The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
Directed by Jon Turteltaub
Screenplay by Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal
Nicolas Cage as Balthazar
Jay Baruchel as Dave
Alfred Molina as Horvath
Teresa Palmer as Becky
Toby Kebbell as Drake Stone
Omar Benson Miller as Bennet
Monica Bellucci as Veronica
A Spell or Two Short of Enchanting
Why would two ancient wizards, powerful enough to summon dragons and giant flying eagles, resort to chasing one another in sports cars? This disappointing incongruity sums up the The Sorcerer’s Apprentice rather nicely. The movie has the necessary ingredients of a high-velocity adventure, but stalls too many times along the way to make the thrills stick.
Pacing problems knock the movie off track from the very beginning. An overstuffed, over-narrated prologue recounts the betrayal of the great wizard Merlin by apprentice Horvath (Alfred Molina) and nemesis Morgana le Fay (Alice Krige). Merlin’s other apprentices, Balthazar (Nicolas Cage) and Veronica (Monica Belluci), defend their master, with the ultimate result that all but Balthazar are trapped in a magical Russian nesting doll (say what?) gravely named “the Grimhold” (say WHAT?). Balthazar devotes eons to searching for an heir to Merlin’s legacy, so that the evil precariously held in the Grimhold might be destroyed permanently. Okay, so that’s the first couple of minutes. This part of the story, set in Arthurian England, might have made a better movie all by itself, but we skip merrily along to the present day instead.
Then comes another false start. Ten-year-old Dave has a brief but memorable encounter with Balthazar, who believes him to be the long-sought chosen one – did I mention that the full job title is “Prime Merlinian?” I know, I know… Anyway, Horvath rises again, intending to bring about something called the Rising. Sadly, Bruce Springsteen is not involved, but fortunately it does entail calling untold forces of evil up from the grave. Promising, yes?
At this point the movie could have taken off into quite the coming-of-age adventure, wherein a young boy learns that the power to live well and impress people is ultimately inside himself, but only after he has learned to wield amazing magic. Predictable but potentially satisfying – a picture worthy of a young Fred Savage. Instead, brief mayhem breaks out and the wizards conveniently vanish for a decade, allowing Dave to grow into a maladjusted nerd (Jay Baruchel) who appears to be majoring in mad-scientist physics. What university encourages a twenty-year-old kid to build room-sized Tesla coils (right out of a Command and Conquer video game) in an abandoned subway turnaround? Once we’ve established him as gifted but unhappy loner, the wizards reappear, and Balthazar takes Dave on as a reluctant sorcerer’s apprentice… finally!
We see only glimpses of Dave’s training and progress, as the movie spends inordinate time on his courting of childhood crush Becky (Teresa Palmer), in a condensed sub-movie not significantly different from Baruchel’s recent and dubious breakout, She’s Out Of My League. This might all be okay, except that magic doesn’t really figure into the budding romance at all. Becky seems plenty attracted to Dave for his prowess as a physics nerd. By the time he reveals himself as a sorcerer – much cooler – she has already fallen for him because he rigged his dangerous science equipment to serenade her with pop music. It’s even more ridiculous to see than it is to describe.
Most of the magic in this film is very clever and eye-catching – quicksand rugs, people trapped in mirrors, and yes! brooms and mops run amok – but there should have been ten times as much of it. The few instances of actual wizard dueling in the film are unforgivably short, and the whole sorcery plot takes a backseat to a limp “Peter Parker” story in which a kindly, introverted dork gets a second chance at the beautiful girl who got away.
Sadly, the movie promises a lot of amazing and magical things that it never delivers. Let’s try to cover the essentials without giving too much away. Figuring chiefly in the plot are several of the most evil witches and wizards in history, whom Horvath uses as disposable minions in his quest to bring about the Rising. Only one of these does any wizarding at all, in a pretty spectacular set piece at a Chinese street fair. The others appear and disappear almost instantly without any excuse at all. I wanted to see the pint-sized Salem witch, in her cute little Puritan habit, do something wicked! Do I ask too much? For all the talk about the Rising and its dreadful consequences, we are never treated to the full effect of an undead army of wizards. Yet that is exactly the kind of reward we have waited a hundred rather airy minutes hoping to see. The climax of the film is reasonably exciting, but not given nearly the appropriate amount of thought and screen time.
Lack of focus and haphazard structure take a lot of stuffing out of this film. Once the action get rolling, the story seems made up on the fly. Director Jon Turteltaub (Cool Runnings, National Treasure) alternates between drawn-out conversations and too-quick bursts of action without any discernible rhythm. Another problem is the unaccountable restraint shown by the cast. Nicolas Cage could reasonably go wild in his role, and it might have helped spice things up. But instead of pushing his wizard character to the limits of kooky eccentricity, he plays a rather melancholy straight man. Alfred Molina, another clever character actor, is plenty sinister but way too understated for history’s most evil wizard. Jay Baruchel is the only one hamming it up, and to be fair, he’s not so bad at it. Like the movie itself, the character work is remarkably underdone.
A brief word to fantasy filmmakers out there: unless you have an extremely clever idea to the contrary, have a little respect for the distinction between magic and applied science in fiction. Most of Dave’s personal triumphs owe less to his astounding magical ability than to his above-average mastery of physics. And the danger of losing one’s magic powers via severe electrocution? I don’t think so. Remember when George Lucas – in the Prequels Which Must Not Be Named – decided that the Force was some kind of bloodstream imbalance, rather than the all-encompassing quasi-spiritual connection of everything in the universe? Who else felt cheated that day?
As you probably know – but in case you don’t – the concept of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice is based upon a famous segment of Disney’s 1940 animated musical Fantasia. In it, apprentice Mickey Mouse royally screws up the housework and incurs the wrath of his master, a stern and imposing wizard. You will be pleased to know that the new film reconstructs the classic short, and it’s just about the most enjoyable part of the movie. Impish mops and sponges dance around cleaning the place, but soon run hilariously out of control. If only the film built around this idea lived up to its whimsical wonder.
The other good news is that the movie seems completely safe for kids without being insultingly dumb. However, it’s short on adventure. Your family will not find it as stimulating as the spookier and far more kinetic Pirates of the Caribbean chronicles. I think the director was aiming for the same type of film, but his puzzling creative choices along the way make it fall rather flat by comparison. It is not without its good points. It is not walk-out bad. It is not by a long shot the most boring film you’ll ever see, but compared to the wild ride that could have been, it’s nothing special.
If the prospect of all this missed opportunity puts you off, fear not. Harry Potter, though a worthy alternative, is not the only answer for your wizard fix. Why not stick with Disney and pick up a copy of The Sword In The Stone (1963)? It’s animated, magic-packed fun for the entire family, and it’s marvelous. You get two wacky sorcerers, bumbling medieval knights, talking animals, a side-splitting wizard’s duel, and even a battle with kitchen implements gone mad. If truth be told, those last two sequences are some of the finest and funniest work the Disney studio ever put to film.