[14 July 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Seven years ago, it seemed like a asinine idea. After all, Disney had already struck out with two theme park based films (The Country Bears and Mission to Mars), and another Eddie Murphy starring vehicle based on an attraction (The Haunted Mansion) was headed for a similar flop status. But somehow, despite the odds, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl became a massive international hit and as a result, the most unlikely of franchises. Spawning three sequels (and counting), the box office run of Capt. Jack Sparrow and his fey buccaneer ways has reinvigorated the House of Mouse’s desire to continuing turning their otherwise non-cinematic properties into live action spectacles. The latest? The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
That’s right, producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Jon National Treasure Turteltaub have brought frequent paycheck casher Nicolas Cage along for a 100 minute revamp of a nine minute animated vignette from the company’s 1940 cartoon masterwork Fantasia. If you think stretching a silly little symphony revolving around Mickey Mouse, a mislaid book of spells, and some magical cleaning equipment into a summer popcorn blockbuster is a specious idea, you should see the final results. More or less mimicking the studios lame early ‘70s output, it’s one of the worst live action Disney films in a while. All that’s missing is Dean Jones and/or Tommy Kirk, Haley Mills, a trained chimp, and a goofy title like The Enchanted Nerd and you’d swear you were watching a misappropriation of Blackbeard’s Ghost and The Misadventures of Merlin Jones - except with a lot less artistic accomplishment.
Our slapdash story starts with Cage’s Balthazar Blake, apprentice to King Arthur’s main wizard. Along with two other noble underlings, Veronica (Monica Bellucci) and Horvath (Alfred Molina), they are preparing to protect the 740 A.D. world from the evil machinations of main magic rival Morgana (Alice Krige). When Merlin is betrayed and killed, he gives Balthazar his prized dragon ring and commands that he wander the ages looking for his successor, otherwise known as the “Prime Merlinium”. Fast forward to 2010 and spastic physics geek Dave Stutler (Jay Baruchel) apparently fits the bill. Reluctant at first, he soon learns that the fate of all mankind rests with his prophesized powers. Balthazar intends to train him in the ways of sorcery. But when Horvath returns to revive Morgana, it will take more than magic to save the day.
You can see The Sorcerer’s Apprentice struggling, almost from the very beginning. Instead of playing things out in a moment of dramatic excess, the picked over screenplay provides an ominous voice over with the basics of the premise. Cage, Molina, and Bellucci do their magic mime pantomime, bolts of energy are exchanged, and then the ultimate creative short cut - Alice Krige - shows up to personify evil, and suddenly it’s the year 2000. We get a dopey grade school story of how Dave meets Balthazar for the first time, a reason for the following “10 Years Later” title card, and the standard jokes about peeing one’s pants and being too geeky to get girls. By the time any real wizardry takes place, we long since forgotten why our human hero is so important to the cause.
Indeed, it takes almost 40 minutes before Cage calms down enough to try and bring some gravitas to the proceedings. The rest of the time, he’s playing supernatural stand-up comic. If running gags about pointy old man shoes, flaccid plasma balls, and Tesla coils aren’t enough to have you wincing, the epilepsy-lite performance from Baruchel practically rewrites the rulebook on dork - and discomfort. So prickly with himself that he makes us itchy, Dave is like a walking excuse for bullying. We can buy the whole Mensa vs. magic angle, but the instant connection that Teresa Palmer’s college DJ Becky feels for this boy demands way too much disbelief suspension. The steel eagle, the matryoshka prison, and the last act promise of something called “The Rising” (Bruce Springsteen should sue) are a lot more credible than Dave’s chemistry with this gullible gal pal.
It’s as if The Sorcerer’s Apprentice came up with its ideas after sifting through the last three decades of the Summer movie experience. Sadly, it seems to have only picked out the mediocre elements to emulate. The actors all underachieve, the premise quickly loses its potency, and Turteltaub continues to argue for his irrelevancy as a major league moviemaker. Just because his previous collaborations with Cage and Bruckheimer yielded sizeable commercial returns doesn’t mean he has the Spielberg touch. He’s barely a Chris Columbus. As a matter of fact, he more closely copies the fatally freefalling tendencies of a M Night Shyalaman. If Mr. Sixth Sense and Shawn Levy had a baby, Turteltaub would be said journeyman offspring. What he lacks in vision, he more than makes up for in direct demographic pandering.
With humor that’s beyond obvious, plot mechanics that make the most rigid robotics seem like ballet, and no real center to root for, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice becomes a tired example of celluloid carnival barking. It’s all promise and anticipation with none of the payoff. Instead of an epic adventure told in an equally ambitious style, it’s all focus group safety and preprogrammed preposterousness. Perhaps buried somewhere inside this script by committee is a decent idea that could then be professionally fleshed out into an actual film - and no, no amount of mop and broom live action referencing can justify this junk (besides, the homage is fairly mediocre at that). Of course, there would also have to be actors able to sell the stuff. The only things Cage and company auction off here is their credibility.
While one can easily imagine the studio continuing this hit or miss approach to movie making (next up - The Tiki Birds Take Manhattan! ), perhaps this effort will convince them to take a little more care next time around. Successful tales of the high seas are one thing. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice proves that when it comes to reinventing the corporate catalog, the House of Mouse is more a House of Lousy Movies.