(CNN) -- Do children still dream of running away to join the circus?
Sara Gruen's best-selling novel, "Water for Elephants," evokes an earlier time, when towns came to a standstill to watch the circus folk parade down Main Street, the glint of tinsel could pass for glamour and the smell of sawdust could make a boy's heart race.
To be more precise, the novel is set in 1931, a few years after the heyday of the Big Top. The Great Depression is culling the stragglers, and the surviving outfits scavenge off the remains, picking up flea-bitten big cats and starving artistes on the cheap.
Directed by Francis Lawrence ("I Am Legend") from a screenplay by veteran Richard LaGravenese ("PS I Love You"), the movie version does a pretty good job balancing the surface exoticism of the Benzini Brothers Circus and the shabbiness that's fraying away at the edges.
For one thing, we're seeing this world through the sentimental eyes of nonagenarian Jacob Jankowski, reminiscing about his early twenties (Hal Holbrook, morphing into "Twilight" heartthrob Robert Pattinson), when by chance he hopped a train crammed with coochie dancers, clowns, acrobats, dwarves, ringers, razorbacks, roustabouts and enough animals to convince the ringmaster that a Cornell-trained veterinarian (even someone as young and untested as Jacob) is worth adding to the over-stretched payroll.
Played by Quentin Tarantino discovery Christoph Waltz -- an actor who always suggests his bite is much worse than his bark -- and aptly named August, the domineering ringmaster is alternately charming and terrifying, prey to volcanic rages whenever he's crossed. But it's his wife, the dazzling bareback rider, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), who hooks Jacob -- well, she and Rosie the scene-stealing elephant.
For better or worse, this is an unabashedly old-fashioned melodrama, a love story aimed at mature audiences.
While August repeatedly promises the rubes "the most spectacular show on Earth," "Water for Elephants" proves a tonic for anyone who has had it up to here with the visual bombast of the contemporary Hollywood blockbuster. Spectacle does not have to be about shock and awe. The movie unfurls like a big top, or an elephant parade: lugubrious, but imposing.
Lawrence harks back to a venerable Hollywood classicism, a modest, self-effacing visual syntax that's in danger of being forgotten. But sometimes Lawrence seems to have forgotten it. There are several scenes where we can appreciate what he was reaching for, and you have to go the extra mile on the movie's behalf, mostly because we've seen them done before, and better.
LaGravenese retains the book's framing device and voice-over narration stokes a slow-burning, folksy romanticism. Wisely, he's combined the character of August (the head animal trainer in the book) with the circus owner, Uncle Al, handing Waltz much the biggest plate. He's a plausible bully, beating up on the elderly elephant in one hard-to-watch scene. The anger seethes out of him, and when August loses control, the movie jolts into life. But Waltz is less convincing in remorse, and Witherspoon's intuitive intelligence works against our understanding of the abused but dependent wife.
As for Pattinson, this slender, smoldering 24-year-old is destined to be patronized by the critics and probably a good part of the male population for a while, but he looks like the real deal to me. He has the bone structure, but he also has a sensitivity and seriousness that should stand him in good stead.
This isn't a bad role for him, but there's minimal spark between him and Witherspoon. They seem more besotted with the elephant in the room than with each other. Which is natural enough, I guess, but makes this handsome but rather stagnant movie more of an indulgent wallow than a genuine tearjerker.