James Cameron’s “Avatar” is a movie that everyone saw, but no one can remember. Go ahead: Try and call to mind any character’s name. Maybe you summoned Jake Sully, the disabled human played by Sam Worthington, who traveled to the distant moon Pandora, which is inhabited by a race of tribal blue aliens who live in perfect harmony with nature. Maybe you even remembered that they were called the Na’vi.
But despite its stature as the highest-grossing film in history, making $2.7 billion worldwide in its 2009 release, “Avatar” doesn’t have the kind of pop-culture stickiness of films like “Star Wars” or “The Matrix” or anything on Marvel’s Blu-ray shelf.
“Avatar” is a blank slate that conjures little more than the sense echo of spectacle — which makes it a perfect thing to adapt for something like Cirque du Soleil’s latest, “Toruk — the First Flight.” Or so one might think.
In Ontario through Sunday and then moving to Staples Center, this theatrical adaptation, or whatever you call a Cirque du Soleil joint, is a prequel to “Avatar”: It follows two hunters, childhood friends who go on an epic quest to gather five talismans that will allow them to call down the most fearsome predator in Pandora’s skies, the titular Toruk. A cross between a pterodactyl and a hammerhead shark, Toruk represents nature in all its untamable glory — so of course taming it is the only way to save the various tribes of Pandora from some kind of spiritual, fire-based Armageddon.
As anyone who has seen a Cirque show knows, story isn’t the point. At its best, Cirque is about the synthesis of form, strength, grace and balance. It’s about the tension that results when you pit will against physics. Trying to spot-weld a narrative — especially one more complex than a kid who imagines a fantasy world — onto that only distances an audience from what it came for: acrobats, gymnasts and strongmen doing things the human body shouldn’t be able to do.
There are moments in “Toruk — the First Flight” that retain some of that elemental Cirque magic. A sequence atop a giant see-saw made of bones, with up to five acrobats and contortionists swaying in concert, is wonderful. Another, with a young female character scaling a “tree” made of violet ribbons, while a dozen performers brandish giant pink-and-purple silk fans, is hypnotic.
But all too often, the scene on the stage — which is made of a central platform, a few rocky outcroppings and the trunk of a massive, movable tree on the far end — feels busy for busy’s sake.
Nameless characters, all outfitted like “Avatar’s” trademarked blue space kittens, flit about doing the kinds of things blue space kittens might do if someone asked them to channel Fosse without explaining what sex was. (Sometimes those kittens are carrying mobiles with light-up wood sprites or stalks with diaphanous puppets — funky, lo-fi attempts to re-create the film’s digital fauna that lack the representational genius of Julie Taymor’s “Lion King” beasts.)
Nor did the show’s creators, including writers-directors Michel Lemieux and Victor Pilon, feel the general discomfort that begins to manifest at the sight of so many characters in ceremonial headdresses, alternately carrying bows or spears and shields, banging on war drums and issuing war whoops and cries, speaking in Cameron’s invented Na’vi language that sounds like a forgotten Native American dialect.
“Avatar” the movie had received its share of criticism for being, essentially, a gloss on “Dances With Wolves” or “Pocahontas” — white man visits indigenous people, goes “native” and both hastens and rebels against a cultural assault after falling in love with a chieftain’s daughter.
But absent the film’s enthralling technical wizardry and human-viewpoint character, one is forced to wonder: Why is this spectacular-spectacular starring blue space kittens instead of Apache or Masai or Aztec warriors, the cultures that “Avatar” most certainly borrowed from? (And “borrow” is a gentle word for “appropriate.”)
Given that “Avatar” is an abstract memory at best to many audiences — and an unknown quantity to the youngest of them — why is blue a better color for these characters’ skin than brown?
“Toruk — the First Flight”
Where: Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario through Sunday, Nov. 6; Nov. 11-13 at Staples Center in L.A.; Jan. 12-15 at the Forum in Inglewood.
Tickets: From $30