Last night I found myself faced with a heartbreaking choice. I could see only one of three new movies based on kids' books! There was Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, loosely adapted from a picture-book I loved as a child. Then there was Where the Wild Things Are, from Maurice Sendak's Caldecott-Medal book in which the pictures told more story than the words. And finally, there was Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Asssitant, based on the first two or three books of "The Saga of Darren Shan." Plus, as a surprise dark-horse candidate, there was something called Astroboy, about which I knew nada.
I was tempted to ditch the three that I knew something about - ditch dealing with my own indecisiveness and the inevitable conflict between expectations and outcome - and go for the unknown. But I decided I wasn't up to the risk just then. So I went for the Darren Shan. I figured it stood the best chance of being recognizable to fans of the book. After all, the very act of turning the other two short-and-sweet stories into full-length movies must necessarily involve a HUGE helping of creative license.
I knew from the trailer that Cloudy has a plot surrounding a foolhardy inventor's attempt to solve world hunger; the book, however, lives in my memory as a tall tale told by an old man to his grandkids, about a magical country where edible precipitation was an unexplained fact of life. As for Wild Things, I loved the trailer but realized that it was, by itself, longer than the whole book. How much more detail did the film version need to put in?
Cirque, on the other hand, was based on a whole trilogy of which I had only read the first book. So I figured there were still some surprises in store for me, and not just on the order of "This book is now ruined forever." I mean, if Cloudy and Wild Things become big successes, who will ever read them to their kids again? When the movie is bigger and better than the book, and when every parent has it on DVD, where will that leave the book? At least Cirque du Freak offered the pleasant prospect of an interpretation that could never, even conceivably, cover everything that fans of the books wanted to see.
As I found, it was a very creative adaptation. If it erred, it wasn't on the side of slavishly following its source material. It seamlessly synthesized several connected stories. Even having read only the first book, I could tell that much by the way bits that (I gather) came from the later books were woven into the parts of the story I recognized. It compressed the material, tightening the pace and using grim foreshadowings to create expectation of things to come.
I liked John C. Reilly as the vampire Larten Crepsley. There was a feeling of reality about his great age and weariness with life. You could sense his intelligence and his dry sense of humor. You could sense that he was, at the same time, a dangerous customer and, as vampires go, relatively decent and peaceful. I also thought rising heartthrob Josh Hutcherson hit the right notes as Darren's best friend Steve, who has the makings of a really nasty villain. He simmered with passion, now and then exploding into violence. If his handlers do their job well, he may grow up to be a fairly good actor.
I wish I could say the same thing for Chris Massoglia, who plays the main character of Darren Shan. He looks like a really sweet kid. And he seems fairly articulate, too. But he just doesn't have the presence to pull off the lead role in a movie, particularly one set in a dark, gritty, fantasy world like this. The one thing I'll say for him is that your insides will quail a little for him as the bright, innocent, nice boy gets drawn deeper into a world of evil and danger. The more the bad guys have him in their crosshairs, the more powerless and vulnerable he seems. But will anyone buy him as a hero? Hardly. If he wasn't so good at playing a tortured jerk, I would have cast Hutcherson in the lead and given the bad-boy/best-friend role to someone like, say, Nick Lane.
I thought the rest of the film was quite good. I enjoyed seeing Orlando Jones, Ray Stevenson, Patrick Fugit, Salma Hayek, Ken Watanabe, Jane Krakowski, Frankie Faison, Patrick Breen, and an unusually unusual Willem Dafoe. Perhaps the most memorable character, however, was created by a less-known actor who, whether you know him or not, will be hard to recognize under the prosthetics: Michael Cerveris as "Mr. Tiny," the first person you see after the credits.
I also thought the opening titles were particularly interesting, with animation and music that reminded me of A Series of Unfortuante Events. In a way, this series is a more grown-up and serious story of the same type: one that invites you into its house of horrors precisely by warning you that you'd be better off not seeing what is inside. Actually it's about the mildest vampire movie ever made. I would recommend it especially to teen and pre-teen boys who like spooky adventures and dark fantasies with a hero kid - but who aren't into all the lovey-dovey stuff like in the Twilight series.