After an unfortunate car accident leaves both of his parents dead, Jacob leaves Cornell University's School of Veterinary Medicine, skips town and jumps aboard a Benzini Bros. Circus train. The hired hands threaten to throw him off immediately but once acknowledging he’s adorned in a business suit and therefore doesn’t appear to be a bum, they give him work. In awe of the animals, Jacob longs to become a part of the menagerie. His first job however is shoveling endless piles of manure.
The film, an adaptation of the novel by Sara Gruen, is set in the 1930’s during the Great Depression. Its "old-timey" feel and cinematography are a nice and welcome change, with all the CGI (computer generated imagery)-happy filmmakers nowadays. The film mostly takes place under the big top and on the road, on a town-hopping train the workers call home.
An elderly Jacob narrates the story from the beginning.
The elegant, horse rider Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) catches Jacob’s eye instantly. But as the circus owner August’s (Christoph Waltz) wife, she’s forbidden fruit, so he pretends to keep his distance. Academy-Award winner, Christoph Waltz (for his role in Inglorious Basterds) is the ideal villain. Once August learns of Jacob’s veterinary studies he awards him the job of animal doctor and caretaker.
Benzini Bros. is in danger of going belly-up and August is eager for a new act. He purchases a middle-aged elephant named Rosie – who’s brilliant and spot-on by the way – and believes with Jacob’s help rearing her, Marlena and Rosie could become the cash cow of their traveling show.
August's primary concern is the success of the show. And he will berate and abuse to get his way.
He becomes quiet aggressive in his treatment of the animals, much to the chagrin of Jacob. Marlena expresses similar feelings (as I believe most would). It’s a bit disturbing to watch the way he spears the pachyderm to the point of bloodying her coarse skin. But it’s needed to make him an effective bad guy.
Jacob and Marlena have a common bond through their affection and care for animals. But her loyalty to August has her torn. The Jacob-Marlena-August love triangle becomes realized to all parties when August suspects an affair is occurring behind his back.
As aforementioned, Waltz is the perfect fit and easy to hate as August. The film is not just about the love story but the treatment of animals. The scenery is beautiful and believable and it's obvious much preparation went into passing it off as an authentic circus. There are a few dry spots perhaps, but the majority of the movie is solid. This a good film for animal lovers and, well, just plain lovers – earning 3 out of 4 stars.