A stylish and darkly playful franchise starter that successfully balances supernatural thrills with tongue-in-cheek humor, Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant manages to avoid coming off as just another Harry Potter clone thanks to a smartly written and fast-moving screenplay, some inspired set pieces, and colorful characters portrayed by a talented cast. It's an interesting feat for a director known primarily for comedy dramas rooted firmly in reality, and while only time will tell whether the film's box office will warrant the sequel that's almost certainly revving its engine in anticipation of the green light, this one is worth a look for fantasy fans with a taste for the unusual.
The story, based on the books by author Darren Shan, gets under way as straight-laced teenager Darren Shan (Chris Massoglia) lies in a coffin playing video games at his own funeral. As his friends and family bid him their final farewells, we learn that Darren and his best friend, Steve (Josh Hutcherson), a class-ditching troublemaker, were talking on the street when a flyer for the Cirque Du Freak sideshow mysteriously appeared at their feet. Later, at the show, the vampire-obsessed Steve recognizes ringmaster Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly) from a book on bloodsuckers and makes a bid to get transformed. When Crepsley refuses, it's Darren who winds up joining the ranks of the thirsty undead. But trouble is brewing in the world of the weird; a longtime truce between the vampires and their mortal enemies, the Vampaneze, is on shaky ground, and as Darren joins the sideshow under the mentorship of Larten, the mysterious Mr. Tiny (Michael Cerveris) begins pulling strings from behind the scenes.
The factors that make Cirque Du Freak so unique and bewitching are also, unfortunately, the very same factors that may prevent moviegoers from giving it a fair shake; by refusing to fit into any well-defined genre mold, delivering a few frights that could shake up the preteen set, and embracing the inherent quirkiness of such an outlandish story, co-screenwriters Paul Weitz and Brian Helgeland create a unique atmosphere where anything seems possible, and the unexpected is the norm. But, while some may consider this unconventional approach a key asset, others may be put off by the prospect of having to re-learn the vampire mythology along with our flustered protagonist while simultaneously being presented with characters whose monstrous traits are never clearly explained -- namely Mr. Tiny and his diminutive minions. By keeping us off-kilter, however, the filmmakers help us to better identify with Darren as he struggles to grasp the rules of the strange new game, and for those who resent the brain strain, fine performances by Reilly, Cerveris, Willem Dafoe, Ray Stevenson, and Patrick Fugit, among others, go a long way in maintaining our good will. Either way, it always pays to remember that this is but the setup for a much larger story, so it's logical to assume that many of our lingering questions will be addressed in future installments.
By playing up the friendship between Darren and Steve in the early scenes, and positioning them as rivals later on, the story takes a kind of Peter Parker/Harry Osborn arc that compliments the comic-book feel of the film and prevents it from veering too closely to Hogwarts territory. The only thing working against this is a somewhat uneven performance by lead Massoglia, whose tone registers as somewhat flat in his later scenes with Reilly, and who fails to provide his character with any discernible sense of growth during the film's otherwise appetite-whetting epilogue. Of course, heading up a cast that includes Reilly and Dafoe is no simple task for even the most talented of young actors, and as the series progresses there will no doubt be plenty of room for improvement. Who knows whether those additional chapters will ever find their way from the page to the screen, but should that happen it appears that things could get very interesting, very quickly.