Depression-era Jacob (Twilight’s Robert Pattinson), whose parents die just as he’s completing veterinary school, is left penniless, so he hops the train of a traveling circus, where he shovels manure until August (Inglourious Basterds’ Christoph Waltz) enlists him as vet and trainer for his latest attraction, Rosie the elephant. As Jacob tries to protect the animals from vicious beatings, he ends up falling for the circus’ star performer (Reese Witherspoon), who also happens to be the boss’ bullied wife.
While the movie reflects the sleazy glamour and base cruelty of 1930s circus life — animals worked to death, workers thrown off moving trains to avoid paying them – the story’s hokey tone recalls vintage Disney.
Still, it’s presented with some style. And Pattinson is surprisingly effective, while Waltz makes the volatile August compelling and sympathetic. Plus, the evocative railroad landscapes are beautifully painted. --Pamela Zoslov