Utilizing the large screen format to its maximum capacity, Cirque du Soleil has finally found a celluloid format that complements its celebrated blend of color, light, music and bravado. With “Journey of Man,” an imaginative allegory about the aging process, the ubiquitous Cirque, whose previous cinematic foray was the disappointing “Alegria,” has scored a coup that should be a hit on the oversize screen.
Whereas “Alegria” unsuccessfully attempted to impose dialogue and story onto a performance spectacle that has always defied easy classification, “Journey of Man” makes no such missteps. Instead, it weaves together various acts from different productions into an extremely loose narrative, thereby remaining true to the spirit of the groundbreaking Quebecois troupe. Visual effects, enhanced by 3-D illusions, lend a startling immediacy to the proceedings.
Pic begins with an explosion of light and sound that rep the universe’s formation, then segues to a rhythmic cave sequence in which drummers signal the beginnings of life. In an intoxicatingly beautiful underwater act that would make Esther Williams jealous, synchronized swimmers interpret the birth process. This aquatic ballet is every bit as magical as the Cirque’s pioneering “O” at the Bellagio in Las Vegas.
Narrator Ian McKellen’s rudimentary explanations direct us through the story throughout, though they are hardly necessary.
Next sequence takes place in a forest of Redwoods, where pic’s symbolic universal child meets his instincts, embodied in two clowns, called Flounes (Josette Dechene, Paul Vachon). The Flounes (memorable from the ’91 Cirque production “Nouvelle Experience”) rep a humanistic take on the good angel/bad angel dilemma: One is an aggressive risk taker, the other balanced and cautious.
Here the universal Child experiences for the first time wonder, fear and courage as Bungees, flamboyant yellow bird-like creatures, suddenly appear from above and perform stunning acrobatic feats. As the Bungees hurtle toward the viewer, this sequence reps pic’s best use of 3-D.
The Bungees propel the newly confident Child into adolescence, where he watches the formidable Cube Man (Mikhail Matorin of “Mystere”) twist and twirl a gyrating metallic cube atop a rocky precipice. Having learned strength, he is ready for manhood. The young Man’s next stop, at a 17th-century garden, where he witnesses a male-female statue act, teaches him about love.
While each performance segment is, in its way, spectacular, the statue act is the most breathtaking. With meticulous precision, “Quidam” performers Yves Decoste and Marie-Laure Mesnage, floating on a large lily pad, gracefully lift, turn and balance one another in a nearly weightless, thoroughly harmonious sequence.
The only downside to the statue number is that it is impossible to top, so the following bits fall short of that high mark. After being tempted by a demon-like Stiltman personifying greed, the suddenly older Man learns to recapture the joy of his lost youth while watching the eclectic, energetic “Quidam” Banquine acrobats, whose gravity-defying flips and aerial somersaults remind him of the zest for life he once had.
Pic wraps up at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, where, surrounded by a troupe of performers, the Man realizes (as McKellen reminds us in one of the few corny bits) that dreams, faith and love are the three keys to life to make one a complete being. Such a pointed wrap-up is superfluous; the Cirque is always at its best when it lets actions speak for themselves.
Tech elements, including music, lensing, costumes and production design are blazingly impressive and strikingly evocative on all levels.