The trickiest part of any intentionally-structured franchise movie making is that you run the risk of making the audience feel that they've been cheated of a complete experience in favor of a set-up.
"Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant" certainly suffers from a bit of that, which is a shame because in the film's best moments, it offers up a weird and occasionally wonderful fantasy world.
I haven't read the Darren Shan books that the film is based on, but I'm generally aware of them. Like the Series of Unfortunate Events, Darren Shan is both author and character, and here, Chris Massoglia plays Shan as an average high school boy, eager to please his demanding parents (Don McManus and Colleen Camp) by doing well in school and behaving himself at every opportunity. His best friend Steve (Josh Hutcherson) is the opposite, a loney troubled kid who has no real ties to life except Darren. When the two of them attend an after-hours freak show and encounter a real vampire, Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly), both of their lives are changed, and what begins as a close friendship becomes a deadly rivalry.
Darren has no interest in becoming a vampire or in leaving home, but he is forced into it when he makes a deal to save someone's life. Crepsley presses Darren into service, making him a half-vampire and putting him to work as his assistant. Darren joins Crepsley in his life on the road with the Cirque Du Freak, and some of the best stuff in the movie deals with life behind the scenes in the show. The rest of the freaks are fleshed out by an interesting and totally game cast of supporting actors. Patrick Fugit ("Almost Famous") is very funny as Evra the Snake Boy and Jessica Carlson is charming and sweet as Rebecca, whose freakish nature is a secret that Darren has to earn from her.
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As much as I like some of the world and some of the characters, I am still left at the end of this movie feeling like I just watched act one of the story, without any real resolution, and I think that's because the film is so heavily weighted to the conflict between Crepsley and Mr. Tiny (Michael Cerveris, best known to "Fringe" viewers as the mysterious Observer) that it feels like that is the main story, and that's the story that doesn't really reach a resolution here. If all of that was handled as part of the fabric of the world, and this was more a film about a young man finding his place in a surrogate family and evolving from seeing them as freaks to seeing himself as one of them, then I think the film would work better as a stand-alone movie.
Paul Weitz brings a fairly oddball wit to the proceedings, and the way he injects little sunbursts of humor into what is surprisingly dark and grim material considering the audience is actually fairly smart. Because he does his best to tackle the material without flinching, it may be too scary or too strange for younger viewers, but it suits the film. If you tried to make this too bloodless an affair, then nothing in the movie would matter. When Steve falls under the sway of Mr. Tiny and begins to transgress, his actions have real consequence, and there's no shaking off the things he does. That way, there's real weight to the struggle for his soul.
Hutcherson was great in "Bridge To Terabithia" last year, and I think he's a promising young actor. Massoglia seems a little rabbit-in-headlights overwhelmed in his first film lead, but he's surrounded by so many interesting performers giving it their all that it almost doesn't matter. His role is largely reactive anyway as each quirky new character is pushed center-stage for him to watch. Reilly is the one who really has to carry the movie, and his performance is worth seeing the film. His relationship with Willem Dafoe in the film is intriguing, and it makes me wish we'd seen more of them together.
I'm curious to see if this gets its footing in a way that, say, "The Golden Compass" didn't. When you make a movie that is so obviously designed to kick off a series of films, you are gambling in public, and I'm curious to see how it pays off. I think I would like a sequel, but I'd like to see it played looser, see more of the world they've created. What is original about "The Vampire's Assistant" is worth seeing more of, and it would only require that they lose the more conventional elements and focus a bit. Here's hoping they get the chance.
The film opens Oct. 23rd everwhere.
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