Has anyone in the seventy years since “Fantasia” debuted ever taken a long look at the Mickey Mouse “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” segment and thought, “You know, I want a whole movie about that, but instead of Mickey Mouse, I’d like a modern day college-age Jay Baruchel type, and instead of the sorcerer, I want Nicolas Cage in a fedora”?
Apparently, yes. “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is a remake/expansion mash that seems to have begun as something of a writer’s exercise – take a single scene and build a complete story around it – only to grow into a mid-range fantasy adventure that’s not so much bad as it is unmemorable. More thought seems to have gone into the effects sequences than into the characters; aside from a colorful turn from Alfred Molina (whose devilish attitude elevates an otherwise bland role), the population of this film is a collection of wet noodles and vanilla love interests.
The story opens with an introduction explaining how Merlin’s fellow sorcerers Balthazar (Cage) and Veronica (Monica Belluci) were betrayed by Horvath (Molina), who was then, along with the wicked Morgana (Alice Krige), trapped within a magical nesting doll thingy. Fast forward a millennium plus change, during which an immortal Balthazar travels the globe searching for the “Prime Merlinian,” your garden variety “chosen child,” a youth born with powers that can defeat Morgana.
He finds such a kid by accident in New York City, the year 2000. Young Dave (who’s said to be either nine or ten, depending on the scene; was nobody paying attention?) wanders off from a New York City field trip and stumbles into Balthazar’s magic shop. He’s proven to be the Prime Merlinian, but he also accidentally frees Horvath. For reasons too complicated to explain in this limited space, Horvath and Balthazar both wind up entombed for ten years in an enchanted vase, while nobody believes Dave’s stories of wizards and whatnot.
Flash forward to present day. Dave (Baruchel) is now a grad student working on a vague Tesla coil project that shows us his aptitude for generic “science.” He runs into Becky (Teresa Palmer), the gal he’s crushed over since childhood, but before they can hit it off, a newly freed Balthazar finds him and begins to train him to defeat the baddies before they can destroy the world.
“Apprentice” is directed by Jon Turtletaub, who reaches for that same sense of zippy dumb fun he brought to the “National Treasure” films. Like those movies, “Apprentice” speeds along like a firecracker but doesn’t seem to have much in mind in terms of a destination. We skid from effects shot to effects shot, action scene to action scene, with only uninteresting characters tying them together.
Some of those moments work nicely. A chase involving shape-shifting cars has a crisp pace; a bit of business involving a “liquefied” bathroom mirror is inventive; the final showdown lets the effects department show off their best work. As mentioned above, Molina is a delight, while Cage delivers some nice wisecrackery of his own. (Meanwhile, Baruchel, in his trademark hunchy-scrunchy mode, is likeable enough to fit the bill.)
But these are the exceptions. Too much of the screenplay (credited to five writers) gives in to sloppy character work and clichéd plot points. Dave wins over Becky by fixing her college radio station’s transmitter (by punching a few buttons on a random keypad box – you know, science!), then spends the bulk of the film trying to hide his sorcery from her. (This is what leads to the walking mops, a scene the writers labor like mad to set up then ignore once it’s finished.) The script even pulls the old “have Balthazar pretend he’s Dave’s uncle so Becky remains none the wiser” move. Hrmm.
An entire chunk of screen time is given over to a song by OneRepublic, which appears a good seventy times throughout, including one version played by Tesla coils. (Don’t ask.) It’s one thing to give the movie some theme music; it’s another to burrow the theme into the audience’s skulls to the point of annoyance.
The Tesla coil business is an attempt to set up the script’s main conceit: sorcery, we learn, is a combination of magic and science, heavy on the science. It’s an ill-fitting explanation, earning more eye rolls than a has with lines like how a magic ring “projects the electrical energy of your nervous system.” It’s obvious this angle grew from the finale, in which (no spoilers here) Dave realizes he can use his science know-how to defeat the baddies, but things must’ve gotten out of hands in the rewrites, eventually settling on Balthazar delivering killjoy explanations that put George Lucas’ midi-chlorians to shame.
Also lost along the way is a complete threat from the villains. Morgana unveils a plot to use an army of the dead to destroy something, or whatever. The script barely bothers defining this ploy, only to let it fizzle away with minimal effect, as if a chunk of the finale got erased in the editing room. No, it’s not too important – any ol’ bad guy mischief will do if it leads the heroes to the finish line – but its insufficient presentation leaves the film leading up to a big finish that never arrives.
None of this will be of any concern to younger viewers, who will thrill to the fun bits and not fret about the rest. Grown-ups, however, will linger on all the ideas and scenes that play off as weaker versions of better stories, ranging from the “Harry Potter” series to “The Neverending Story” to “Green Lantern” comics. They’ll linger over the corny dialogue and contrived set-ups and unfulfilling pay-offs, and they’ll hope the kids don’t ask to watch this too many times when it comes out on Blu-ray.