A noisy, f/x-spewing cauldron of a movie, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” bears little resemblance to Disney’s classic 1940 “Fantasia” segment, much less Goethe’s original poem. The tale of a modern-day 20-year-old studying at the hands of an Arthurian wizard, this visually overblown fantasy finds the Mouse House trying to spin another family-friendly tentpole from the “National Treasure” trio of producer Jerry Bruckheimer, star Nicolas Cage and helmer Jon Turteltaub. Pic could charm the B.O. for a spell but, like Disney/Bruckheimer’s other summer entry, “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time,” seems destined to work most of its magic overseas.
A blur of opening exposition details the 740 A.D. clash between the great Merlin (James A. Stephens) and the evil Morgana Le Fay (Alice Krige), who is eventually trapped, along with her followers, in a Russian-doll-like container that’s carefully guarded over the next several centuries by Merlin’s protege Balthazar (Cage, also credited as an exec producer).
Pic then jumps ahead to the year 2000, as dweeby 10-year-old Dave Stutler (Jake Cherry) is lured into a Manhattan curio shop. There, he encounters Balthazar, who predicts the boy will be a great wizard, perhaps the great wizard — a conclusion that seems all the more improbable when Dave clumsily unleashes Balthazar’s nemesis, Horvath (Alfred Molina), from his magical imprisonment. This kicks off the first of many CG-laden combat sequences in which Turteltaub and his visual effects artists use hurtling fireballs and plasma blasts to systematically lay waste to the film’s sets. When the smoke clears, Horvath and Balthazar have vanished, and Dave, unable to prove his crazy story to his peers, becomes a local laughingstock.
Ten years later, Dave (now Jay Baruchel) is a physics student trying to forget the past and win over cute blonde coed Becky (Teresa Palmer), unaware that the warring wizards are about to make their return. As Horvath plots with punkish minion Drake (Toby Kebbell) to restore Morgana to full power, Balthazar makes Dave his apprentice, hoping to teach the gangly kid enough hocus pocus to save the world from destruction.
This gloomy prospect doesn’t seem to bother Dave, who’s generally less interested in casting spells than in spending time with Becky (Palmer sure is cute), a disconnect that proves crippling to the film’s dramatic involvement. The desire to be able to perform real magic is something almost every young kid can relate to at one point or another, and the creative failure of “Apprentice” is that it never attempts to stir a childlike sense of wonder at the possibilities of the world before us, nor to forge identification with Dave as he grasps his own otherworldly potential.
The magic here feels machine-made and depressingly state-of-the-art; apart from the obligatory sequence paying homage to the symphonic poem made famous in “Fantasia” (complete with brooms, buckets and Paul Dukas’ familiar music), its sole purpose is to deliver the sort of action-oriented pyrotechnic displays that will presumably dazzle an audience into submission. When Balthazar and Horvath engage in a car chase in supernaturally souped-up vehicles, the lack of imagination on offer is genuinely dispiriting.
There are glimmers of invention in the script (by Matt Lopez, Doug Miro and Carlo Bernard, from a story by Lawrence Konner, Mark Rosenthal and Lopez), such as the intriguing notion that magic is merely a super-accelerated form of science that can be harnessed by those with sufficient brainpower. The teacher-apprentice bond is conceived along familiar believe-in-yourself lines, and Cage and Baruchel, both actors of essentially comic temperament, aren’t given the quality of zingers that would elevate their characters’ relationship above half-hearted shtick or inspirational boilerplate.
Staying within his geeky, wisecracking comfort zone, Baruchel seems to be channeling the sweet, lovelorn loser he played in “She’s Out of My League,” while Cage, perhaps wisely avoiding the British accent his character rightly should have, strides through the film wearing a trenchcoat and a look of unblinking let’s-get-through-this concentration. Molina, never a bad choice to play the villain, delivers the most effective performance, the gravelly, menacing purr of his voice a natural complement to his dapper duds.
Pic was shot in Gotham, allowing for plenty of show-stopping visual highlights ranging from a colorful Chinatown parade to a showdown in Bowling Green; production design is nifty, especially the underground lab/lair where Dave and Balthazar do their thing. Apart from the aforementioned sequence, Dukas’ compositions are absent from Trevor Rabin’s standard score, bearing out the impression of a “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” that has borrowed a title and a concept, but little magic, from its source.