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The track record for turning Disney rides into movies is about 50-50, so the House of Mouse decides to try out converting one of the most iconic segments of Fantasia into a full-on summer blockbuster. How do you expand a few minutes of Mickey fighting mischievous animated mops into a movie? Add one part Nic Cage dry humor to one awkward-hero's worth of Jay Baruchel. Simmer on light heat, then sprinkle in a scene-chewing dose of villainous Alfred Molina, a dash of Criss Angel parody, and a smidgen of pseudo-Arthurian lore. Continue to cook until half-baked.
Dave (Baruchel) has had a rough time of it. After a scarring childhood incident where he stumbled into the middle of a wizard battle between the noble Balthazar Blake (Cage) and the evil Maxim Horvath (Molina), Dave has had to switch schools, undergo years of therapy, and convince himself that he imagined the entire affair. Years later, he's a physics student at NYU and relatively well adjusted, all things considered, although -- like every other nerd at the beginning of any Hollywood movie -- he still hasn't gotten the whole "dating" thing down yet. Sadly, two events coincide at the worst possible time: a reacquaintance with his childhood crush, Becky (Teresa Palmer), and the return of Balthazar and Horvath, who have escaped a decade-long captivity and are returning to their schemes of saving and dooming the world, respectively. Unfortunately for Dave, all those years of therapy are about to be swept away, because he may just be the Prime Merlinian, the chosen one destined to prevent the return of the evil enchantress Morgana le Fay (Alice Krige). Now Balthazar is determined to introduce Dave to both the world of magic and his own hidden potential. Kicking and screaming, if necessary.
Like fellow 2010 classmate Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, The Sorcerer's Apprentice desperately wanted to become the next Pirates of the Caribbean and launch a franchise. Unfortunately, it opened to middling reviews the same week as Inception, and its hopes of box office dominance vanished like a fading dream at morning's light. That's not to say there aren't things to like here, but it's telling that the film was directed by Jon Turteltaub, who helmed the National Treasure movies (which also, not coincidentally, starred Nic Cage). Like National Treasure, The Sorcerer's Apprentice has some memorable set pieces, some decent performances, and some funny dialogue. They are both also likely to elicit a response of "Eh, it wasn't bad" from those who have seen them. The Sorcerer's Apprentice is the sort of thing you stumble across on basic cable some lazy Saturday afternoon, enjoy for a few hours, and then promptly forget about. It's sporadically entertaining, but it's also entirely disposable.
First, the good. Having Jerry Bruckheimer's name attached as producer, The Sorcerer's Apprentice has no shortage of well-crafted action sequences. The use of magic is clever and consistent (more on that below), and the world is rendered wonderfully through a creative mixture of practical effects and CGI, using the latter to enhance the former only when necessary. There are some real stand-out moments, such as the sequence when Dave and Balthazar find themselves facing off against a Chinese-style dragon in the midst of a parade, or the car chase that features shape-shifting autos and a trip through the looking glass. While nothing here breaks new ground, the film excels at Bruckheimer's trademark bluster and visual popcorn.
The cast across the board puts in solid but not terribly memorable performances. Molina is in full villain mode, chewing scenery and stopping just short of twirling his moustache and tying damsels in distress to railroad tracks. He's fun to watch, not so much because the character is that interesting, but simply because Molina is damn talented and clearly making the most of what's on the page. Jay Baruchel does a good job playing, well, Jay Baruchel, or at least the version of Jay Baruchel on which Jay Baruchel has cornered the market over the past few years. Whether he's leading-man material is up for debate, but he's convincingly awkward and likeable as a character whose only real defining characteristics are awkwardness and likeability, so good on him. The lovely Teresa Palmer plays the thankless role of the impossibly hot girl who inexplicably falls for someone far below her league, and does so well. Although, after having watched the bonus features, the film would have automatically gained half a star if they'd let her use her native Australian accent. I kind of hated Toby Kebbell's Drake Stone, but given that he was playing a thinly veiled parody of Criss Angel, I'd have to call that a win. Actually faring the best here is Nic Cage, who, after having justifiably earned a reputation for picking questionable roles, finally finds one that fits him perfectly. Yes, he's basically just doing the same thing he always does, but the mixture of understated performance and dry delivery works amazingly well as Balthazar, and his put-upon interactions with Dave are easily the funniest part of the film. He's certainly a lot more fun than that old fuddy-duddy Yen Sid.
