Erica Linz plays Mia and Benedikt Negro plays Le Vieux in "Cirque du… (Paramount Pictures, Mark…)
Andrew Adamson is no stranger to fantasy worlds. In his previous films, the New Zealand-born writer-director brought an ill-tempered green ogre to life ("Shrek" and "Shrek 2") and ventured into C.S. Lewis' parallel universe of Narnia, a land occupied by talking animals, magical creatures and an evil witch (the first two "The Chronicles of Narnia" movies).
Adamson returns to the realm of the fantastic with "Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away," opening Friday, a film that captures eye-popping acts from seven of the troupe's Las Vegas live shows in vivid 3-D and weaves them together with a simple, fairy-tale-like romance.
For Adamson, the appeal of the circus is simple and elemental. "It's a combination of beauty and danger," he said on the phone from Auckland. "It's kind of like combining ballet and motor racing: You get adrenaline, and you're watching something beautiful at the same time."
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"Worlds Away" is itself something of a juxtaposition — part performance documentary, part love story. In keeping with the Cirque du Soleil aesthetic, it is episodic, mostly wordless and often surrealistic.
"I wanted the movie to feel like that, to have that feeling of a dream, where anything can happen," Adamson said.
Things begin ordinarily enough, with the young heroine Mia (Erica Kathleen Linz, a former Cirque regular) visiting a rundown circus and meeting cute with a performer known as the Aerialist (Igor Zaripov, currently with Cirque). The two are soon separated when the Aerialist slips and falls at the height of his act, landing not with a thud but instead being swallowed up by the sand and transported to an unknown land.
Mia promptly follows him down the rabbit hole, embarking on a journey that winds through Cirque du Soleil's "O," "Ka," "Mystere", "Viva Elvis," "Criss Angel Believe," "Zumanity" and "The Beatles Love." The odyssey concludes with an aerial act by Linz and Zaripov created specifically for the film.
Adamson himself selected the performance pieces featured in the film, which were shot in Las Vegas during live shows and on dark days in late 2010 and early 2011. Many display the large-scale spectacle and daring feats Cirque du Soleil is known for, such as "O's" kinetic swinging ghost ship, from which acrobats leap and flip, and "Ka's" massive tilting stage, which turns vertical as costumed warriors do battle while dangling from wires.
Other acts are intimate solo numbers, including a contortionist performing in a large water-filled goblet and an aerialist twirling a giant metal cube. Rather than seeking to re-create the experience of seeing a live Cirque du Soleil show, Adamson said he tried to approach the shows cinematically.
He and his crew, which on occasion included executive producer and 3-D innovator James Cameron, used as many as 11 camera rigs at once (including cranes, dollies and Steadicams), capturing close-ups and other angles that would be impossible in a live setting.
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The film's use of slow motion — partially inspired, Adamson said, by watching Lakers highlights — reveals the intricacy and athleticism of the performances.
"Getting on the stage, getting up close, getting underwater, seeing it slowed down [by a factor of five] so you can see how remarkable these bodies are twisting through the air — all those things offer the audience something different but equally as spectacular as what the shows offer," Adamson said.
Shooting the shows up close also required dramaturgic adjustments, as the performers are accustomed to projecting their movements and expressions all the way to the back row.
"Suddenly you're in front of James Cameron's 3-D cameras, and they have the capacity to make your face 20 feet tall," Linz said on a phone call from the road while promoting the film. "Everything needs to be taken and made incredibly more subtle.... If you feel like you might be doing nothing, then you might be doing it right."
That said, there's nothing understated about the physical feats the Cirque performers accomplish. To Adamson, they're inspirational.
"There's something that's very uplifting about watching human beings perform at this level," he said. "When I look at these guys and see them doing things that are completely, to me, impossible, it's like an affirmation of what we're capable of. Once you've seen a women sit on her own head, you think anything is possible."
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