The idea is predicated on infusing the old with the new. Balthazar (Cage) and Horvath (Molina) are meant to be Merlin’s thousand-year-old protégés, the former of whom cannot age until he’s located his master’s direct descendant, and the latter has only recently been freed from a millennial stint in magic artifact jail. Toss in lovable idiot Dave (Jay Baruchel), who must balance his university life with wizard training under Balthazar’s tutelage, and the premise quickly lends itself to elaborate feats of ancient spell-casting set to some truly awful modern rock.
To compare, I think one of the strengths of “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” earlier this year was the way it managed to mingle its mysticism with England circa the 21st century. Jon Turteltaub, who hit the big time directing Cage in the “National Treasure” films, doesn’t have the well-developed sense of visual irony Terry Gilliam does. The magic world of “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is impressive photographically, but it gets forgotten amidst an ever-brilliant color palette.
Let’s be real. No one expected a universe on par with “Harry Potter,” but the reason the movie doesn’t wow is because Turteltaub doesn’t take the time to ground it in reality. There are so few scenes that don’t incorporate some permutation of CGI wizardry that it entirely looses its impact given the real world setting. What’s more, Balthazar reneges (often) on his instruction not to practice magic in public; “It would be complicated,” he explains. Later, after defeating a dragon in plain sight of hundreds at a Chinese New Year celebration, he transforms Dave and himself into comical NYPD caricatures, and talks his way out of the situation with a single sentence.
That’s actually one of the better gags in the movie, and while it’s dramatically counter-productive, it’s also indicative of “Sorcerer’s” saving grace—Its sense of humor. And really, how could a movie with this cast have ever taken itself seriously? I know the Nick Cage hater wagon is about twelve cars long at this point, but I’m a fan, campy performances and all. He isn’t especially over the top as Balthazar, but a couple of his signature Cage-isms shine through, and I think he’s genuinely talented as a comedic actor. Meanwhile, Baruchel won me over back in “Tropic Thunder,” and Alfred Molina has now twice this summer made something of disposable roles (see, “Prince of Persia”).
Because of them, I find the film hard to hate. It runs long at 110 minutes, and the last act in particular is sloppily conceived, but it rarely got on my nerves. It’s a blockbuster’s blockbuster, and a tolerable children’s adventure film. There isn’t a whole lot going on in terms of the filmmaking, or any nuance to the storytelling; in fact, its straightforwardness runs exactly counter to the spirit of illusion and deception.
But maybe the greatest triumph of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is that in spite of its obvious shortcomings (not the least of which is the recurrent use of “Secrets” by the band OneRepublic), it still manages to be intermittently fun. It’s not the worst film of the summer, it’s not even the worst Disney film of the summer (see, “Prince of Persia”)—It’s just a languid, hopelessly average popcorn flick no one saw because it was released the same weekend as "Inception."
But then, it’s no great tragedy that it goes unseen. If you’ve seen the trailer, in essence you’ve seen the film, and already know what you’re missing. If, on the other hand, the idea of Nicolas Cage as a goofy, bedraggled wizard teacher does something for you—Well, you’ll get exactly what you pay for.