It's also worth praising the film's handling of magic. It borrows a page from Arthur C. Clarke's Third Law of Prediction and postulates that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. In other words, when Dave asks whether all this nonsense is science or magic, the answer is a clear but unhelpful "Yes and yes." It's hardly a new idea, but the film gives the old concept a nice new coat of paint, and screenwriters Matt Lopez, Doug Miro, and Carlo Bernard do a good job using the concept as the stepping stone that allows physicist Dave to finally make the breakthrough and access his innate powers. We've seen people tossing fireballs at each other on screen a thousand times, but having Balthazar explain that the wizard is creating the flames by using his mind to excite the vibrational speed of molecules is a very satisfying bit of context and theoretical world building. That Dave's ultimate victory is achieved by combining both his science and his magic is also a nice touch, one of which Jack and Locke would no doubt approve.
Unfortunately, while it has its moments and Nic Cage makes me chuckle, the underlying story is tedious and rote. Evil wizard wants to take over the world, the good guys need to stop her, the hero realizes his destiny and saves the day at the last minute -- blah, blah, blah. I realize that "because it's there" is a time-honored answer to the question of why any villain wants to enter the unrewarding time sink that is world domination, but even as a final-level boss fight, Morgana le Fay is pretty unsatisfying. Except when she's occupying Monica Belluci's body (insert "That's my job" joke here). Horvath is a lot more fun, but rather inconsistent since his own power-hungry nature doesn't make him seem the sort to want to share power with his currently trapped boss. Why in the world he would make any effort to free a bigger fish than himself makes very little sense, and the script never really tries to explain it. Hell, given how he's portrayed here, I'd fully expect Horvath to spend his time murdering anybody who might even conceivably be capable of freeing Morgana, and thus providing him with unwanted competition.
The Sorcerer's Apprentice is good enough fun, but its predictable story keeps it from ever really sticking with you. While its Pirates of the Caribbean aspirations are understandable, it never finds any one element to make it stand out -- its Captain Jack Sparrow, if you will. It's worth a rental, but I wouldn't recommend a blind purchase until you've given it a look-see yourself.
First off, the disc looks gorgeous. The use of color really pops, especially in scenes like the dragon chase or anytime plasma bolts are being tossed around. The use of practical effects to help sell the reality of these powers really shines on Blu-ray thanks to the subtle play of light and shadow on both the actors and surrounding scenes. This is a good-looking film.
The disc follows in the annoying Disney tradition of opening with a half-dozen trailers for other things. While they're easily skippable, it's still a pain in the ass to have to hit "next" over and over just to get to the bloody menu. I realize times are tough and marketing is important, but seriously: is there a single person out there that actually watches previews on the front of DVDs? If there is, that person should be captured and studied by medical science, because they are one of a kind.
The bonus features primarily encompass a half-dozen or so featurettes examining various elements of the production. "Magic in the City" provides a bit of background to the project and focuses on why they wanted to set the film against a modern-day backdrop in New York, as well as looking at the visual landscape that city provides and the sets that were created. "The Science of Sorcery" was my favorite of the segments, explaining how they grounded their vision of magic in real, albeit creatively interpreted, science. "Making Magic Real" takes a look at the filmmaking application of that philosophy, and how the creative team mixed practical and digital effects to create their magical world. "Fantasia: Reinventing a Classic" takes a look back at the animated origins of the movie, as well as sharing the cast and crew's fond memories of the Disney classic. "The Fashionable Drake Stone" is a brief look at the over-the-top style and costume design of Sorcerer's flamboyant celebrity magician. "The Grimhold: An Evil Work of Art" examines how the story's central artifact, a magical prison disguised as a set of Russian nesting dolls, was designed and realized. "The Encantus" takes a look at another important prop, Balthazar's ancient spell book. The sheer level of detail put into the pages of the book is jaw dropping, and all the more easily appreciated in high definition. "Wolves & Puppies" peers behind the scenes of the film's "wolf chase" scene, and finds the cast wrestling against the predations of a pack of adorable wolf pups. Finally, "The World's Coolest Car" tells how Cage lent the production one of his own rare and collectible cars to serve as Balthazar's ride, and how the crew replicated the vehicle so they didn't have to actually destroy a one-of-a-kind Rolls Royce.
Finally, the Blu-ray packs in a bunch of deleted scenes and a gag reel. Nothing terribly memorable here; move along. The two-disc Blu-ray combo pack also includes a DVD copy of the film should you for some reason want to watch an inferior version. Maybe you're phobic about seeing people's pores, I dunno.
In a world where the Alien Anthology exists, The Sorcerer's Apprentice won't be making any short lists for best DVD release of the year, but like the film itself, it's a decent enough entertainment. If you enjoy the movie and want to learn more, the disc will happily provide you with an hour or so's distraction in that regard.
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