A film review by Craig J. Koban July 21, 2010

THE SORCERER'S APPRENTICE j
½ 

2010, PG, 108 mins.

 

Balthazar: Nicolas Cage / Dave: Jay Baruchel / Horvath: Alfred Molina / Becky Barnes: Teresa Palmer / Veronica: Monica Bellucci / Morgana: Alice Krige / Young Dave: Jake Cherry
Merlin: James A. Stephens

Directed by Jon Turteltaub / Written by Matt Lopez, Doug Miro and Carlo Bernard

THE SORCERER'S APPRENTICE is the English name for a poem by Goethe, DER ZAUBERLEHRLING, written in 1797.  The basic story of an old sorcerer and the apprentice he leaves behind in his workshop to perform chores was, of course, fondly recreated in the 1940 Disney film, FANTASIA, which popularized Goethe’s work.  You may or may not remember Mickey Mouse playing the role of the apprentice that attempts to use some magical feats to make his cleaning instruments come to life to do his menial tasks for him.  This sequence, in my mind, remains one of the seminal moments in the annals of animation.

Now…what would be the best way to pay a fitting homage to this landmark and universally cherished animated classic?  Bring in Jerry Bruckheimer to take the premise and blow it up into live action, feature-length film. 

The producer/director team of Bruckheimer and Jon Turteltaub have taken it upon themselves to loosely – make that ever-so-loosely – adapt that masterful little segment from FANTASIA, which does not inspire a considerable amount of confidence.  Bruckheimer has a dubious reputation for cranking out one disposable schlock and awe production after the other, and both he and Turteltaub were responsible for the NATIONAL TREASURE films that contained such head-shaking idiocy and preposterousness that my neck ached for weeks after seeing them.   They, in turn, are re-teamed with Nicolas Cage, who once again demonstrates why he should never, ever be in a film that requires him to have a ridiculous hair piece, an absurd wardrobe, and to utter one atrociously laughable line of dialogue after another.  

It’s funny how an actor of Cage’s extraordinary range in some films can be reduced to shameful ridicule in others.  He is a tremendously gifted and thrillingly manic performer…when he wants to be (see BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL – NEW ORLEANS)…or a dreadful one (see BANGKOK DANGEROUS).  I think his role as an ageless, centuries-spanning necromancer in THE SORCERER'S APPRENTICE falls somewhere in a dark, in-between limbo state.  He does maintain a cheerfully spirited and zany disposition throughout, but he is completely stunted and inhibited by a disposable, forgettable and tedious script that lacks any level of imagination.  And the dialogue that he has to utter!   Ripe with ridiculous, multiple syllable fantasy speak that inspires groans and unintentional laughter.  Portentous and eye rolling speeches involving grimholds, nesting dolls, Morganians, Hungarian Mirror Traps, The Rising, and the Prime Merlinian are as hammy and silly as they read here.  The film feels less like the work of three screenwriters than it does the by-product of an Internet word generator. 

The story begins with a prologue, which uses images from the past married to a voice-over narrator that desperately comes across as trying to create some false solemnity while trying to holdback his incredulous laughter.  1300 years ago the Grand Poobah of all magicians, Merlin (James A Stevens) matched his powers against his prime adversary, the evil witch Morgana (Alice Krige) and Hovarth (Alfred Molina).  Merlin, being a sorcerer master, but not good at self-defense, is killed, but his disciple, Balthazar (Cage) imprisoned his enemies deep within…what else…wooden dolls.  Everyone on earth will be safe as long as the evil sorcerers stay within the nesting dolls.  Oh, as to how incredibly powerful sorcerers can be held within a doll is a source of great mystery in the film.  Perhaps Krazy Glue was administered. 

Balthazar, whose appearance seems like a cross between a grungy Jesus and a makeup-free version of The Crow, was not the only disciple of Merlin.  So too was the love of his life, Veronica (Monica Bellucci) and, yup, the nefarious Hovarth.  It seems when Balthazar managed to seal up Hovarth and Morgana in the dolls, he also accidentally imprisoned Veronica.  For the next several centuries Balthazar sought out Merlin’s natural successful, the aforementioned "Prime Merlinian" that will be the chosen one to defeat Morgana.  The Prime Merlinian is chosen by fate, which really sucks if you are Balthazar, who lives forever and can’t seem to find him for hundreds of years.   

