Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Sorcerer's Apprentice: Hocus-pocus, little focus

The Sorcere's Apprentice (2010) • View trailer for The Sorcerer's Apprentice
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for fantasy violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.15.10
Buy DVD: The Sorcerer's Apprentice • Buy Blu-Ray: The Sorcerer's Apprentice (Three-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo+Digital Copy)

Taking note of the Disney logo embellishing the title credits, a fellow film critic at last week's preview screening idly wondered aloud if this new, live-action Sorcerer's Apprentice would in any way reference the famous Mickey Mouse sequence in 1940's Fantasia

Surely not, I protested, although the thought  along with my knowledge of the Mouse House's willingness to strip-mine its own heritage in misbegotten projects such as 2003's The Haunted Mansion  left me uneasy. 
At first, Dave (Jay Baruchel, right) finds it difficult to take Balthazar's
(Nicolas Cage) mystical pronouncements all that seriously, but the
college student's doubts vanish after he's nearly eaten by a huge
dragon, then nearly blasted into unconsciousness by a nasty
magician bent on destroying the world. Dave may be slow, but he
ain't stupid...

Then, horror of horrors, as young Dave Stutler (Jay Baruchel) eyed the mess left in his ludicrously opulent underground laboratory, and happened to glance in the direction of a mop, our worst fears were realized. Cue the familiar fanfare from composer Paul Dukas' "L'Apprenti Sorcier," and the mop came to life, along with every other scrubbing and cleaning utensil in evidence. 

That was pretty much the point at which this Sorcerer's Apprentice lost its way. 

Mind you, the road had been rocky even before this point. Light-hearted adventure films run the risk of becoming too frivolous, at which point malevolent villains lose most of their edge. Alfred Molina deserves considerable credit, throughout this somewhat scattered story, for maintaining his nasty side as the dread Maxim Horvath, but the script  credited to five (!) hands  undermines his performance at every opportunity. 

This Sorcerer's Apprentice is the sort of product that Disney concocts with considerable flair: a family-friendly romp that moves rapidly, looks pretty cool most of the time, and conceals its narrative deficiencies with engaging characters never at a loss for witty repartee. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer, director Jon Turteltaub and star Nicolas Cage are veterans of the National Treasure franchise; they know how to deliver a reasonably good time. 

But this narrative attempts to cover a lot of territory, with some highly visible missteps. Like Dave himself, a young man who suffers a ragged childhood as a result of his first encounter with Balthazar Blake (Cage), this film doesn't quite know what to be, when it grows up. Young children will be diverted by all the flash and bang, but teen and adult companions are apt to exchange glances laden with skeptically raised eyebrows. 

As we're told, during the voice-over that accompanies a brief prologue, Balthazar, Maxim and Veronica (Monica Bellucci) were, a millennium ago, Merlin's trusted guardians of All Things Mystical in a battle against evil magicians led by the perfidious Morgana (Alice Krige), who wished to raise dead mages and destroy humanity. Stung when Veronica chose to fall in love with Balthazar, Maxim switched allegiance to Morgana, but was unable to prevent the dread sorceress from being imprisoned within a little nesting doll. 

Maxim soon suffered the same fate, in a subsequent doll, as did a few other nasty mages who attempted to free Morgana as the years passed. 

(We pause, tangentially, to acknowledge how Balthazar and Maxim were granted snazzy magician-type names in this story. But Veronica? Veronica? Couldn't the writers have come up with something better???) 

Although safely tucked away, Morgana could not be killed; this act can be performed only by somebody born with the essence of Merlin's magical spirit. Balthazar, having searched for this individual for 1,000 years, finally finds him in 10-year-old Dave (Jake Cherry, during a second prologue). 

Although Balthazar has kept Morgana's mystical prison secure for all these centuries, he's somehow sloppy enough to leave young Dave with an opportunity to both find and open the first of the nesting dolls, thus freeing Maxim. In my neck of the magical woods, we call this the Spell of Idiotic Script Contrivance, but I guess Turteltaub & Co. needed to kick-start their story somehow. 

