From the moment a watery-eyed Hal Hallbrook settles down to relate his memories of “Back in the day…” you’ll be intrigued, if never fully arrested, by his tale. One long flashback to 1931 and the Great Depression, this sumptuous but unmoving adaptation of Sara Guren’s bestseller tells the story of Jacob (Robert Pattinson), a student whose veterinary ambitions are scuppered when his parents are killed in a car crash.
Going from respectable to shabby chic in minutes, JAcob stows away on a train only to find himself in the midst of a traveling circus, where his cut-short college learnin’ becomes key to his salvation. Welcomed into the family by roguish circus master August (a typically nasty Christoph Waltz) and his stunning wife/headlining act Marlena (Reese Withserspoon), Jacob’s initially enchanted. But as he witnesses animal abuse and murder, he soon sees the reality.
He may be playing the namesake of his Twilight love-rival but the connection ends there, as R-Pattz steps into a more adult role after last year’s teen trauma Remember Me. Witherspoon struggles to keep her sprightliness under wraps as Marlena but kudos for her circus skills; she performed all her own stunts harness-free — even atop the film’s real star. Indeed, the main draw is Rosie the elephant, played by the nine-foot-tall Tai. Only when she’s on screen do you truly believe in the magic of the circus — her antics in the extras put proxy dog tricks to shame!
Elsewhere, even the colorful interludes have a melancholy edge and the predictable script never captures the emotional impact of Gruen’s book. What we’re left with is a stunning, authentic-feeling representation of circuses and the Depression era — albeit with very little clowning around.
DVD: Two sycophantic mini-featurettes on the leads plus a digital copy — that’s it.
Blu-Ray: The slick HD picture showcases the visuals and there;s a fascinating commentary from director Francis Lawrence and screenwriter Richard LaGravenese. The ‘Raising The Tent’ featurette, about the set and custom design, and ‘Secrete Of The Big Top’ are equally illuminating and ‘The Traveling Show — Page to Screen’ is an interesting Making Of.
Best are the aforementioned ‘The Star Attraction,’ where Tai charms all-comers, and ‘Working Without A Net,’ a captivating dialogue-free featurette about the visual effects, set to extracts from the score.