Fast forward to New York in 2000: Balthazar has the meeting that he has been waiting a very long time.  He has a chance encounter with nine-year-old boy named Dave (played later by Jay Baruchel), who he believes just may be the Prime Merlinian that will stop "The Rising" (oh, The Rising will occur when Morgana comes out of her doll-exile and raises dead sorcerers all over the world to assist her with destroying humanity).  However, at nine Dave is definitely not ready to take this assignment, so Balthazar waits another ten years and when Dave is nineteen he attempts to make contact with him again.  However, it soon appears that Dave is so hopelessly nerdy and gawky that he will have very little aptitude to Balthazar’s teachings.  That, and he seems much more interested in pursuing the girl of his dreams, Becky (Teresa Palmer) then with vanquishing despicable sorcerers.  Unfortunately, he’s the Prime Merlinian and he’s the only one able to stop The Rising, so he’s in whether he likes to or not. 

THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE has three things going for:  First, there is a nice little nod to FANTASIA’s SORCERER’S APPRENTICE animated short near the middle of the film (granted, it seems awkwardly implanted in the film for no real reason).  Secondly, Alfred Molina – as he showed with relishing delight in this summer’s PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE SANDS OF TIME – shows how he can so effortless play colorfully corrupt and acerbic villains that, if performed by any other actor, would have been altogether undistinguishable (Molina is a great and intuitive enough performer to makes a one-note antagonist like Hovarth simmer with so much playful vindictiveness).  Thirdly, I really, really liked Aussie newcomer Teresa Palmer, who – despite being saddled with a generic and completely redundant love interest role – is unrelentingly photogenic.  I just liked watching her. 

Yet, the rest of the film is a tired, overstuffed, and unimaginative bore, which is not truly helped by Turteltaub’s bland and impersonal direction.  It’s hard, I guess, to drum up any level of modest suspense in the story when one can see precisely where it is heading (hmmmm…I wonder if the apprentice will assert himself, become the ultimate sorcerer, defeat the villains, and score with the girl?).  Moreover, the film is awash in sequences of joyless, frantic, and uninspired visual effects.  There are a few moments of visual interest (like when a street parade dragon comes to life in Chinatown, or when chrome eagle statues on the Chrysler Building also come to life), but too many other sequence seem like unused and stale leftover footage from the HARRY POTTER series.  I guess that if you’ve seen one plasma bolt and fireball conjured up in a person’s hands, then you’ve seen them all.  There is never truly a moment of escapist awe and wonder here, which should be a requisite for any fantasy.   

The film’s script is also very lazy when it comes to logical gaffs.  Balthazar continual reinforces to Dave in his training how they can never, ever reveal their powers to mortals, yet, there are endless moments in the film where Balthazar does unleash his magical powers in public (curiously, and rather conveniently, no one ever seems to notice the battle of wizards on land or in the skies in a city of millions).  Then there is the illogic of the Becky/Dave relationship, which I never once bought.  This is the second film this year that showcased Baruchel as a bumbling, geeky outsider that manages to claim the sexy and beyond-his-league blondE sexpot (see SHE’S OUT OF MY LEAGUE).  However in that film Burachel affectionately and naturally played his character's insecurities and his relationship with the bombshell developed in a believable and sensitive manner.  In THE SORCERER'S APPRENTICE Burachel painfully and unnaturally plays such an unbearably incompetent and annoyingly offbeat hero that it is a Merlin-sized miracle that Becky manages to become romantically  interested in him at all.  Burachel can play these types of loveable doofuses in his sleep, but he really labors too hard here and phones his role in.  He also seems to have a very exasperating habit of slapping his head with his hand to cover his eyes every time he is embarrassed.  Modern audiences don’t need obvious visual clues like that to be convinced of a performer’s discomfort.     

Then again, maybe he was just revealing his overall discomfort for appearing in THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE, which is just the type of cheap, clichéd, contrived, and monotonous Bruckheimer summer auctioneer/money maker that we have all come to expect from the producer.  Plus, when it comes to Mickey Mouse versus Nicolas Cage in a bad rug spouting tired fantasy diatribes about grimholds, nesting dolls, Morganians, Hungarian Mirror Traps, The Rising, and the Prime Merlinian, I will take the rodent and FANTASIA any day of the week.

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