Amid much mystical fire and flurry, Balthazar sacrifices the next 10 years of his life in order to similarly imprison Maxim. (Magical characters spend a lot of time stuck inside things, in this film.) This decade's passage allows Dave to blossom into Baruchel (She's Out of My League, How to Train Your Dragon), one of this generation's primary go-to guys  along with Michael Cera  when a project needs a mildly clumsy, aw-shucks, self-deprecating nerd with golly-gosh babe appeal. 

Perhaps I overstate. Nerds of the world must appreciate movies like this, where characters such as Dave can win the attention of gorgeous hotties such as Teresa Palmer's Becky. 

Dave long ago lost the nesting dolls (!), but he kept Merlin's magical dragon ring, although he leaves it in a dusty corner of his college dorm room. Dave apparently is content to ignore it ... despite having seen it come to life and wrap itself around his finger, back in the day. We'd be inclined to believe that Dave therefore lacks imagination and curiosity, but hey: He has blossomed into a physics geek who's building his own massive Tesla coil  by himself  in an "unauthorized" off-campus lab in a now-disused subway station. 

And wouldn't we love to have witnessed the conversation Dave had with his student adviser, which led to his obtaining those digs. 

Balthazar and Maxim once again re-enter our workaday world, Dave gets sucked into the old, old rivalry, and suddenly it's a race to obtain the nesting dolls. Maxim snatches it; Balthazar gets it back; Maxim takes it away again, and so forth. 

At one point, Balthazar demonstrates a spell that quite cleverly reveals where the dolls are: a spell that we're told Maxim also could use. And yet later, Balthazar  the dolls currently in his possession  apparently has plenty of time to relax and train Dave in the ways of magical arts, without being interrupted by Maxim, who logically should have been able to track their location as before. 

C'mon, writer-type folks; can't you try a little harder? 

In fairness, a lot of this flashy mumbo-jumbo is a kick, and the narrative formula remains tried-and-true for a reason; it's a giggle to watch Dave get the stuffing knocked out of him, while trying to master the intricacies of offensive and defensive spells. 

The very nature of Balthazar's character is equally interesting, with his arcane shop cluttered with all manner of mystical whatnots, and Cage attacks the role with relish (and ketchup, mustard and everything else in the kitchen). Genre addicts will recognize that Balthazar is more than an accidental echo of novelist Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden  the good-guy magician brought to TV in 2007, in an engaging series called The Dresden Files, which deserved more than its scant 12 episodes  but that's undoubtedly because Hollywood folks often read each other's mail. 

And, just as Balthazar makes Dave his apprentice, Maxim gains an acolyte in the form of Drake Stone, quite hilariously played by Toby Kebbell in a manner calculated to lampoon punked-out, real-world illusionist Criss Angel, whose Mindfreak TV series has been giving serious magicians a bad name for the past decade. 

It's difficult to gauge the degree of actual peril facing Balthazar and Dave at any given moment; as I recently kvetched in my denunciation of The Last Airbender, these magically endowed super-characters only seem as strong or weak as they need to be, from one scene to the next. Those skeptically raised eyebrows will lift off one's forehead, as Dave somehow evades a huge, ferocious Chinese dragon without enduring even a tiny scratch. 

That said, The Sorcerer's Apprentice is a much better film than The Last Airbender, if only because this one doesn't take itself too seriously. Despite the frequent plot-holes, the storyline also hangs together better than the random nonsense of  to further indict another recent summer disappointment  Knight and Day

On top of which, you can't entirely dislike a flick that turns a building's massive, taloned, architectural eagle ornamentation into a nifty creature that Balthazar can ride. 

So yes: This Sorcerer's Apprentice is silly  too frequently so  but Cage, Molina and Baruchel hold our attention. 

Even if Cage, of late, seems content to swan his way through too many wafer-thin parts. 

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