Film Review: Action-packed 'Sorcerer's Apprentice' might cast spell on kids

Nicolas Cage  (left) and Alfred Molina are among a talented cast working with crassly commercial material in 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice.'

Abbot Genser/Disney

Nicolas Cage (left) and Alfred Molina are among a talented cast working with crassly commercial material in "The Sorcerer's Apprentice."

The walking mops from the classic Mickey Mouse episode of 1940's "Fantasia" make a cameo appearance in "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," the latest built-to-please product from the Disney/Jerry Bruckheimer assembly line that previously delivered the "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "National Treasure" series.

Nicolas Cage  (left) and Alfred Molina are among a talented cast working with crassly commercial material in 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice.'

Abbot Genser/Disney

Nicolas Cage (left) and Alfred Molina are among a talented cast working with crassly commercial material in "The Sorcerer's Apprentice."

Balthazar Blake is a master sorcerer in modern-day Manhattan trying to defend the city from his arch-nemesis, Maxim Horvath. Balthazar can't do it alone, so ...

Rating: PG for fantasy action violence, some mild rude humor and brief language

Length: 111 minutes

Released: July 14, 2010 Nationwide

Cast: Nicolas Cage, Jay Baruchel, Alfred Molina, Teresa Palmer, Toby Kebbell

Director: Jon Turteltaub

Writer: Lawrence Konner, Matt Lopez, Mark Rosenthal, Doug Miro, Carlo Bernard

More info and showtimes »

The mops don't waste much time before hitting star Jay Baruchel in the nether regions, a lowest-common-denominator gag that reveals the distance between "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" and not just its nominal inspiration in "Fantasia" but also its true incentive, the "Harry Potter" movie franchise. Even a second-tier fantasy adventure such as "Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief" is a model of tasteful artistry compared to this umpteenth post-Luke Skywalker retelling of the story of a boy who discovers he is destined for greatness because he is the inheritor of hidden powers.

But if "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," which opened Wednesday in theaters, is obvious, oblivious to logic and overblown, in a manner that will be familiar to anyone who has seen director Jon Turtletaub's goofy "National Treasure" movies, it also reminds us that escapist nonsense can be fun, when it's delivered by talented actors and artisans doing the best they can with crassly commercial material.

Kids likely will love the action-packed "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," especially since the personable, often comical title character is introduced not as the physics-geek college student played by Baruchel but as a little boy (Jake Cherry) who learns magic is real when he is lured to the "Arcana Cabana" during a school field trip.

The curio shop is managed by Balthazar Blake (Nicolas Cage, looking rather like the 2010 version of Robert Plant), a student of Merlin whose archenemy, the evil Maxim Horvath (Alfred Molina), is imprisoned -- along with such black arts practitioners as a Chinese sorcerer, a Salem witch and Merlin's murderer, Morgana (Alice Krige) -- in the "grimhold," a sort of magical nesting doll.

The movie might have been more entertaining if the apprentice had remained a kid, but then the film might not attract the all-important teen audience. So when the action picks back up, the boy, Dave Stutler, is 20 years old, and less interested in magic than in impressing blond, bland Becky (Teresa Palmer), a volunteer deejay who -- judging from the songs on the soundtrack -- must have the worst program in college radio history. (Dave should take over: In a surprising bit of set decoration, we see a Mekons poster in his dorm room.)

Dave's repressed childhood memories of his visit to the Arcana Cabana are excavated when a reunion with Balthazar leads to the accidental liberation of Horvath and the revelation that Dave is "the Prime Merlinian," a potentially masterful sorcerer. But the quickly organized slapstick magic lessons provide scant preparation for his battles with Horvath and such minions and creations as a dragon, an animated statue of a bull and a preening, Criss Angel-like stage magician (Toby Kebbell, a sort of second-string Russell Brand). Horvath's goal is to free Morgana and help her promote "The Rising" -- not the Bruce Springsteen album but "something that would enable her to enslave mankind by resurrecting dead Merlinians."

Like most Bruckheimer projects, the movie seems to have been made with reference to a checklist of theoretically audience-pleasing ingredients. Car chase? Check. Comic black sidekick? Check. Flatulent dog? Check.

The structure is puzzling. An unnecessary prologue set in 740 AD (could it have been shot as an afterthought?) treats young viewers as idiots, explaining the plot's setup and removing all mystery for the audience. The movie would have been much more engrossing if it had opened in modern times, so that moviegoers, like Dave, would learn about the magical realm through events rather than narration.

-- John Beifuss: 529-2394

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