Jason is a producer, manager, and designer with 17 years of experience in Chicago, New York, and in the touring market. In 2015, he founded Lotus Theatricals - the publisher of Performink, and an independent commercial producing company - with Abigail Trabue.
Review: TORUK: The First Flight—Cirque du Soleil on tour at the United Center
By Jason Epperson
I vividly remember sitting down in a movie theater nine years ago to watch James Cameron’s 3-D game-changer film, AVATAR. My wife stayed home, not being much of a fan of 3-D movies. I remember trying hard to put into words for her what I experienced and not being able to explain properly what I saw. You felt as though you were in direct contact with an inventive and stunningly gorgeous alien planet. But without the tricks and traps of any 3-D that had come before. 3-D was used in a way to help us experience movies in a way that felt new and fresh. For good or ill, every blockbuster that has followed has been shot in or converted to the format, trying to capture the sense of immersion (and the $2.78 billion box office) that AVATAR delivered.
As much as I enjoyed the film, I, perhaps naively, didn’t see a future for expansion. The story was a bit thin, and you didn’t exactly connect with the characters. As beautiful as the world of Pandora was, it never quite left your head that it was a computer creation. It was eventually announced that not only would Cameron make another AVATAR, he would shoot four more films simultaneously. An astonishing investment, to say the least. Probably the biggest single investment in movie studio history. Then 20th Century Fox brokered a deal with the Walt Disney Company to bring AVATAR to Walt Disney World in Orlando. No mere attraction is Disney building. Not some sort of fly through Pandora ride. Disney is building a $500 million dollar several-acre land devoted to the film, set to open next year. It’s essentially the same treatment they are giving Star Wars.
Do people really love AVATAR this intently? Is it on that Star Wars level? Or Harry Potter, or Lord of the Rings? I just haven’t been able to buy it. And what happens when the sequel is more like The Matrix: Reloaded, or Jaws 2 than The Empire Strikes Back? Can “inspired by James Cameron’s AVATAR” off-shoots connect with people in the same way that the cash-cow film did?
Enter the circus of the sun.
Cirque du Soleil, in partnership with Cameron and 20th Century Fox, are the first to test the AVATAR fandom with an arena tour called TORUK: The First Flight, “inspired by James Cameron’s AVATAR.” The tour opened it’s Chicago engagement Wednesday night at the United Center, and is set to play through Sunday.
Set 3000 years before the events of the film, TORUK’s plot, such as it is, revolves around a pair of boys who must man-up to save the Tree of Souls, which has been foreseen to be in grave danger. For reasons never made clear, a flying beast—the Toruk—must be tamed in order to save the tree. Unfortunately, the five different Na’vi tribes each hold a different item required to master the Toruk. The boys set out on a quest to collect these items. They do. One rides the Toruk. Somehow the Toruk stops lava and fire from destroying the tree by being forced to land in it, sacrificing itself. The end.
It’s both ridiculously simple, yet at times utterly confusing. Cirque shows tend to be a little light on the plot—just enough of a loose thread to allow the expert circus and acrobatic acts to truly shine. That’s not the case here. There’s a whole lot of basic tumbling, balancing, some silk and rope acts, but nothing wholly extraordinary like you might see in shows like O, LA NOUBA, and KÁ. Fair enough, those are housed in theaters custom built for them at entertainment meccas. But TORUK will still set you back over $90 for good seats, and for what? Frankly—and I’m a huge Disney fan—this show is what I would expect to see in the Florida AVATAR based themed land. Cut an hour and a half of repetitive tumbling and running around out of the 2:15 show, and you’ve got yourself the AVATAR “theme park experience.”
There were some great things about TORUK. The mapped projections (40 projectors essentially create the set) were stunning. There are nifty tricks, like large plants and flowers that grow from the scenery. This production marks the first time Cirque has utilized puppets, however, and most (all but the Toruk itself) fall flat, lacking ingenuity and grace.
We were encouraged to download the TORUK official app, which was utilized in the show by having audience members point their phones towards the stage. The screens act as mini projection screens. It would be a great effect had more people engaged with it. I felt silly holding mine up, as perhaps only 100 other people in the entire United Center were doing the same. The only other guy doing it in my section was told to put his phone away by an usher. The app did remind me to visit the merch stand at intermission.
Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t see the appeal, and I don’t think the audience did either. “Why this story and why now” still matters with spectacles, experiences, attractions, and the like. Who is this tale for? What does it inspire? The story didn’t hit. The performances didn’t wow. It was completely devoid of heart and humor. The effective projections got in the way of any semblance of lighting design (often astonishing at Cirque). The sound and voices seemed to come from anywhere and everywhere at the same time. And at one point we watched a guy center stage throw what I could swear were Nerf foam boomerangs bought from Toys R Us for 5 minutes. He only caught half of them.
This show is, plain and simple, a lazy “extension of the brand.” Cirque knows better.