I really liked Fantasia (1940) as a kid and recall being amazed at how well the music and animation synchronized in one of the most trippy of the Disney animated films. The centerpiece of Fantasia was the Sorcerer’s Apprentice scene, where Mickey Mouse used magic to clean his master’s lab, just to have the mops and brooms take on a life of their own.
Nicholas Cage was equally captivated by Mickey’s cameo in Fantasia, and made that the centerpiece of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, a glossy confection from Jerry Bruckheimer’s Pirates of the Caribbean team. Unfortunately, while Cage pulled a full-length story out of a vignette, he skipped the hard part: making it coherent and engaging.
The result is a film that, while enjoyable, is shallow and unsatisfying, demonstrating yet again that Nic Cage has forgotten how to act. He walks through his role as Master Sorcerer Balthazar Blake, and even in scenes when he should have been elated, terrified or angry, bland Nic Cage is all we get.
Regular guy Dave (a likeable Jay Baruchel) is the apprentice and, a la Harry Potter and Percy Jackson, he’s plucked out of a mundane existence as a student at NYU and learns that he has hidden powers as a sorcerer and is, in fact, the only person who can stop the evil sorceress Morgana (Alice Krige) from unleashing unspeakable evil on the Earth. Or something like that.
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice starts out with way too much back-story, setting the scene in 740 A.D. Britain where we witness a war between Merlin and Sorcerers Horvath (Alfred Molina), Balthazar (Cage) and Morgana (Krige). They fight over the deadly “The Rising” spell that would raise an army of the dead (didn’t Brendan Fraser fight that same spell in The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor?) and it ends with Horvath, Morgana and Balthazar’s girlfriend Veronica (Monica Bellucci) trapped in a “grimmold” doll until …
Cut to 10 years ago when our everyman hero Dave is in fourth grade on a field trip in NYC and finds himself in an odd curio shop that wouldn’t be out of place in Diagon Alley, run by an eccentric long-haired Balthazar. He wreaks unintentional havoc, embarrasses himself in front of his teacher and classmates, and spends the next decade as the school outcast.
There’s some befuddled nonsense about Merlinians vs. Morganians (get it? Merlin-ians and Morgana-ians?) but it’s so bizarre that even the characters in the film scratch their heads over that unnecessary plot detail.
As much as I disliked Cage’s performance in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, I again found myself delighted by Alfred Molina’s presence on screen. He’s becoming a formidable supporting actor, most recently being the highlight of The Prince of Persia.
Starting with the time-tested story device of everyman learning he has amazing special powers, director Jon Turteltaub has given us a film that’s pleasant enough to watch and has the splendid production quality of all Bruckheimer’s movies, but no depth, no engaging roles and a storyline as banal as they come.
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice has a line explaining that “normal people use 10 percent of their brains, but sorcerers can use all 100 percent.” That being the case, it’s too bad that no one on the production team used that spare 90 percent of their brain to figure out that the story was just too weak to sustain a full-length film, great special effects or not.