Seeing this film within two day of also seeing M. Night Shyamalan’s feature film version of “The Last Airbender” helped me clarify some thoughts about this entire school of “actors waving their arms around while CGI happens” action movies.
Because ultimately, no matter how you dress it up, that’s what these movies boil down to, and it marks a radical and in some ways depressing evolution for the “action” movie. I’ll say this much… “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is charming, and it’s an easy sit, and there’s a genuine oddball chemistry between Nicolas Cage and Jay Baruchel that goes a long way to convincing an audience that these two are involved in something that actually matters, something with some real stakes attached, and not just a bunch of people waving their arms around while some CGI happens.
Based loosely on the classic segment from “Fantasia” featuring Mickey Mouse and Yensid the Sorcerer, the film tells the story of a kid named Dave who stumbles into a magical store when he’s on a field trip with his class as a pre-teen, only to attract the attention of Balthazar Blake (Nicolas Cage), a powerful sorcerer who has been waiting for centuries to find someone who can become the Merlinium, a direct descendent of Merlin himself. Thanks to a magic ring that was designed to recognize the Merlinium when he shows up, Balthazar is sure that Dave is the person he’s been waiting for. In his brief few moments in the store, Dave manages to accidentally free Balthazar’s most powerful adversary, the dark sorcerer Maxim Horvath (Alfred Molina) and set off a chain of events that ends with young Dave thinking he’s crazy, humiliated in front of his friends.
He spends a decade trying to pretend it didn’t happen before he ends up at NYU, a physics major working with plasma energy. Of course, he finds himself pulled back into the battle between Balthazar and Horvath, and he learns that magic is real and that his love of physics is just another way of expressing his natural inclination to wizardry. Once he embraces his role in things, lots of people wave their arms around and, indeed, much CGI happens.
It’s been interesting watching Jerry Bruckheimer completely refigure his brand name over the last decade. He’s a smart guy, and it makes a lot of sense for him to move into family FX comedies where there’s huge money to be made. I do miss the sort of brazen testosterone soaked madness of some of the early Bruckheimer/Simpson films, but I suspect the loss of Simpson is a big part of why the tone and the type of films that Bruckheimer makes has changed so much over the years. It’s fairly obvious that “Pirates Of The Caribbean” has become the new template that he uses from film to film, and with “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” he’s gotten closer to the mark than he did with this summer’s “Prince Of Persia.” A lot of that is the chemistry that this particular cast cooks up. Baruchel and Cage work well together, Teresa Palmer proves to be a fetching female lead (it’s almost eerie, and not bad at all for her career prospects, that she basically looks like Kristen Stewart after a shower and a cup of coffee) and she works well with Baruchel. I think the bad guys in the film do a nice job, too, with Alfred Molina quickly becoming one of the most valuable actors in the Bruckheimer rep company, and Toby Kebbell roasting all the Kriss Angel style disco magicians out there with his performance. There are really only two cast members who get shorted here. Monica Bellucci shows up late in the game and barely registers as the object of desire that drove Cage and Molina apart, which seems sort of crazy to me. How do you cast Bellucci and make her boring? And the same is true of Alice Krige, who plays Miranda Richardson playing Morgana the Sorceress. Considering she’s the big threat in the movie, she barely shows up onscreen, and it ends up feeling like a waste of the character.
Overall, there are some fun sequences in the film and some sharp back-and-forth rapport between the characters, and you can’t ask much more than that from this type of picture. The FX work is all top-notch, and the performers seem really invested in what they’re doing. I think the one sequence that lays there like a rock is, shockingly, the one that’s based on the original “Fantasia” segment. It feels sort of perfunctory and thrown away, and it’s not really an organic part of anything else. It feels like it’s just thrown in because it’s expected, and it’s a weird misstep in an otherwise fairly breezy and confident movie. It’s inconsequential, and there is a bit of a vibe of been-there done-than in a post “Harry Potter” world. When you’ve also got series like “The Dresden Files” in print dealing with “the secret world of magic,” you need to really come up with something special on a narrative level to distinguish your film, and I’m not sure “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” ever quite got there.
But it does feature people waving their arms around while CGI happens. So it’s got that going for it. Which is nice.
“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” opens everywhere tomorrow.
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