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With: Nicolas Cage, Jay Baruchel, Alfred Molina, Teresa Palmer, Toby Kebbell, Omar Benson Miller, Monica Bellucci, Alice Krige, Jake Cherry, James A. Stephens, Gregory Woo
Written by: Matt Lopez, Doug Miro, Carlo Bernard, based on a story by Lawrence Konner, Mark Rosenthal, Matt Lopez
Directed by: Jon Turteltaub
MPAA Rating: PG for fantasy action violence, some mild rude humor and brief language
Running Time: 109
Date: 07/08/2010

The Sorcerer's Apprentice (2010)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Big Fish, Small Wand

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

For the umpteenth Harry Potter ripoff this year, at least Disney, has gone back to a source that predates Harry Potter: a segment from the classic Fantasia (1940). In that, Mickey Mouse tries to use magic to do his chores, and pays the price as an army of renegade brooms begins to take over and flood the room. The new The Sorcerer's Apprentice cheerfully borrows this idea for one scene, but otherwise gives us a new-ish story. It begins with an oppressively stupid prologue, packed to the gills with exposition and bad writing. In the 8th century Merlin chooses three disciples: Balthazar (Nicolas Cage), Horvath (Alfred Molina) and Veronica (Monica Bellucci). Horvath goes renegade and decides to help the evil sorceress Morgana (Alice Krige) destroy the world.

Merlin is killed, and Veronica absorbs the soul of Morgana into her own body. Balthazar imprisons her inside a wooden doll called the grimhold. He also imprisons Balthazar there, and a few other evil sorcerers. Now, it's up to Balthazar to find the "next Merlin." He will do so by locating the one person who can wear a special, magical ring. He waits over a thousand years before young Dave comes along in the year 2000. They have a weird, scary little scrape in an antique store, before Balthazar and Horvath are imprisoned together in a magic urn for ten years. This gives time for Dave to grow up into Jay Baruchel. If you missed any of this, don't worry: the movie explains it over and over again.

After all this stuff is spewed out in an irritating, noisy mess, the movie happily settles down into a brighter, more cheerful mode. The rest of the movie is a race for the grimhold, and then a race to save the world. Directed by Jon Turteltaub (While You Were Sleeping, Instinct, National Treasure), the best scenes are those between Cage and Baruchel; Cage finds a very nice balance for his character. He's mostly stoic, but slightly impatient and a teeny bit loony. (We like Cage best when he's on the verge of insanity.) He barely reacts to Dave's line deliveries, which makes Baruchel seem funnier, but Cage is more than just a straight man. He knows how to fire off his own kinds of deadpan jokes, such as dropping a line about "itch cream" in front of Dave's crush object, Becky (Teresa Palmer). He goes straight for Dave's weak spot: his neurosis.

However, it seems as if these moments are more the result of lucky casting than anything director Jon Turteltaub has done. He expends the same amount of energy on other scenes with Molina, and with Toby Kebbell as Horvath's evil disciple Drake Stone, a successful stage magician. Watching Molina here, it's hard to remember how great he was playing an equally evil fellow in Spider-Man 2 (2004); in that movie he had a kind of tortured soul. It was possible to understand him. Here he just spouts evil lines. We know what his goal is, but we don't really understand it. (Why does he want to destroy the world again? Because he couldn't get a date?) And Kebbell is just more comic relief, but without anyone to play off of. He flings his arrogant jokes in a vacuum. Turteltaub also exerts the exact same amount of energy on the action and special effects scenes. During fights, he shakes the camera and cuts several times per second.

It all comes down to that prologue. The reason it's there is that the filmmakers have assumed that the audience is stupid. It's true that this is a PG-rated movie aimed at kids, but kids are young, not stupid. Kids are able to follow well-told stories with very little spoon-feeding. The Sorcerer's Apprentice is not really about storytelling as much as it is about marketing. It's not about "what happens next" as it is "how much stuff can we cram in there, and how well can we sell it?"

Disney's Blu-Ray and DVD combo pack comes with a bunch of featurettes, including one in which the filmmakers talk about Fantasia. There are also deleted scenes and outtakes. The 2.35:1 transfer is excellent.

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