Darren Shan is a quiet, ordinary, and orderly teenager. He is well-liked by everyone and unlikely to cause much trouble. But when he and his best friend attend the performance of a “freak show”, it puts into motion a chain of events that leads to Darren causing an accident. In trying to rectify things, Darren gets ever deeper into an unknown world full of dangers.
Recently, I watched Cirque du Freak for the first time. I did know nothing about this film going in, but very soon it became clear to me that this must be the adaptation of a novel. It is just one of those films where you can feel it: A lot of things seem “condensed” or hurried, be it the exposition, or plot progression, or even character development. Mind you, it is not as bad in this film as in many others, but it is noticeable.
So I dug into imdb afterwards and found that this film is indeed based on a novel (very loosely, as some claim) – or, to be more precise, based on three novels. They are the first three books in a twelve book series by Darren Shan, who named the lead character after himself.
Adapting Young Adult Fiction for the big screen is always a tricky business. If you succeed, you have a billion-dollar franchise on your hands. If you fail, you end up with a rather embarrassing little film à la Vampire Academy.
Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant clearly falls into the second category. It may not be as bad as Vampire Academy, but it is quite clearly not a good film. […]
The film opens with a short, intriguing preamble, which raises expectations for a certain pace and tone – expectations which are not entirely met. This cold opening is followed by playful (but unfortunately too long) opening credits.
Then the first act happens. And happens. And still keeps happening. A whooping 46 minutes pass before we get to the second act. I am not sure that we needed all of the stuff from the first act; but at least, the first act is broken up in the middle by the performance of the “freak show”.
The second act is where the film maker clearly believe the strength of this franchise lies. We had already been introduced to the “freaks” in the first act, during their performance, but it is in their camp that we are meant to really get to know these people and develop a relationship with them. Yet most of them have far too little screen time for any of this to happen. The film aims for a circus aesthetic here, and also for a bit of a large camp atmosphere. If you need a frame of reference, the aesthetics are reminiscent of the circus in season 4 of Heroes, and the atmosphere and tone of Darren’s settling into life at the camp would be repeated in the Percy Jackson films.
Quite frankly, by this time, the film had already gotten a bit too YAF for my taste. Moreover, the film at this point seems unable to decide whether it wants to be a vampire epic or a freak show tale. I guess in the books you have a more imminent day-to-day plot line concerned with camp life, and an overarching vampire epic that stretches over more than just one book. It is difficult to translate something like that unto the big screen. In fact, Darren Shan’s novels may be one of those cases were a TV series might have been the more suitable medium, instead of a feature film.
So while the film is trying to convince us that the “freaks” and their life are somehow interesting or important, it introduces (and hints at) some of the conflict between the two vampire factions in this world. That introduction of the background is too little and too much at the same time. Too little for the viewer, because it always feels like we are losing out on something. And too much for the film, because it makes it clear that all the screen time devoted to the “freaks” is basically wasted and taken away from the more important things that we are told are at stake.
The third act sees the inevitable showdown. The fights itself are not bad in my opinion (but I understand next to nothing about those things), but they are slightly spoiled by the fact that the protagonists seem to have very little choice in their actions due to outside forces.
This inevitable showdown is followed by an equally inevitable resolution, but the whole thing is wrapped up in a “see-you-for-the-sequel” kind of way. Not a real cliff-hanger, just a lot of loose ends.
Apart from the above-mentioned problems with structure and pacing, the main problem with Cirque du Freak is that the world and the characters feel pretty unconvincing. It is most notable in the acting department. The male lead, Chris Massoglia, does neither convince in his character, nor does he seem able to carry a film, let alone a franchise, as a lead. Now, it would be easy to blame him alone, but a number of accomplished actors in this film, including John C. Reilly and Salma Hayek, deliver performances that are a good deal below their A-game. So I believe that some responsibility on that front has to lie with the director (and co-writer) Paul Weitz.
The apparent lack of guidance affects nearly all actors, but it is, of course, with the more important characters that this has the most adverse effect on the film as a whole. Josh Hutcherson, playing Darren’s best friend, is giving good performances in some scenes, and unsure performances in others. John C. Reilly, who plays Darren’s mentor Crepsley, never seems to be entirely sure who or what his character is and what motivates him. And it does not help that Reilly’s appearance (in general, and in this film in particular) is entirely unsuitable for portraying a vampire.
An at times rocky dialogue also does not help, but of course this is always a bit of a chicken and egg question. You could argue that unconvincing lines in the script hinder the actors to give a convincing performance; or, you could argue that a lack of guidance from the director did hinder the actors to achieve the level of confidence in their role at which they would have been able to deliver even these lines convincingly.
Good performances in this film come courtesy of Ray Stevenson (known for his role as one of Thor’s friends in the MCU), who had an unchallenging role as a villain/henchman; Michael Cerveris (best known from Fringe) as the mysterious Mr. Tiny; and Jessica Carlson and Patrick Fugit as two of the “freaks”.
The quality of the acting aside, there is also the issue that a number of veteran actors are wasted in this film in small or miniscule roles. The only reason I can see for not casting cheaper actors in these roles is that the producers were planning for sequels and some of these minor roles were meant to become bigger as the franchise progressed. The group of severely underused actors includes Willem Dafoe (hamming it up), Orlando Jones, Frankie Faison, Ken Watanabe, Kristen Schaal, and Jane Krakowski, amongst others. Salma Hayek could also be said to be underused here.
The film tries to deliver a message of acceptance and tolerance – always laudable in a YAF context – but the film is first and foremost intended as an epic adventure, and as an epic adventure it is mediocre at best. This film is enjoyable, but often feels empty. The film looks great, including some of the CGI, but there is nothing that lifts this film out of its own mediocrity. Rating: ca. 5.5 to 6.0 out of 10.