Film Review: The Sorcerer's Apprentice

There’s a lot of money onscreen in Jerry Bruckheimer’s latest family-friendly blockbuster, but it can’t hide the two-bit story and script.

Watching The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the movie is Jerry Bruckheimer’s extended apology to frequent collaborator Nicolas Cage (the pair made five films together prior to this one, including The Rock and the two National Treasure adventures) for not casting him as Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. That role, of course, went to Johnny Depp and it allowed the actor to give the kind of flamboyant, eccentric performance that Cage specializes in. (It also revitalized Depp’s career and made him a box-office king, a status that Cage no longer enjoys consistently.) So Bruckheimer and Cage combed through the Disney archives in search of another forgotten property that could serve as the launching pad for a new blockbuster franchise. Instead of settling on an old movie (Nicolas Cage is…The Cat from Outer Space!), an exercise album (Nicolas Cage will make the bad guys…Mousercise!) or a theme-park ride (Nicolas Cage is trapped on…Space Mountain!), the duo opted for, of all things, a ten-minute segment from the Disney animated classic Fantasia.

As you no doubt recall, the original Sorcerer’s Apprentice stars Mickey Mouse as a bumbling wizard-in-training who attempts to avoid cleaning duty by zapping life into an army of mops and ordering them to do the dirty work for him. Out of obligation, the movie references the famous cartoon in a brief scene, but otherwise the film has little in common with its source material. In terms of content, that’s understandable; after all, the slender premise of the short couldn’t support a full-length feature. But the movie also lacks the charm, wit and visual beauty of the animated Apprentice. Instead we get the usual Bruckheimer excess—i.e., lots of special effects, ear-deafening action sequences and groan-inducing broad comedy—layered over a busy, barely coherent narrative.

That narrative begins in medieval times, with Merlin-trained sorcerers and lovers Balthazar (Cage) and Veronica (Monica Bellucci) hot on the trail of their former comrade Horvath (Alfred Molina), who has since joined the forces of dark magic led by Morgana (played by the Borg Queen herself, Alice Krige). The duo wins the day, but at great cost: Veronica is possessed by Morgana, forcing Balthazar to imprison both of their spirits in a magical containment unit for all eternity. Deprived of his partner, he spends the next 1,200 years or so searching for a prophesied heir to Merlin’s talents. Eventually he finds him in 21st-century Manhattan and just in time too, because Horvath is on the loose again with plans to resurrect Morgana and finish the world-destroying scheme they hatched all those years ago.

The name of Balthazar’s new apprentice is Dave Stutler (Jay Baruchel) and while he’ll one day be a great sorcerer, at present he’s a gawky, socially awkward science nerd. But that’s okay, because as Balthazar so helpfully explains, magic and science are actually two sides of the same coin. In a scene that will do absolutely nothing to improve America’s standards for science education, Balthazar informs Dave that sorcerers—who apparently use 100% of their brain compared to ordinary humans’ measly 10%—work their magic by “seeing” the molecules in the world around them and then manipulating said molecules to do their bidding. With that kind of power, one would think that sorcerers would focus on performing helpful tasks like creating rainstorms in drought-ravaged lands or curing various diseases, but they seem happy to devote most of their energies towards tossing people through the air or generating giant balls of energy that they fire at each other in classic Street Fighter II-style.

Following the Pirates of the Caribbean template, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice attempts to balance all the CGI-enhanced eye candy—which, as always in a Bruckheimer production, is impressively state-of-the-art—with a healthy dose of humor, and in theory the pairing of Cage and Baruchel should work. The young actor’s nervous energy seems the right complement to Cage’s general weirdness. Aside from a few amusing moments, though, the two stars never forge a strong comic connection. Like many of the performers that got their start in Judd Apatow’s stable of talent, Baruchel is at his best when he’s surrounded by a strong ensemble; here, he’s isolated from everyone but Cage much of the time and seems intimidated by the sheer scale of the production that’s happening around him.

Or maybe he’s just working overtime to engage his co-star, who delivers a surprisingly restrained and even dull performance. Occasionally, Cage lets slip flashes of the oddball we know and love—as in a scene where Balthazar warns Dave against pursing a romance with a comely co-ed, often gesticulating with a deli pickle for emphasis—but those moments are few and far between. Handed the golden opportunity to create his own Jack Sparrow, Cage whiffs and gives us one of the least memorable personalities in his gallery of eccentrics.

With the sorcerer and his apprentice failing to connect to the material or to each other, Molina emerges as the movie’s most reliable source of laughs, a role he fulfilled earlier this summer in Bruckhemer’s other extravaganza, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. Forget about Cage—maybe the producer should anchor his next Pirates-sized franchise around this veteran character actor. I can see the poster now: Alfred Molina is the conductor of…The Big Thunder Mountain Railroad!