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The original "Sorcerer's Apprentice" short was a bit of Disney magic made at a time when the studio was overflowing with it, casting Mickey Mouse as a young student overwhelmed by mops given a life of their own, simultaneously creating an icon of magical power and breathing new life into a pretty terrific piece of classical music. The fact that this clever and concise short has been appropriated for a bloated Hollywood blockbuster probably ought to be blasphemy, and in some ways it is, but Jon Turteltaub's Sorcerer's Apprentice offers enough endearing goofiness and magic of its own to earn a pass this time.
While the expensive CGI effects and lavish action sequences are getting all the attention in the trailers, it's actually Nic Cage who provides the most magic, playing sorcerer Balthazar Blake as a thinly-disguised version of the real-life crazy Nic Cage, with a few added powers and only slightly flashier fashion. Balthazar is actually many centuries old, having been one of three trainees under Merlin himself and doomed to wander the globe seeking a Prime Merlinian in order to free the soul of his sorceress love (Monica Bellucci), which is trapped in a set of Russian nesting dolls along with that of Merlin trainee gone bad Horvath (Alfred Molina) and Queen Evil Morgana (Alice Krige). This is all explained in a pretty efficient prologue, so just accept that it makes sense in context.
We meet Balthazar again in the year 2000, where he's holed up in a New York City magic shop and by chance runs into 10-year-old Dave, who-- wonder of wonders!-- is the Prime Merlinian Balthazar has been seeking. Dave being a klutz, though, he accidentally frees the evil Horvath and sets the shop on fire, fleeing his magical fate for another 10 years until Balthazar and Horvath come back knocking on his door and Dave has grown up into Jay Baruchel. From there we get a pretty standard hero's journey story, as Dave learns to harness his magical skills, tries to evade Horvath and his magical plots, and tries even harder to get the girl (Teresa Palmer), with whom he's smitten for her pretty blond hair and apparently nothing else.
The script cobbled together by no fewer than four credited writers-- Matt Lopez, Doug Miro, Carlo Bernard and Lawrence Konner with a story credit-- is exactly as rote and unimaginative as you would expect, but some eye-popping visuals and the ever-unpredictable Nic Cage keep things interesting. A Chinatown fight scene in which a New Year's dragon puppet turns real is genuinely thrilling, and whoever had the idea for Balthazar to fly around New York on one of the metal eagles from atop the Chrysler Building deserves sole writing credit on the sequel. Many of the best ideas never pan out as well as they should, and the lavish Times Square chase sequence is largely a dud, but director Jon Turteltaub and his team take good advantage of both the New York City locations and the CGI that augments it.
Though poor Bellucci is squandered entirely, the rest of the cast keep things moving along nicely as well; Baruchel and Cage play nicely off each other as the apprentice learns from the master, and Cage actually seems somewhat restrained for the first time in a while, playing with our expectations of how crazy this sorcerer will be. It works to the point that he and Molina actually seemed well-matched in their lunacy, and given that this is a movie about throwing balls of plasma at your opponent and using Tesla coils for seduction, that's no small feat.
Unfortunately none of these bright spots can save the dreadful third act, which unravels to the point that the central villain merely wanders away from the climactic battle and a fight sequence is interrupted so Dave can reconcile with his bland girlfriend. Fun and good intentions can only get you so far, and when it comes time for all of Dave's burgeoning magic to finally pay off, it instead becomes clear that nobody making this movie had any idea what they were doing all along. That's the point where you have a choice: recognize the flaws and dismiss the movie, or will that rabbit back into its hat. The creaky storytelling gears are plainly visible throughout the entirety of The Sorcerer's Apprentice, but like any good magician, it usually manages to divert your attention to the point that you don't care.