Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant has the unfortunate fate of arriving at the height of the vampire resurgence. I fear a lot of potential movie goers will dismiss it as part of the wave, as a major studio (Universal) trying to rush an adaptation of a very popular young-adult book franchise in an attempt to capitalize on the Twilight demographic. And while I understand that sentiment, in this particular case it's a shame, because Paul Weitz' film stands tall whether it was made inside or outside this temporary rise in the vamp popularity. Remove the cynical marketing climate and The Vampire's Assistant is a charming, imaginative, and most importantly, very entertaining film for children, teens and adults alike.
Having not read any of the 12 books comprising author Darren Shan's young-adult Cirque Du Freak saga, I can't attest as to how faithful an adaptation it is, but the macabre world About a Boy director Paul Weitz has brought to life on film feels like the kind of mysterious wonderland I could have easily lost myself in as a child. That's not to say that The Vampire's Assistant is a children's film, far from it, but it's the kind of film that's full of content that's simultaneously adult and juvenile, the breed of subtle scripting that provides eye candy for teenagers and nostalgic mind candy for adults.
Yes, The Vampire's Assistant, a PG-13 film starring John C. Reilly as a vampire who travels with a band of circus freaks and forces a teenage boy to do his bidding in exchange for saving the comatose life of said teen's best friend, has chewy, tasty, colorful, edible mind candy. That's because, in addition to Reilly performing once again in a non-man-child role, Weitz film is layered with character actors, film references, and nostalgic touches that offset what easily could have been a simple, in-one-ear-out-the-other film with a bunch of freaks for teens to chuckle at. It's at times a rudimentary coming of age story about a good kid misunderstood by his parents who suddenly finds himself part of a family that actually cares about him, but it also has a wry sense of wit to it, a darker path to its moral core than most family-friendly films, and more great character actors than you can throw a full-bodied werewolf prosthetic at (one of the aforementioned nostalgic touches).
In fact, the only major problem this first entry in the (hopeful) Cirque du Freak film franchise has going against it is that the adult characters are all so great that you'll soon wish the movie was actually about Ken Watanabe's ringleader Mr. Tall, Patrick Fugit's snakeboy, Ray Stevenson's villainous Murlaugh, or even Willem Dafoe doing an awesome impersonation of what a vampire Vincent Price might look like. Alas, the film is about the relationship triangle between Darren (Chris Massoglia), his envious friend Steve (Josh Hutcherson), and his aloof mentor, Larten (Reilly). There's a war brewing between Larten's camp of docile Vampires and the evil-loving Vampaneze lifestyle which Steve covets, and our hero Darren has to decide on what side he falls.
However unlike most young-adult stories about a teen boy given superpowers and thrust into a world he doesn't understand, Darren doesn't have any clear role in the 'war' going on. He's not a wonder boy suddenly coming into his destiny, he's just a buy who snuck into a freak show and ended up becoming a vampire, and who now must deal with those consequences. This lands The Vampire's Assistant closer to the adventurous side of, say, The Monster Squad than the strictly formulaic predestination of films like Eragon. Having a mentor figure that's not that great of a mentor and powers that aren't unique to the newly empowered pave the way for a more interesting right versus wrong dynamic than simply having Darren be the key figure in a world he knows nothing about. There are hints of a grander destiny at play, but any such destiny is not the driving force of the story's conflict, which is a welcome relief for a teen fantasy film.
Though an adult may wish the film would spend more intimate time with some of its more delightful adult characters, the two young actors supporting the film do their very best to fight off such wishes. Josh Hutcherson has become a staple in Hollywood as the go-to teen lead when a role requires more than just a High School Musical level of skin perfection, and he proves once again here that he has the future makings of a leading man should he continue the profession. Chris Massoglia does a commendable enough job for having practically no experience in the industry, but his performance lacks the spark Hutcherson has refined over the years. That's forgivable, however, as most of his screen time is spent acting opposite John C. Reilly, who is a man that steals the scene whether he's in Boogie Nights or Step Brothers.
Sure, Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant has a some of the lackluster qualities one associates with mid-budgeted Hollywood fantasy films aimed at a younger demographic. Some of the effects work consists of whiz-bang CGI and a few of the jokes miss their mark, but Paul Weitz overcomes all of that by bottling a very distinct, very palpable sense of jubilant discovery and awe that should make any adult wish, even if secretly, that The Cirque was real and that it had come to their town as a kid.