July 17, 2010 – This year’s films have been an interesting blend, from the brilliant Toy Story 3 to the Abysmal Last Airbender, but a large number of flicks are falling somewhere in the middle as well, like The Prince of Persia. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice falls into this squishy middle where great pieces simply can’t pull together to make a better whole. Don’t get me wrong, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is a good film. A very good film, in fact. But it never rises to the point where it can be called “great.”
The rest of the story starts out ten years in the past, the year 2000 to be exact (has it really been ten years? My word how time flies!) when a nerdy school kid named Dave Stutler (kid played by Jake Cherry, adult played by Jay Baruchel) finds himself gone astray on a school field trip. Chasing a note from a girl he likes into a run down and cluttered shop, he runs into an older man who was introduced to the audience in the beginning narration as Balthazar (Nicholas Cage) one of the three apprentices of Merlin (yes, THE Merlin.) Balthazar has been searching for the one person whom Merlin’s dragon ring will accept as its owner, the Prime Merlinian. This turns out to be the reluctant Dave.
Things are made complicated by the reappearance of Maxim Horvath (Alfred Molina) the traitorous third apprentice of Merlin, who fought Merlin alongside Morgana, both of whom were trapped inside the Grimhold (which Balthazar possesses.) After a well done fight sequence in the shop, both Balthazar and Horvath are sucked into a cursed Chinese jar for ten years, while Dave returns to his class and the subsequent ridicule of his story.
Flash forward ten years to the present day and Dave is in college as a Physics Major, doing crazy experiments and being pretty darn nerdy in general. Meanwhile Balthazar and Horvath break free of the jar. What follows is a race between two sides to get the Grimhold and either free Morgana or keep her imprisoned. The only person who can defeat Morgana one day is the Prime Merlinian, and so begins Dave’s reluctant Apprenticeship to Balthazar.
Really, the film does a pretty good job of introducing all of these elements, though the opening narration is extremely exposition heavy, even if I understand the need to tell the tale in a movie with a time limit. Still, it is the story, or rather the plot progression that is the weakest part of the film.
The pacing of the story is full of fits and starts. While some parts move along a a decent clip that keeps the audience interested, there are a number of other times where it drags. In many ways the plot resembles the main character; trying to serve two masters, the love storyline and the Grimhold storyline. So while things may be heating up in one area there will be obligatory cutaways to the other story line which will be languishing. Slow short relationship driven moments may be sandwiched between swift chase scenes, or a heightening relationship moment is broken up by a glimpse at what the bad guys are plotting. While I was always able to keep track of the action (something many modern action flicks fail to do anymore) I often felt like I was either being hurried unnecessarily from scene to scene, or being forced to stop when I should be running.
Plot progression follows a similar path of sputters and spurts. The biggest example of this was the massive jump in Dave’s abilities near the end of the film. The training montages are well done but they led me to believe that very little progress had been made by the time the final showdown comes (He could barely use his ring to move objects, for crying out loud,) and all of a sudden Dave is pulling off moves out of a Dragon Ball anime. The Character could have used a better build up in this department, and tied it nicely into the love story as well. That, unfortunately, didn’t happen.
But despite these major gripes there is still plenty nice to say about the film as well. The aforementioned closing action scene is well done and visually cool while tying together images and threads planted throughout the film. Most other fight sequences are also done nicely with neat special effects even when they weren’t as convincing as they should be (The Dragon fight was cool but the effects were too obviously CG.) The car chase was well done and exciting, and even the non-magical moments looked good (Tesla Coils are awesome, by the way.) All in all there was some pretty nice choreography and special effects.
This leads me into my next gripe, however. There are some really neat uses of magic in this film, from flying statues to dragons, flying needles and cursed jars, but when a fight breaks out it usually comes down to some variation of plasma bolts and fire. People are constantly shooting energy blasts at one another, and while it has its place I was hoping that the fights would show a little more creativity. Occasionally parts would shine like distance sword fights, the above mentioned dragon, etc. But these parts were far fewer than I would have liked.
That doesn’t mean that they completely blew their chances at building a mythology. The back story of Morgana Merlin and his Apprentices is solid, if as old as the characters are supposed to be. The environments are nicely used and the cluttered feel of Balthazar’s shop feels full of history and stories. It felt a little like Harry Potter, which is a good thing. Hopefully the film does well so they could do a sequel and get a second chance to really blow the doors off in terms of involving the characters in this world of magic. Right now it feels like the tip of an iceberg and somewhere down below is an immersive world like Potter’s or even Hellboy’s.
While there was something lacking in terms of plot progression and magical creativity, the characters were mostly great and interesting. Dave is a convincing twenty year old who’s just been sucked up into a cool but intimidating world, and Baruchel does a great job in the role. Nicholas Cage gives another fine genre performance coming off of a great turn as Big Daddy in Kick Ass to pull off a world weary but caring and skilled Sorcerer. Alfred Molina is terrific as Horvath, and in truth he is criminally underused in the final confrontation. Teresa Palmer does a decent job wit Becky the love interest, though she isn’t exactly given a lot to do in the script besides be a plot device. Even Drake Stone, a materialistic modern day evil sorcerer who uses magic to make money as an entertainer, is well acted by Toby Kebbell, though the character is strictly two dimensional.
The only character who was poorly done overall was Alice Kirge’s Morgana le Fay who was so lightly used there is little to be said about Kirge’s acting in the role. This is especially unfortunate given the fact that the character is so important to the plot. The final showdown has almost no emotional heft due to this.
Cinematography was great, sound was well done and the score was perfectly serviceable if not exactly memorable. Jon Turteltaub has done a fine job directing the film, though it would seem he is better with actors than he is with the direction of the film’s plot. Meanwhile Jerry Bruckheimer’s stamp is all over this without (thankfully) becoming too intrusive.
On a final note, there is a particular scene that anyone who has seen Fantasia will recognize. Mickey Mouse still has the charm above and beyond this rendition, but as far as send-ups go, it’s a pretty sweet scene. There’s something about it that stands the test of time since it was first put to paper in 1797 by Goethe in the poem “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.”
Stick around after the credits for a brief nod to the Disney cartoon which inspired the movie and the promise that a certain foe is still at large. Here’s hoping for a second, even better film.
The film could have been terrible, but instead it hit somewhere in the “Mostly-Good” range. There is a lot of promise in this franchise; promise which the first film didn’t quite reach. The acting was great, the characters largely well done and the action was exciting and full of mediocre to great visual effects. Despite the exposition, the questionable pacing of the plot and the lack of creativity in some aspects, this is a summer blockbuster worthy of your dollars and certainly of a matinee. If you’re even a little bit interested, go see it.