(2012)2.5Mark DemingSome kids daydream about running away to join the circus; the kids who have been intensively training in performing arts since they were five dream about running away to Cirque du Soleil, where instead of juggling or making balloon animals, you entertain folks with a high-minded and physically demanding fusion of dance, acrobatics, and mime, all gussied up with elaborate sets, costumes, and props. Founded by Canadian street performers Guy Laliberté and Gilles Ste-Croix, Cirque du Soleil is the circus for people who think they don't like the circus -- much in the same way Whole Foods exists for people who think their local grocery store simply isn't enough for them -- and with multiple Cirque du Soleil troupes doing excellent business in dozens of cities around the world (seven different Cirque productions are currently running in Las Vegas alone), it should come as no surprise that the folks behind the mega circus are expanding into the movies. Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away is a feature-length presentation that brings together set pieces from several of the company's most successful shows, all tied together with a love story and tossed into the audience's lap in 3-D.
The picture begins with a young woman named Mia (Erica Linz) happening upon a circus on the outskirts of town; Mia is pretty but thoughtful-looking, appearing as if she studies choreography and minors in pensive, and she clearly doesn't fit in with the locals, represented by three women who look like Penny from The Big Bang Theory before she left Nebraska. Mia takes a seat under the big top and witnesses a performance by a handsome and talented acrobat simply called the Aerialist (Igor Zaripov), who is so beguiled by her beauty that he misses catching a trapeze and falls to the ground, crashing through the sawdust into some subterranean netherworld. Mia jumps in after him and makes her way through a variety of surreal tableaux in which literally hundreds of performers dance, swim, and fly through the air, while other earthbound characters grin, scowl, and gesticulate as she looks for the acrobat who so quickly stole her heart.
There are no more than a few dozen words spoken in Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away, and none of them could be considered significant dialogue -- anything that's supposed to communicate an emotion or motivation is expressed through movement, mime, or music. And with bits and pieces from seven different Cirque du Soleil shows being raided for this movie, Worlds Away is a bit light on what might be called conventional narrative. Much of the time, it's hard to say why certain things are appearing onscreen beyond their ability to dazzle us: The scenes range from full-scale water ballets that would put Esther Williams to shame and elaborate group acrobatic routines on floating platforms to dancers on roller skates and a flaming clown (seriously, he's a traditional hobo clown who happens to be on fire and betrays no awareness of it), while the sequences from the shows built around the music of the Beatles and Elvis Presley stand out compared to the florid orchestral scores that dominate the rest of the picture.
The ongoing motif of Mia looking for the Aerialist is the only thing that holds these pieces together, and ultimately the movie grows tedious after a while -- without the sense of immediacy created by a live performance, you're just watching one dance routine or mime piece after another for 90 minutes, with the broad strokes of the performers, intended to reach the back row of an arena, amplified by the camera. The 3-D photography by Brett Turnbull is technically superb, but it makes the film look strangely artificial, with the people and physical elements standing out like individual paper cutouts rather than melding into a unified whole, and director Andrew Adamson's efforts to put the camera inside the action do little to disguise the theatricality of the venture. And while there's no arguing that there's a remarkable amount of strength, dexterity, and skill displayed in this picture, you could say the same thing about a typical professional wrestling match, and no one imagines that wrestling is art the way this film practically begs to be considered something remarkable. Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away is beautiful and ambitious, but it's not what one could honestly call exciting or even fun, and a documentary on the nuts and bolts of a Cirque du Soleil show would probably be more interesting than this glossy but charmless greatest-hits package.