Disney’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice pays homage to its previous mouse-helmed take on Goethe’s ballad, the childhood fever-dream that was Fantasia. Originally a Disney morality tale about What Happens When We Cut Corners, the live-action version is now about How To Use Magic To Impress Girls, which involves less mops and more explosions.
There might be an absence of cartoon mice but we’re still deep in Disney territory, where people can be pep-talked out of anything, and a ‘believe in yourself’ message comes as standard.
The film opens in flashback mode, hastily piecing together a back story that makes the BBC’s Merlin series look like a sensitive and insightful take on Arthurian legend.
Long ago, the great wizard Merlin made a not-so-great decision to recruit Alfred Molina’s Maxim Horvath, who joined forces with the evil Morgana le Fay to do dastardly things. Apprentice no. 2 Veronica (Monica Bellucci) manages to imprison le Fay’s soul in her own body and no. 3, Nic Cage’s Balthazar Blake, traps them both in the Grimhold, a nesting doll that doubles as an impenetrable prison (unless you know how to twist the top off).
On his death bed, Merlin bequeaths his dragon ring to Balthazar and bids the immortal wizard to find his successor, the Prime Merlinian. A few throwaway scenes and some hundred years later, enter ten-year-old Dave Stutler who wanders into modern-day Balthazar’s antique shop in Manhattan.
A number of increasingly implausible events occur in quick succession and continue in the same vein for the rest of the film: Balthazar realises he’s found Merlin’s successor, Alfred Molina’s Horvath is accidentally released from the Russian doll only to become trapped in a jar with Balthazar for ten years, and Dave’s classmates all think he’s wet himself.
Flash-forward a decade and Dave is now Jay Baruchel, a physics nerd who rediscovers his childhood sweetheart, the beautiful Becky (Teresa Palmer), who, luckily for him, happens to think that people who can fix radio antennas are extremely sexy. Then, with no regard for young love, Balthazar recruits Dave as his apprentice and trains him to fulfil his destiny of destroying le Fay. Unfortunately, Horvath now has the Grimhold and has begun releasing all of the evil doers that Balthazar has spent centuries collecting in one, easy to use vessel.
Exhibiting a rare show of taste by starring in Kick Ass and Bad Lieutenant, it appeared that Nic Cage and his increasing array of unique and interesting wigs was set to make an awesome comeback this year. But perhaps he should have exuded more caution when it came to agreeing to another film directed by Jon Turteltaub and produced by Jerry ‘Loud Noises’ Bruckheimer, whose previous joint efforts include the cinematic atrocity that is Cage’s National Treasure franchise.
Still, Cage clearly has a blast hamming it up as the over-cooked Balthazar, stomping around the city in a rawhide trench coat and flying about on a metal eagle, feeling the wind in his wig. The Jack Sparrow of the wizarding world, Cage’s performance almost makes you forgive the motto-spouting hairy drama queen based on his sheer enjoyment factor alone.
There’s only room for one eccentric, ancient wizard with a silly hat and limitless capabilities in this movie. Molina is as enjoyable as ever with the material he has to work with, but he’s grossly outdone by Cage. Plus, as Horvath’s main function seems to be to set loose more interesting characters, he might as well be a pair of rubber gloves that make it easier for others to open the Grimhold.
Judd Apatow alumni Jay Baruchel (Knocked Up) is the eponymous apprentice who knows he has to save the world but also really wants to achieve the PG equivalent of getting his end away. Along with Michael Cera and Jesse Eisenberg, Baruchel’s forming a new wave of geek chic, sporting a mop top and an expression like a puppy shot through a wide angle lens. Prior to the schmaltzy finale, Baruchel and Cage fire off each other, utilising Baruchel’s comedy credentials. Even if he does emit odd honking noises throughout.
Kryptonite, eating after midnight, the Ministry of Magic – magic should have its limits and consequences. Instead here it’s situation-dependant, conveniently seeming limitless one minute and useless the next. From wolves to dragons, Producer Bruckheimer’s desire for spectacle dominates. What the characters are doing and why seem to be minor details when you could just look at something shiny. But that’s Bruckheimer: why use words when you can blow something up instead?
With a 20-year-old lead character, it could have been braver, more adult. There might be an absence of cartoon mice but we’re still deep in Disney territory, where people can be pep-talked out of anything, and a ‘believe in yourself’ message comes as standard.
What really saves this film is the humour (canine fart gags aside), with Cage, and occasionally Baruchel, binding it together as its only redeeming features. Although this is all but forgotten amongst the CGI-bloated finale. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is big, loud, just a little bit insane, but Bruckheimer still needs to learn the difference between glamour and magic.
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (PG) is on general release now.