking copious amounts of champagne. Here's the deal: Water for Elephants and Thor are both dramas that portray their fantastical worlds very well. However, when dealing with more earthbound matters, and specifically with romance, both movies falter.

Seeing the trailers for Thor, I thought it would be the other way around. The scenes set in the worlds of the gods looked dopey and overwrought. But those are the best scenes in Kenneth Branagh's movie.

Much has been made of Branagh's Shakespearean leanings and how they inform the film. And indeed, the story here is not that far removed from something the Bard might have penned. Wise, aging king Odin (Anthony Hopkins) prepares to hand over the throne to his loyal but impetuous son, Thor (Chris Hemsworth). Thor rashly provokes war with alien race and pisses off Odin, who banishes Thor to Earth, leaving in charge his crafty younger son Loki (Tom Hiddleston).

The otherworldly scenes in Thor constantly run the risk of seeming silly, even for the comic book genre, but Branagh holds them together well, not only because of his Shakesparean leanings, but because he's a strong action director - always helpful in a comic book flick.

And yet when Thor crashes to Earth, so does the movie. The scenes in our world just aren't as compelling, largely because they shoehorn in a romance between Thor and a pretty scientist played by Natalie Portman. Portman does what she can, but any actress worth her salt could have played Portman's part, so her  considerable talent goes to waste, as does Kat Dennings' comedic skill in the role of Portman's snarky best buddy.  Double shame.

Worse yet, the romance feels only obligatory. It's there because it's "supposed" to be. But Thor has enough drama without it. I  particularly liked Loki's characterization as a not quite good/not quite bad guy, which gave his character a depth it might not have had otherwise.  Best of all is Hemsworth, who is ideal in the title role. He strikes just the right balance of heft and humor, selling both equally well. He's so much fun to watch,  I'd like to see Thor get another movie of his own, outside of his role in next year's The Avengers.

Now, about those elephants ...

Water for Elephants, based on the bestseller by Sara Gruen, gets so much right, that I wish it didn't get as much wrong as it did. It sells itself as a romance, and yet the romantic scenes are the weakest in the film.

On the plus side, Water for Elephants marks Francis Lawrence's arrival as a director to take seriously. Constantine showed us he had an eye. I Am Legend showed us he could craft a solid action flick with surprising dramatic weight. And Water for Elephants proves that he can truly tell a story that doesn't rely quite so heavily on CGI creatures.

It was no surprise that Water for Elephants wonderfully captures the atmosphere of a circus. With gorgeous art direction by Jack Fisk (There Will Be Blood) and sumptuous photography by Rodrigo Prieto (Brokeback Mountain), I could practically smell the sawdust.

But Water for Elephants' success is not merely a matter of technical prowess. Screenwriter Richard LaGravanese excels at telling stories with a fantastical air (e.g. The Fisher King), which goes a long way towards evoking the magic of a circus. And with Lawrence's sturdy hand, the film feels wonderfully old-fashioned. Dramatically, this is something that would fit comfortably in the Turner Classic Movies lineup. Even the potentially off-putting anti-animal abuse angle is effective, packing much more punch than anything PETA could crank out.

And yet, strangely, the movie fizzles as a romance, which is supposedly its big selling point. It's not the fault of the individual actors. Reese Witherspoon is appealing as ever playing the circus' star attraction, and Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds) is ideally cast as the domineering ringmaster, who happens to be Witherspoon's husband. And yes, even the Twilight hunk, Robert Pattinson, holds his own nicely as the animal doctor who comes between them.

For some reason, though, he and Witherspoon strike no sparks. As it did in Thor, the romance here feels undercooked. It may be that Witherspoon and Pattinson have little chemistry - and it may be that Pattinson's role is a bit underwritten. I understood why he fell for her - but I did not understand why she would fall for him, other than the fact that Pattinson  was less likely than Waltz to beat her up.

Fortunately, the strengths of Thor and of Water for Elephants make both movies highly entertaining. I only wish both of them could have fully lived up to their potential.

Thor: B

Water for Elephants: B+

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