Sorcerer's Apprentice, TheReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 07/14/10 09:41:23
How is it possible that a film that spends so much time talking about magic can itself possess so little of it? That is the thought that was going through my mind after watching “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” the latest financially loaded and artistically bankrupt attempt by producer Jerry Bruckheimer to recreate the surprise success of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise by spinning a feature film out of heretofore unlikely source material--in this case, the famous Mickey Mouse cartoon that served as one of the segments of Walt Disney’s groundbreaking animated epic “Fantasia” (don’t even bother bringing up the original Goethe poem)--with the aid of his collaborators on the “National Treasure” franchise, director Jon Turtletaub and star Nicolas Cage. Right from the start, it is obvious that no expense was spared to bring this film to the screen but right from the start, it is also obvious that no real imagination or inspiration was ever deployed either at any point. This is a film that is so absolutely devoid of creativity that it gives us characters who possess seemingly unlimited magical powers that allow them to do virtually anything they want and then can’t think of anything else to do with them except have them blow things up for a couple of hours until it is time for the next showing.In the first of two prologues required to set up the story--never a good sign--we are transported back to 740 AD as the legendary Merlin, along with his threes trusted apprentices Balthazar (Nicolas Cage), Horvath (Alfred Molina) and Veronica (Monica Bellucci), is trying to prevent the evil Morgana Le Fay (Alice Krige) from acquiring the power that will allow her to raise armies of the dead and eventually destroy humanity once and for all. Alas, both Balthazar and Horvath have eyes (among other things) for Veronica but when she chooses the former, it sends Horvath over the edge and he forms an allegiance with Morgana to destroy anything. Eventually, Balthazar is able to trap the spirits of Morgana and her most powerful followers, including Horvath, in a series of Russian doll-like containers and begins a thousand-year quest to find the one young man who unwittingly possesses the magical powers that are the only thing that can defeat Morgana’s spirit once and for all if it should ever escape. (Weird how John Boorman skipped over all of this when he made “Excalibur,” isn’t it?) Finally in the year 2000, it appears that Balthazar’s quest is at an end when he meets Dave Stutler (Jake Cherry), a dorky 10-year-old kid who has wandered away from a school field trip and into Balthazar’s midtown Manhattan magic shop and senses that he may be the one. Alas, the klutzy kid inadvertently manages to release Horvath from his imprisonment and he and Balthazar go at it sorcerer-style by hurling CGI effects at each other until they mysteriously disappear and Dave, left standing in the wreckage with no plausible explanation and wearing wet pants, is humiliated in front of his classmates, especially Becky Barnes, the pretty blonde girl that he would most likely love to have accompany him to the opening day screening of “Titan A.E.”
Ten more years pass and when the story starts up again, Dave (now played by Jay Baruchel) is a geeky physics genius at NYU who has long since had the weirdness of a decade earlier explained away as a simple glucose imbalance and is now content to spend his life conducting elaborate experiments with Tesla coils in an abandoned subway station he uses as a lab and pining over Becky (Teresa Palmer). It is at this time, inevitably, that Balthazar and Horvath reappear and continue their never-ending battle. Horvath recruits an evil punk magician (Toby Kebbell) to help him find the canister containing Morgana and her followers so that they can be revived and put the whole destroying mankind thing back on the table while Balthazar reunites with Dave and makes him his apprentice so as to teach him enough magical spells to defeat Morgana and save the world. At first, Dave doesn’t seem too interested in the idea of saving the world with magical powers--he seems more concerned with trying to work up the courage to ask Becky to go to the 10th anniversary screening of “Titan A.E.” with him--but after the requisite number of effects-filled set-pieces elapse, he finally decides to embrace his destiny and save the day in the taa-daa nick of time.
With its crude and confusing combination of exposition and explosions, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” starts off on such a jarringly incoherent note that some viewers may find themselves thinking back fondly upon the comparatively lucid opening scenes of “Jonah Hex.” The surprising thing, however, is that once all of that is out of the way and things settle down, the film actually gets worse rather than better as it progresses. Part of the problem is that the screenplay by Matt Lopez and Doug Miro & Carlo Bernard feels more like a focus group presentation than an actual story--it merely jams together action, comedy, derring-do, romance, master-protégé bonding and lavish special effects instead of figuring out a way of blending them together into something that at least feels as though it might have been organic. Another part of the problem is that whatever Jon Turtletaub’s qualities as a filmmaker may be (and outside of making formulaic entertainments that make ungodly sums of money for Disney, I am unsure as to what they might be myself), a grand visual style that would seem to be a key requirement for anyone attempting this kind of film--even a sequence as seemingly surefire as the inevitable recreation of the Mickey Mouse short fails to make much of an impression thanks to his drab handling of the material.
However, the most egregious sin of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is that, as I mentioned earlier, it has virtually no magic of its own on display. Oh sure, it has plenty of special effects and whatnot but they lack the spark and crazy-go-nuts ingenuity that a movie like this really needs in order to take off in the way that it should. For example, there is a scene in which Horvath briefly gets the upper hand on Balthazar and runs off with the canister containing Morgana’s essence or whatever with Balthazar and Dave in hot pursuit. Now bear in mind that both Balthazar and Horvath are over a thousand years old and each possess astonishing magical powers that allow them to fly through the air, zap firebolts, change their identities and pretty much anything else that you could possibly imagine in theory. And yet, despite these awesome powers (and enough of an effects budget to presumably bring them to life), the film cannot think of anything else for them to do except to put them in an extended car chase sequence through midtown Manhattan that is practically interchangeable with any other such scene that you may have witnessed in any other movie. And just when you think that it can’t get any worse, the film actually sinks to “Last Airbender” levels of uselessness when one of the awesomely powerful characters advises his sidekick to “Take the tunnel!” Believe me, if I hadn’t given up on the film long before that low point, I definitely would have given up on it right then and there.I wouldn’t have been alone either because to judge from the performances, it appears that most of the actors realized early on that this was not going to be another “Pirates of the Caribbean” and just decided to plod through the proceedings with as much grim determination as they could possibly muster. For example, Nicolas Cage has, to put it charitably, been in more than his share of high-budget, low-intelligence crapola over the years--much of it in the service of Jerry Bruckheimer--and must have assumed that he could get through this one without too much trouble but even he seems to be weighed down by the sheer banality of the material--outside of a couple of endearing kooky line readings that are arguably the best thing about the film, he just looks subdued and stricken throughout, as though he were embarrassed to be blowing off all the goodwill he accumulated from his work in “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” on something so perfunctory. Baruchel, for his part, offers up nothing more than a rehash of the annoying nerd that he played in the abysmal “She’s Out of My League” and after a few minutes of his shtick, most viewers will find themselves wishing that Balthazar would zap him with a spell that would turn him into Michael Cera. Molina does make a little bit of an effort here as the bad guy but having already propped up one substandard Jerry Bruckheimer production this summer with his turn in “Prince of Persia,” he just doesn’t have much of anything left to give. As the romantic interest, Teresa Palmer is as bland as she is blonde and believe me, she is very, very blonde. Of all the players, I guess the luckiest one by far is Monica Bellucci--after turning up briefly in the opening prologue, she then disappears entirely from view until the final reel and has maybe four lines of dialogue to speak tops. Who know, maybe she came upon a real magician while doing research for this film and convinced him to use his powers to zap her into a better movie than this one.
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