Movie review by
Kari Croop, Common Sense Media
Circus Movie Poster Image
Warts-and-all series looks at real life under the big top.
  • NR
  • 2010
  • 360 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Overall, the series communicates the importance of teamwork, creativity, athleticism, and organization when it comes to producing a successful circus.

Positive Role Models & Representations

At least one "bad apple" gets tossed out of the circus for allegedly making a bomb threat, but most performers and organizers are passionate about what they do, striving for a blend of professionalism, safety, and showmanship.


Humans and/or animals occasionally suffer injuries involving small amounts of blood. A few verbal sparring matches get pretty heated, too.


Some bleeped language (including "f--k" and "s--t"), plus infrequent audibles like "hell," "bastard," "balls," etc.


The series as a whole promotes the Big Apple brand, but the warts-and-all approach is hardly a glossy advertisement.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

A few characters smoke on camera.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that, overall, this six-part PBS docuseries is an exceptionally well-made and educational choice for family viewing. But along with that, there's some bleeped swearing (including "f--k" and "s--t") and iffy audibles like "bastard," "balls," and "hell." There are occasional onscreen arguments, too, along with at least one character who smokes cigarettes -- and some subtle promotion of the Big Apple Circus brand.

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What's the story?

In the six-part documentary CIRCUS, filmmakers Maro Chermayeff and Jeff Dupre capture life under the big top at the Big Apple Circus, a traveling troupe of acrobats, clowns, trick riders, and other entertainers who perform for the public in an intimate, one-ring setting. Along the way, viewers meet Steve, the circus' energetic guest director; Glen, a new clown with a checkered past; and Austin, a costumer tasked with creating outfits for high-flying clients.

Is it any good?

This docuseries is entertainingly real. There's a lot we think we know about the circus, whether those assumptions come from observations we've made while sitting in the audience or from movies like Big Top Pee-Wee. But, for some, the most surprising lesson of this warts-and-all PBS documentary will be that circus life isn't always fun and games. Turns out, clowns can, indeed, be rather depressing, and a few circus folk are running from the law.

That's not to say the series unduly highlights these less-savory aspects of circus life, but it doesn't shy away from them either, even building the bulk of one episode around a young circus worker's arrest (and eventual release) for making an alleged bomb threat. (His response to the charges? "Tell them all to f--k off. They can all go to hell.") Thanks to amazing performance footage -- and the impossibly cheery antics of the company's can-do director (a real-life Corky St. Clair if there ever was one) -- there's plenty of razzle dazzle, too.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the documentary format and how well the filmmakers capture the true spirit of the circus. Does the film contradict any conceptions you had about the way a professional circus runs or the people it employs? What was the most surprising thing you learned?

  • Why would the Big Apple Circus agree to be featured in a film like this? Is the circus taking a risk by allowing cameras to film what happens behind the scenes?

  • Do you get the sense that you're getting a "real" look at circus life? Why did the filmmakers choose to present their movie as six, hour-long segments rather than a feature-length film?

Movie details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love real life dramas

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