Lions and tigers and bears (oh, my!) compete for attention with dogs, ponies and chimpanzees throughout “Circus Rosaire.” But even the most charismatic of these critters cannot upstage their trainers in Robyn Bliley’s engaging doc — a melancholy celebration of a Florida-based circus family struggling to continue its decades-long traditions in an age when such acts are increasingly ignored by mainstream audiences and attacked by animal-rights activists. After an extended tour of the fest circuit, pic should please ladies, gentlemen and children of all ages who tune in to niche cable networks.
British-born octogenarian Derrick Rosaire Sr. presides over a clan that has specialized in animal acts for nine generations. But whereas the aging entertainer once performed before royalty and U.S. presidents, his children and grandchildren — and, of course, their trained beasts — are hard-pressed to find sporadic employment in sideshows and carnivals as far away as the Bahamas.
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Still, even as they are repeatedly reminded that they may be turning into anachronisms, the Rosaires insist the show must go on. In that spirit, they go wherever the gigs are, traveling across country (and, sometimes, aboard ferry boats) in the trailers, semis and buses they share with their animals.
And when there are no gigs, the Rosaires aren’t too proud to seek temporary work in other areas. As one notes: “There’s lots of circus performers working at Wal-Mart. I’m not the only one.”
Under Bliley’s affectionately respectful gaze, each of the redoubtable Rosaires comes across as a colorful character. The heartiest of the bunch is Derrick Rosaire Jr., a veteran bear trainer who’s an eager but stern taskmaster while teaching his twentysomething sons the tricks of the trade. He speaks in an authoritative tone when he explains why he seldom restrains his ursine co-stars: “If you can’t handle a bear without a muzzle, you shouldn’t handle him.” But even Derrick Jr. can’t help laughing out loud when, during the pic’s funniest sequence, his son bursts into Monty Python-esque song while announcing his preference for a woodcutting career.
Shot over a five-year period, “Circus Rosaire” impresses as the work of indie filmmakers who, taking a cue from their subjects, made the most of limited resources.