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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Sorcerer's Apprentice


Title: The Sorcerer's Apprentice

Year of Release: 2010

Date Viewed: July 21st, 2011

MPAA Rating: PG

According to a 2010 CBS News poll, an estimated forty-five percent of Americans are unhappy with their jobs. That probably means the vast majority are not living the dreams they had set out for themselves when they were young. Chances are many fantasized of glamorous realistic careers like stockbrokers, business owners or doctors. And some went for unrealistic ones like hockey players, astronauts, or magicians (real ones, not fake ones like Copperfield). Dave Stutler (Jay Baruchel) is the title character of The Sorcerer's Apprentice, a story inspired by a classic short film featured in Disney's Fantasia. His written destiny is to become a real magician. A pretty cool job, wouldn't you think? Having extraordinary powers is probably the most common wish among daydreaming school kids. For any of them who watch this movie, Dave's resistance will boggle their minds. He wants no magic in his life. No thrills. No danger. His only wish is to be left alone as a ordinary insignificant person.

The fear originated from Dave's first experience with magic as a young child. A sorcerer named Balthazar Blake (Nicolas Cage) has been assigned to seek out the Prime Merlinian; the prophesied successor to the fabled wizard Merlin. Thirteen hundred years later, the diamond in the rough walks into Balthazar's Manhattan antique shop hideout by accident or perhaps by fate. Before the orientation gets underway, Balthazar's former friend and current rival Maxim Horvath (Alfred Molina) interferes by initiating the first of many wizard duels over the course of the film. The first one imprisons them both in an urn for ten years. By the time their souls are released, Dave has grown into a young college student so emotionally scarred by the experience to the point that it turns into a distant suppressed memory. 

Of course there's a reason why the movie is called The Sorcerer's Apprentice and not The Kid Who Refused to Become The Sorcerer's Apprentice. Dave eventually warms up to the idea much like how I warmed up to the movie's strengths that are not clearly apparent from the onset. To tell a story about magic, it only makes sense to show off a little of your own. Backed by producer Jerry Bruckheimer's high ceiling budget, Disney's CGI team more than lives up to that mission statement.

Favoring style over substance always has a cost. Trevor Rabin's music score is exciting ear candy but way overdramatic in context. A sequence where a kid chases a love note from his girlfriend on a recreational bike should not sound like a highway car chase is going on. But what's sorely missing here is a credible backstory. Even though the movie opens with a flashback sequence of Balthazar's past, it fails to properly explain how the Prime Merlinian came to be and why only the Merlinian can counterbalance the dark magic. I guess they figured that if Star Wars can get away with such vague prophecies, so can they. But while Star Wars has the advantage of having its own religion to sustain all myths, The Sorcerer's Apprentice is forced to make up the rules as it goes along. The limits of magic are never made clear, but we are led to believe that sorcery is more about transforming what already exists rather than creating things out of empty space. Sadly though, none of the duels are as fun to watch as the one between Merlin and Madam Mim in The Sword and the Stone.

Differing from its Harry Potter-esque peers, The Sorcerer's Apprentice takes pride with its comedic tone. With Jon Turteltaub in the director's chair, that's no surprise. The Fantasia homage is a delight to watch. Mickey Mouse's hat even makes a cameo after the end credits. Nicolas Cage's brave and sarcastic screen personality carries over from the National Treasure series and fits in surprisingly well here. Cage seems to win the most crowd favoritism when playing the sadistic archetype. But I think I prefer him in movies like this where he doesn't have to try so hard. Jay Baruchel's character is a socially awkward and somewhat speech-challenged nerd. I was prepared to write him off as the most annoying person since Sam Witwicky. But then I realized that I knew several real-life people with very similar personalities and it's a little refreshing to see a realistic protagonist that doesn't come across as a parody.

The number of avoided cliches is actually pretty incredible for a film with the names Bruckheimer and Turteltaub attached. Balthazar had been living in Manhattan for a long time before meeting Dave. He is well adapted to modern culture. This spares us from any lame gags involving an ancient man acting like a fish out of water. Dave's romance angle is lame except for one saving grace. The girl gives him a second chance despite the first date getting completely botched. Just because she likes him. That's affection right there, folks. Not this fall on one knee and beg for forgiveness crap that we've been trained to accept since the days of watching soap operas on sick days.

Despite some distracting plot problems, I'm giving The Sorcerer's Apprentice a passing grade for the fun factor alone. The occasional touches of cleverness and reality make it better than okay. But with five writers attached to the project (and most likely a struggle for creative direction), the film feels like a compromise, falling just a little short of the epic spectacle that a Fantasia spinoff deserves.

Rating: 7

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