The first good thing about The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is that it isn’t called The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: Oath of the Dragon Ring or The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: Nesting Dolls of Doom.
Producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s penchant for turning unlikely source material into high-concept supernatural action-comedy-romance popcorn movies with unwieldy, franchise-friendly two-part titles is well established. Already he’s done theme-park rides (Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl) and more recently video games (Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time). Now he’s given us what is surely the first-ever supernatural action-comedy-romance popcorn movie based on a classic Mickey Mouse cartoon. I’m trying to think what even unlikelier source material he might turn to next.
If it doesn’t rise to the level of the first Pirates of the Caribbean — for several reasons, among them that there’s no recapturing the bottled lightning of Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow — The Sorcerer’s Apprentice gets right almost everything that Prince of Persia got wrong. It’s nonsense, but it’s entertaining nonsense, just like Prince of Persia wasn’t. The stars are charismatic and likable, and the romantic leads have real chemistry. The special effects are visually splendid. Alfred Molina, the best thing in both movies, gets to be the big bad guy instead of a minor supporting character.
The screenplay, much abused for its multiple writers, is peppered with laugh-out-loud humor and eccentric charm. I love the moment when the villain appears in the hero’s apartment after escaping a 10-year imprisonment during which his afflictions included sharply curtailed reading material. What it was, and his pitiless commentary on it, is a goofy ray of wit that’s not atypical of the movie’s sensibilities. A throwaway line in a scene in which the villain and a sidekick try to get information about the hero from a college administrator contains what is now my all-time favorite allusion to Star Wars in another movie.
The Star Wars reference is, of course, apropos, since, like everything from Harry Potter to The Matrix to Avatar, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is yet another retread of the messianic hero’s journey, the story of a chosen one who must save the world. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice cheerfully acknowledges its derivativeness, though a nod to Harry Potter would have been even more appropriate.
Nicolas Cage is Obi-wan Morpheus Dumbledore, aka Balthazar Blake, an ageless wizard from the eighth century who was trained by Merlin himself and is locked in a centuries-long battle with a treacherous former colleague, Maxim Horvath (Molina), whose goal is to bring back Merlin’s great enemy, Morgana le Fay (Alice Krige). (Pirates reached back to Cortez and cursed Aztec gold; Apprentice reaches back to Arthuriana. Downside: Apprentice spells out its back story in a prologue, so we aren’t figuring out stuff along with the hero, as in Pirates.)
Jay Baruchel is Harry Anderson Skywalker, aka Dave Stutler, an awkward young physics geek whose hobby is building Tesla coils and playing with 50-foot plasma filaments in an abandoned New York subway turnaround that he uses as an urban-gothic mad scientist’s lab, which is nice if you can get it. (Baruchel recently voiced the similarly geeky hero of How to Train Your Dragon.)
Teresa Palmer isn’t Princess Trinity Granger, but she’s definitely the next best thing as far as Dave is concerned. A gorgeous coed in one of Dave’s college classes, Becky isn’t into physics (or magic); her interests run to music and hosting a music program at the local college radio station.
I appreciate having a hero who’s more than a typical Potteresque blank slate — a hero with an actual interest — as well as a heroine with a completely different interest. Rather remarkably, on two different occasions, the movie allows the hero to take an interest in the heroine’s interest while simultaneously impressing her with his interest. The first time is only a conceit, though even there it’s nice for the girl to have an actual reason to be impressed with the guy. (Lots of movies seem to feel the heroine should fall for the hero just because he’s the chosen one or something.) But the second scene, involving music and electricity, is unexpectedly endearing and moving, an offbeat set piece that raises the bar a notch.
Actually, Dave first made an impression on Becky 10 years earlier on a third-grade field trip by drawing a cartoon on the school bus window in Sharpie so that if you looked out the window with the New York skyline in the background, you’d see an iconic scene from a classic special-effects movie (another nod to the movie’s roots). Later on that field trip, Dave slipped Becky a sly love note that was better than probably two-thirds of all pick-up lines, even in the movies. For third grade, he was quite the character.
Of course, that was also the day that fate led young Dave into the midst of a terrifying magical smackdown between Balthazar and Horvath over a magical MacGuffin with the key to restoring Morgana and a number of other wizards — all evil but one. That childhood trauma led to a decade of therapy and medical attention, during which he learned to say that his experiences were just hallucinations. He probably never really believed it, though. After all, he still has the dragon ring Balthazar gave him — the ring that marks him as a wizard-to-be (and more, if only he knew).
Now, though, it’s all coming back to him — literally. Once again, Balthazar and Horvath are at magical loggerheads, and Dave’s right in the middle of it. And, of course, he has to learn to master his magical potential in time to save the world from certain annihilation — as well as learning to balance study of magic with his love life, against the stern protestations of his all-business mentor that love is a “distraction.”
There’s little effort to spell out magical rules or limitations, other than the general weight class of each adept, so the battles are somewhat random. On the other hand, the magical applications are often imaginative, and the filmmakers didn’t skimp on visual effects, so for once the eye candy is actually worth looking at.
What holds it all together? The characters. In addition to the main players, British actor Toby Kebbell has a very funny supporting role as a junior-grade evil wizard who makes a living as a Bowiesque stage magician.
Despite the one-step title, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice ends with a typically Bruckheimerian after-the-credits tag suggesting sequel potential. I like the movie, but I like it how it is. The world doesn’t need The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: Past Merlin’s Circle or The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: Dance Magic Dance. If it does well with audiences, that might be in part because, as derivative as it is — and despite an entertaining homage to the eponymous Fantasia sequence — The Sorcerer’s Apprentice isn’t really a franchise film based on something else. Audiences, I think, are ready for new material. That’s what Hollywood should be gearing up to deliver.
CONTENT ADVISORY: Fantasy action violence and mildly frightening scenes, some mild rude humor and brief cursing. Fine for older kids.