The Sorcerer’s Apprentice marks the return of the winning trifecta of actor Nicolas Cage with director Jon Turteltaub and super-producer Jerry Bruckheimer, the same team that brought us two successful chapters of the best lower-class Indiana Jones substitute yet, the National Treasure series. Although the studio name may say Disney and the title may conjure memories of Mickey Mouse and his famous sorcerer’s hat casting spells and bringing mops and buckets to life, don’t hold your breath; there’s not a rodent in sight. What’s here is actually a fairly enjoyable, if largely forgettable, action/comedy adventure designed for family consumption. OK, and maybe there’s a few dancing mops along the way.
A breezy and compressed opening montage explains that in 740 AD the famed wizard Merlin has taken on three apprentices, though as the film acknowledges, he should have chosen better. When one of his apprentices, Horvath (Alfred Molina), turns against him to partner with the villainous Morgana le Fay (Alice Krige) and her fiendish plot to resurrect dead sorcerers from across the globe and lead this undead army to control the world, all hell threatens to break loose. But Merlin’s other two apprentices, Balthazar (Cage) and his ladylove Veronica (Monica Bellucci) aren’t about to just let this happen, and battle their way into Morgana’s inner sanctum. A battle to the near-death results in both Morgana and Veronica having their very essence intertwined (don’t ask), to which Balthazar traps them both inside the Grimhold, a magical nesting doll that holds the nastiest of sorcerer’s looking to stir up trouble.
In his dying moments, Merlin entrusts Balthazar with his personal ring, which is shaped like a dragon and designed to react to the chosen one, narcissistically called The Prime Merlinian, who will one day rise to power and take Merlin’s place as the head wizard. By this point anyone remotely familiar with the classic Arthurian legends will probably roll their eyes upon seeing their favorite tales reduced like this, although it’s probably best to remember this really isn’t an adaptation as it is an excuse to use the name Merlin indiscriminately to sell the concept. Think of it as an lukewarm Harry Potter and you’ll have a good idea what to expect.
While it might be Nicholas Cage’s name up there on the marquee, the real star here is Jay Baruchel as the would-be apprentice Dave Stutler, who plays the lanky, lovable geeky physicist that falls head over heels in love with the girl of his dreams, the beautiful Becky (Teresa Palmer). A previous encounter with Balthazar and Horvath left him the laughing stock of his pre-school class, and sent him straight into years of corrective therapy. I’ve always liked him as an actor and I like him here, as every generation is entitled to their own lovable, geeky ‘loser’ who rises to the challenge and gets the girl in the end, and it’s clear that Baruchel is that lovable geek.
It’s too bad the movie’s romantic subplot with Becky falls flat, because it takes up so much time that could have been better spent on magic and other such movie mayhem. But in a world where splicing in romantic interludes can ramp up the box-office futures of even the most innocent family adventure (and give hope to millions of like-minded geeks around the world) I suppose such things are necessary these days. It’s routine stuff, but someone out there is cheering them on.
Cage is breezy good fun as the titular sorcerer, a stylish update to the bearded – and unflinchingly stoic – Yen Sid from the animated original. Actually, like pretty much everything about this movie he’s a wholly original creation that lives and breathes on Cage’s own internal charisma. When given the right role, he can be such a convincingly cool character actor and his Balthazar Blake is a strange creation. He speaks with an American accent (as do most of the good guys) and comes cloaked in a cool leather jacket that must cost a fortune to be properly treated. In her minutes of screen time Veronica (a wasted Monica Bellucci) does get to break out a slight Italian accent, but her appearance here is little more than pretty window dressing.
Few contemporary actors can play a scene-chewing villain as well as Alfred Molina, and that’s exactly what we get with his Maxim Horvath, played ingeniously like a post-industrial magic pimp (complete with dapper hat, feathers, and cool cane). As with Cage’s bizarre Balthazar, I don’t think we’re meant to know where these centuries old masters ‘o magic get their fashion sense from, although it’s certainly scads better than Horvath’s own makeshift apprentice, Drake (Toby Kebbell), who manages to steal the few scenes he’s in by ripping off celebrity ‘magician’ Chris Angel.
As you might expect from a big-budget Disney film about magic, there’s plenty of special-effects to bring the excitement alive. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is what I like to call a ‘cheap blockbuster’, which means that, despite its bigger budget and fancy effects, nothing onscreen is state-of-the-art or in any way pushes the envelope. The CG beasts (which include a giant eagle, dragon, and Wall Street bull) all look like CG beasts and move unrealistically, although they’re usually intertwined with so much extra background clutter and noise it really doesn’t matter. These are computer-generated effects made to occupy space, not the imagination, and would have felt a lot more personal with practical effects than the typical CG-overload that weighs it down.
But it’s not all bad in the effects department, at least not from a purely photogenic stance. One scene involving a cockroach-reconstituted was icky good fun, and the use of a mirrored-universe car chase felt more inspired and exciting than most of the film. Speaking of inspired, the sole connective tissue to the original 1940 Fantasia animated sequence (sans the Mouse) was a fun, lighthearted touch, and I enjoyed how much character was put into the animated mops and sponges. Too bad it felt so disconnected from the rest of the movie
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice isn’t so much a bad movie as it is a largely forgettable one, and one that feels more than happy to serve as a minor distraction between better cinematic pleasures. Those going in expecting a fully updated version of classic Mickey Mouse-starring animated musical sequence are going to be severely disappointed, as nothing here is as intuitively possessing or as memorable. Cage and Molina have great fun in their respective roles as magic-hurling foes, and chalk another lovable geek role up for Baruchel in the lead. It’s too bad the special-effects aren’t really that special, but it’s a fun ride while it lasts and would probably make a decent rental for the kids, but nothing more than that.