It never occurred to me in the initial round of trailers that The Sorcerer's Apprentice is based on the classic segment of Fantasia; with no hint of a connection in the first trailer, why would anyone? Only when I got to a theater early one time and saw one of those extended previews that starts before the actual previews -- can't they just shove all the regular ads for Coca-Cola and such into that space and devote some time during the coming attractions to spotlight a particular film? -- did the filmmakers mention in talking heads the source of the film's inspiration. When I heard that, all I could think was, "Why bother? Did anyone watch that animated classic and wonder what it would be like if Mickey were substituted for a nasally Canadian geek?"
This ran through my mind almost constantly as the film played. Director Jon Turteltaub and producer Jerry Bruckheimer are two filmmakers always in search of grand spectacle, yet the great irony of the finished product is that they manage to remove the magic of the original. Instead, they subject an audience to a disconnected series of sporadically stunning magic fights, not a one of which communicates the wonder or the seductive properties of magical powers.
The nasally Canadian geek in question is Dave Stutler, shown first as a 10-year-old who stumbles into a dusty magic shop on a field trip to the Statue of Liberty and meets Balthazar Blake (Nicolas Cage), a centuries-old sorcerer who apprentice under Merlin (yes, the Merlin). Seeking the prophesied child who will rid the world of Morgan le Fay, whom Balthazar keeps trapped in a Russian doll-like device called a Grimlock. The sorcerer discovers that the boy is indeed the one he's sought for 1300 years, but an intervening attack from rogue sorcerer Maxim Horvath (Alfred Molina) results in the two wizards trapping themselves in a mystical vase and leaving a frantic Dave to try to explain himself to his peers, in water-soaked pants that the children take for proof of urination, no less.
This comprises the first 15 minutes of the film, and I've spared you the prologue in 750 A.D. and the thick exposition Cage has to deliver to a 10-year-old. Turteltaub and Bruckheimer's previous team-ups, the National Treasure films, made American history into something genuinely captivating for younger audiences; granted, they did so by turning history into fiction and sprinkling in an unacceptable dose of Dan Brown -- any dosage of Dan Brown is unacceptable -- but the cumbersome dialogue gave way to a believable enthusiasm for the subject, and the look of reverence and uncontainable glee on Cage's face as he pored over documents sold the film better than any of its action scenes.
Why, then, do the director and producer not extend the same care to the boundless opportunities of magic? When an older Dave (Jay Baruchel), having since suffered a breakdown over the immense shame of that event 10 years prior, meets Balthazar again and learns that he will himself become a sorcerer, he reacts with perfunctory skittishness instead of unvarnished excitement. Here is a nobody, a physics nerd who honed his genius partly due to his innate cranial capacity but also as a side-effect of hiding from the world after his ridicule, suddenly told that he can wield the power of a god, and the best he can muster is, "Sweet."
Baruchel is slowly but steadily gaining traction in my mind as a viable alternative to the Michael Cera/Jesse Eisenberg school of geeky detachment; he's endearingly awkward and believably sweet where Cera has an edge to him and Eisenberg falls somewhere in-between. But he's shackled here, unable to explore the emotions that would run through the head of the typical hero in training whose life turns upside down for the better. All he can do is make a few wisecracks, which he always backpedals out of cowardice in the face of stronger wizards, or women.
More tragic is the waste of Cage. To paraphrase Richard Roeper, the rule of thumb for the quality of Nicolas Cage's performance in any film can be directly tied to his hair: the sillier the wig, the more outlandish the performance. The Sorcerer's Apprentice bucks this trend, and that's not a good thing. Rather than the magnificently campy Nic Cage who commits to kitsch more completely than anyone, we get a neutered Nic. Despite the kooky nature of his character, a millennium-old sorcerer whose methods of training Dave in the ways of the "sacred art" recall Rip Torn's mad coach from Dodgeball, Cage heads in the opposite direction, turning his usual manic energy inward until he delivers every line with grave severity. Amazingly, Molina brings the camp more readily than Cage, all bored villain who kills anyone who remotely crosses him out of exasperation for the inanity of mankind. His snarled threats and incessant sighs of loathing are the film's only steady source of entertainment.
Nothing makes any blasted sense in this movie, and not in the way that would make for a better depiction of magic. Dave's proficiency with magic depends entirely on plot convenience: without a single lesson and only a vague instruction, the boy manages to take out a deadly sorcerer, then spends the rest of the film ineptly practicing and quitting magic out of frustration, only to intermittently control his powers with mastery. There's no logic to his progression, simply contrivance after contrivance that robs Dave's evolution of any meaning or weight. Even the moment that recreates the possessed broom bit of the original Fantasia sequence doesn't conjure memories of that animated masterpiece but raise the question of how Dave, who five minutes ago couldn't perform a single spell with consistency, can suddenly summon an army of the inanimate.
Occasionally, a funny line seeps through, such as the confrontation between Dave and a vain disciple of le Fay who made his living as a Vegas magician, in which the villain cannot believe that the boy doesn't know who he is. "Are you in Depeche Mode?" Dave asks the spiky-haired, New Wave-looking fool. The romantic subplot between Dave and Becky (Teresa Palmer), the girl he liked back in fourth grade before his breakdown forced him to transfer schools, exists mainly to give the villains some leverage against Dave and to prove that old point about love being what allows good to triumph over evil. The two do, however, share a surprisingly touching scene involving Dave's Tesla coil and the musical sounds its sparks emit.
But too much of The Sorcerer's Apprentice is somber, treating the ineffable wonder, the magic of magic, with the same solemn reverence afforded to history in National Treasure, fictionalized as it was. I haven't seen Nicolas Cage give such a lifeless performance in years; never before has he so blatantly looked as if he's only doing the job for the paycheck. I expected little from the film and was still disappointed, my eye occasionally catching on something of interest only to return back to the sheer dullness of it all. Everyone involved takes a narrative and emotional shortcut, avoiding anything that sticks in the mind in favor of silliness. I return to a scene in the film where Balthazar chastises Dave about distractions whilst wearing a hat that directs any and all attention onto itself. Somehow, the entire movie is in that throwaway moment.