(by Dustin Putman
Walt Disney Pictures has made a mint turning theme park attraction "The Pirates of the Caribbean" into an unlikely billion-dollar movie franchise, but can they do the same with a live-action film inspired by a 10-minute animated sequence from 1940's "Fantasia?" Producer Jerry Bruckheimer would like to think so with "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," hiring director Jon Turteltaub and actor Nicolas Cage in the hopes of recreating the box-office success of 2004's "National Treasure" and 2007's "National Treasure: Book of Secrets." Those pictures were patently ridiculous from a storytelling angle, but at least there was a sense of discovery, intrigue and adventure about them. The gang has no such luck here. "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" is clanky, overblown and impersonal, a metallic bombardment of empty CGI pizzazz and very little heart. For a film all about magic, it's amazing how indifferent the whole corporate enterprise leaves the viewer. Shamelessly tossing a Buzz Lightyear action figure into an early scene only serves to make one wish he or she was watching the recent "Toy Story 3" instead. Article continues below
A lazy narrated prologue set in 740 A.D. that sounds like it should be placed in a comedy spoof of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" sets the stage for a centuries-long struggle between Merlin's three chosen apprentices—the virtuous Balthazar Blake (Nicolas Cage), using his powers for good; his doomed lady love Veronica (Monica Bellucci); and Maxim Horvath (Alfred Molina), jealous of his two fellow comrades and subsequently turning to the dark side. When all-powerful witch Morgana takes over the body of Veronica, Balthazar has no choice but to enclose the whole lot of them in nesting dolls known as grimholds. Following a second prologue set in the year 2000 that depicts the first encounter between Balthazar and his destined apprentice, 10-year-old kid Dave Stutler (Jake Cherry), the setting once again zooms forward to present-day New York City. Now a college student, Dave's (Jay Baruchel) memories of that fateful day a decade earlier come rushing back to him when he is once again approached by Balthazar. With Horvath set free from his grimhold and on the loose, it is only a matter of time before he finds a way to unleash Morgana from her porcelain tomb. Their plan: to raise the dead and set about an apocalypse. The only sorcerer who is strong enough to stop them? The Prime Merlinean, whom Dave happens to be; he just doesn't know it yet.
The whirlwind opening of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" tosses so much exposition and so many characters at the viewer that, while possible to follow the premise, it is unreasonable to expect we will instantly care at all about anything or anyone. Instead of showing, the film constantly—and lazily—chooses to tell us what we need to know and how we are supposed to feel. Good moviemaking—garnering one's emotional investment, rather than demanding it from the start—doesn't work that way, and director Jon Turteltaub and screenwriters Matt Lopez (2009's "Race to Witch Mountain") and Doug Miro & Carlo Bernard (2010's "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time") should know that. From there, the picture moves ahead thirteen or so centuries to the year 2000, as 2001's hit song "The Middle" by Jimmy Eat World prominently plays on the soundtrack. Someone clearly wasn't doing their researching homework and, because of their negligence, the entire purpose of the tune's placement in the story is rendered nonsensical. Also pointless: the setup of young Dave's best friend (Robert B. Capron), who plays a major part in this segment and then disappears with nary a mention of his whereabouts once the timeline moves ahead ten more years. Now a student at NYU, Dave is roommates with Bennet (Omar Benson Miller), and unless he's changed races in the last decade, he's not the same best bud as his childhood one. These little details may seem like nitpicking, but if the fundamental window-dressing is this flawed, one can only imagine how troubled the rest of the production is.
For one, the central plot is moronic. Not only is Dave's discovery of his powers washed over—no explanation is given for how he does his magic, or why he hasn't found them out during the first twenty years of his life—but the dastardly motive of Horvath and demonic sorceress Morgana to put an end to the world is left unexplained. What are they trying to prove by doing this? Do they not realize that the end of days will also spell the end of them? Their plan isn't exactly an airtight one. Also leaving a lot to be desired is the rote, by-the-numbers character work, not a single person written with enough life or depth to seemingly exist outside the pages of the script. Dave is the protagonist and unlikely hero, but there is no dimension or past to him outside of that single sequence set in 2000. He has no parents or family, no interests outside of physics and classmate Becky (Teresa Palmer)—both of these things, of course, play a part in the narrative—and no complexity to his standard-issue personality logline of "well-meaning doofus." He has a pet pug for the sole reason that there must be unfunny farting and peeing jokes in succession. Meanwhile, in one scene, a punk rocker minion of Horvath's corners Dave in a bathroom and asks, "Don't you know who I am?" Dave's response is clever, but something that a guy born in 1990 would never believably say: "Are you a member of Depeche Mode?" The other characters are even less thought-out. Balthazar's humorless shtick keeps him from developing a consequential bond with Dave. Villain Horvath (whose name pronunciation throughout the movie sounds unmistakably like "Whore Bath") is roughly as threatening as a newborn kitten. Becky is Dave's inevitable love interest, a girl who talks about her fear of heights only to finish the movie out by joyfully whooping and hollering while loosely flying around unprotected and unrestrained on the back of a giant metal bird come to life. One slip and she's dead.
When they come, the action set-pieces are afterthoughts, from the attack of a Chinese paper dragon that transforms into a real one, to a car chase through the streets of New York City that finds Dave and Balthazar entering and exiting panes of glass as a way to escape their pursuers, to a finale filled with lightning bolts streaking the sky to the notice of not a single resident of Manhattan. A similar dragon attack was done better in Disney's far superior 2007 live-action release "Enchanted." The car chase in 2010's "Date Night" was more original and cohesively shot and edited. And the climax wherein Morgana's plot starts to take shape as Dave goes up against her powers reminds of 1993's "Hocus Pocus," also far more thrilling and dramatically involving than this superficial, plasticized romp. A brief montage crossing the globe as the dead begin to rise is fairly neat and begins to bring scope to Morgana's threat, but it—and she—is overcome almost before they begin. Visual effects work, largely handled via computer-generated images, is garish and charmless. Much better is the practical on-location shooting in New York, helping to bring more flavor to the setting than to the characters or their conflicts.
Predictable, unexciting, and really rather tedious, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" is an action-fantasy pile-up that works as neither and serves only to remind of stronger films of the past. Nicolas Cage (2009's "Knowing") brings nothing to the part of Balthazar; even when he's on screen he looks like he's mentally checked out. As Dave, Jay Baruchel (2010's "She's out of My League") continues to be typecast just as Michael Cera is, the difference being a drop in natural sweetness and charisma. The most notable thing to be said about Teresa Palmer (2008's "Bedtime Stories"), as Becky, is that she looks like an uncanny blonde-haired doppelgänger of Kristen Stewart. Her romance with Dave is a generic one, but not without some occasional signs of earnest affability. Indeed, it's the only thing that comes close to reminding the viewer that there are human beings in front of the camera. The rest of it might as well feature cardboard cutouts on sticks.