“I want that doll!” So booms Hovarth (Alfred Molina), the large and blustery villain in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. The doll in question is actually a set of dolls, the nesting sort, one of which is the avatar for Morgana Le Fay (Alice Krige), the evilest sorcerer in history. Hovarth means to free her from her 1500-year imprisonment, so that she can finally destroy the world, as she hoped to do way back in 470 AD.
All this plot — the doll, Hovarth, the end of the world — is set-up in the movie’s first few minutes, helpfully narrated by another sorcerer, Balthazar (Nicolas Cage). And there’s more. As Balthazar explains, both he and Hovarth were disciples of the super-famous sorcerer, Merlin. They fell out over a girl (actually, yet another sorcerer, named Veronica and played by Monica Bellucci, who has maybe three lines in the entire movie). Both she and Morgana are locked in the doll. And both Balthazar and Hovarth want the doll. And one more thing: during the scuffle for the doll, Hovarth and Balthazar end up whisked inside a magic urn, where they are trapped together for 10 years.
At last, when this decade is done, the principal action of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice begins. Unfortunately, that action is no less convoluted and no more interesting than the prologue.
On emerging from the urn, both Balthazar and Hovarth make beelines for the titular apprentice. Dave (Jay Baruchel) has his own connection to the doll: he’s supposed to destroy Morgana, to prevent her from destroying the world.
More importantly, Dave reorients the movie, offering another perspective on Balthazar and Hovarth’s extravagant melodrama. Dave’s a therapy veteran (owing to a traumatic childhood run-in with these very sorcerers) and physics major at NYU. When he’s not stalking the girl he thinks he loves, Becky (Teresa Palmer), he’s working in his awesome warehouse-space lab, where’s working on experiments with humongous tezla coils. Shy and nerdy, Dave’s not exactly ready for the news Balthazar brings him, that he’s a powerful sorcerer.
Most of the rest of the movie is comprised of Dave’s lessons in the lab, intercut with loud, digitally enhanced battles on the apparently cops-less streets of New York (note: they do arrive late on one scene involving a fire-breathing dragon in Chinatown). Dave’s education is supposedly tempered by his interest in science, as Balthazar says both are components of sorcery (he doesn’t quite explain this, but really, how could he?). It’s also shaped by his other interest, in Becky. No matter how urgent that whole saving the world thing might be, Dave finds ways to follow or meet up with Becky.
You might say Becky is Dave’s version of the doll that Hovarth and Balthazar so covet: all three men want their women, who mostly just wait around. Morgana and Veronica’s situation is most extreme, being locked inside the doll. But Becky suffers her own indignities, as Dave doesn’t tell her what he’s up to, and she can only smile and shrug at his increasingly strange behavior. Most egregiously, she’s the occasion for the movie’s exceedingly awkward homage to its ostensible inspiration, the eight-or-nine-minute “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” sequence in Disney’s 1940 film, Fantasia. Here Dave is trying to clean up the lab and prepare for a date with Becky, so he sets an assortment of brooms and mops into sloshy motion. The lab floor floods, Becky arrives at the door, and poor Dave comes up with feeble excuses and explanations — that she buys.
Becky’s perspective is, of course, not high on the movie’s list of interests. And it’s hardly news that Jerry Bruckheimer movie is long on boys’ actions and desires and short on girls’ anything. Still, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is particularly ponderous on this point. Caught between two fatherish figures, Dave doesn’t so much get an education as he has his least original, most backward inclinations confirmed.
In part, this results from the movie’s decidedly odd version of New York. Becky spends a few minutes in a café, surrounded by anonymous people her age. And Dave has a best friend (Omar Benson Miller) who pops up just in time to provide crucial assistance at a crucial moment. But otherwise, the streets and hallways where these kids live are remarkably unpopulated. The world that Dave is supposed to save remains remote and unspecific. “Humans mustn’t know magic exists,” warns Balthazar. “That would be complicated.” Right.