The Sorcerer's Apprentice flunks out
What did we ever do to producer Jerry Bruckheimer that he should want to pay us back by taking the beloved “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” episode from FANTASIA (1940) and turn it into a soulless summer snooze-fest that virtually defines everything wrong with would-be blockbusters? The new live-action version of THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE has a trailer just barely good enough to make you hope there might be some fun to be had with the concept of a geeky college kid learning magic from a wizard, but almost every good moment has been squeezed into the coming attractions (and in fact some don’t even make it into the actual film). Viewers tricked into attending this magic show will marvel only at seeing their money go up the filmmakers’ sleeves.
After a prologue showing Balthazar (Nicolas Cage) capturing and containing the evil Morgana (Alice Krige), the story has physics student Davd (Jay Baruchel) identified by Balthazar as the “Merlinian,” a word so silly you wonder if the screenwriters are thumbing their nose at the audience. The Merlinian, it seems, is the only one with the power to destroy Morgana, which is really important because Balthazar’s old rival Horvath (Alfred Molina) is eager to release her so that she can resurrect a bunch of dead wizards and basically bring about the apocalypse, just because that’s the kind of thing villains of this type do. Dave thinks the magic thing is pretty cool, but he’s a bit of a slacker when it comes to practice, because he would rather spend time with Becky (Teresa Palmer), an old friend from grade school, with whom he has recently reconnected. Yeah, the world may be ending, but that’s no reason to interrupt your social life!
THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE is remarkable consistent in its enervated presentation. There is no attempt to make us truly fear the coming confrontation with evil, nor is there much in the way of self-satire. Instead, the film settles for a vague kind of jokiness that seems distantly related to BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER (Dave’s just an ordinary kid, who happens to be fated to face the forces of evil). The “Karate Kid” relationship between Dave and Balthazar never really materializes; the training scenes just sit there like a hat with no rabbit, and the attempt at emotional bonding is tossed off with such indifference that you suspect the filmmakers themselves must believe in magic – i.e., that some miracle would turn all of this dross into gold.
Baruchel gives more or less the same performance he delivered vocally in HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON, which is at least enough to generate a few laughs – just about the only bright spots in the film. Cage coasts through trying to look cool; he barely even tries to register the script’s shifts from “humor” to “sentiment.” It’s as if he is belatedly trying to save his acting credibility by not wasting his talent on unworthy material, but he hasn’t quite taken the big step toward adopting a camp attitude to express his contempt for the lousy movie he in which he is appearing.
Molina fares slightly better as the villain, but his best moments are in the previews – basically a handful of good lines that never add up to a compelling character. Toby Kebbell is mildly amusing as his young assistant – who fritters his genuine magical abilities away on a career as a flashy professional magician – but the character is wasted. The same can be said for Alice Krige (the Borg Queen from STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT) and for Monica Bellucci (BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA, the MATRIX sequels), the latter of whom shows up as Balthazar’s love interest almost as if she were an afterthought in the screenwriters’ minds.
THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE is virtually pockmarked with special effects, but except for a Chinese-type dragon and a metallic flying eagle, none of them are memorable; they simply shoot across the screen at regular intervals to interrupt the narrative tedium with a slightly different sort of tedium. With all the available CGI technology, it’s amazing that no one thought to orchestra a really great scene around it, let alone figure out how to build the effects toward a crescendo.
At times the action seems to have been generated at random to fill up the running time and give the characters something to do. You will lose count of the number of skirmishes between Balthazar and Horvath, with Dave in between, dodging plasma balls and other magical firepower. A sequence based on episode from FANTASIA is dropped in for not much more reason that to justify the use of the title THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE. And in a transparently desperate effort to keep Becky involved in the climax, Dave has her climb an antenna tower to disrupt a magical stream of energy that is being relayed around the world – a scene knocked in a handful of shots that generate no suspense but lots of incredulity.
Rather like the recent THE TWILIGHT SAGA: ECLIPSE, THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE is an exercise in not trying very hard – sort of a cinematic version of FIELD OF DREAMS (“Just shoot it, and the audience will come”). This approach can sell tickets to pre-sold viewers eager to visit their favorite characters on screen, but it’s hard to imagine anyone so besotted that they would fall for this second-rate magical routine. In the end, this sorcerer’s biggest trick will be making the audience disappear.
THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE (2010). Directed by Jon Turtletaub. Screenplay by Matt Lopez and Doug Miro & Carlo Bernard; screen story by Lawrence Konner & Mark Rosenthal & Matt Lopze, suggested by the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” episode of FANTASIA. Cast: Nicolas Cage, Jay Baruchel, Alfred Molina, Tersa Palmer, Toby Kebbell, Omar Benson Miller, Monica Bellucci, Alice Krige, Jake Cherry, James A. Stephens.