Falling into the vast middle ground between ‘OK’ and ‘not bad,’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice provides plenty of whiz without much bang.
Oh, sure, many things go “Blam!” and other things go “Kablooey!” Hundreds, if not thousands, of objects fly through the air with the greatest of ease, and the heroic Nicolas Cage (as ages-old Balthazar) and the villainous Alfred Molina (as former compatriot Horvath) stare intensely at one another as though they were angry, and move their arms with great drama and emotion. The hesitant Jay Baruchel (as the diffident Dave) gets in the spirit too, only in his case it’s more akin to squinting and aimless gesticulating with inordinate uncertainty.
Yet The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is only fitfully engaging. Two or three moments soar toward the stratosphere — such as when college student Dave makes Tesla electrical arcs dance to modern music, to the delight of his long-time crush Becky (Teresa Palmer) — but succeeding scenes let the air out of the balloon, and there are too few of such moments to prop up the generally lackluster pace. It’s not a horrible movie, but it is routine and unexceptional.
The film begins with an extended sequence of leaden exposition that flies by like the closing credits of a television show. Centuries ago, Balthazar, Horvath, and Veronica (Monica Bellucci, once again sadly under-utilized) served as sorcerers to Merlin. Both Balthazar and Horvath fell in love with Veronica, but she chose Balthazar, driving a wedge between him and Horvath. Meanwhile, arch enemy Morgana (Alice Krige) sought to topple Merlin, but was foiled by Veronica, who cast a spell that bound her soul with Morgana’s and trapped them both inside a prison-like container the size of a small flower vase. Ever since, Balthazar has served as protector of the vase, while Horvath seeks to gain possession of the holy vessel and release Morgana, who intends to raise the dead and destroy mankind.
On a school trip, 10-year-old Dave stumbles into a shop and finds himself in the middle of the war between Balthazar and Horvath. The two combatants end up in yet another vase, and Dave is humiliated in front of his classmates — and young Becky — when he emerges from the shop with a fantastic tale and absolutely no proof of its veracity.
Ten years pass and we finally get to the real beginning of the movie, in which 20-year-old Dave once again finds himself in the middle of a battle between Balthazar and Horvath. Dave’s latent abilities in sorcery, and his possible fulfillment of a centuries-old prophecy, prompts Balthazar to take him on as an apprentice.
All that back story extracts a price. The premise — ancient sorcerer teaches modern kid new tricks — is good, but the story yearns to be nimble, light, and breezy, a fun fable. That would allow the sweet, developing romance between Dave and Becky to flow naturally from the material. Instead, it feels shoehorned into an overly-complicated tale that trudges through the mud and sludge of still more exposition.
The more that the movie tries to explain and justify the actions of its ancient principals, the more it yanks the light-hearted moments down to earth. The result is an uneasy mixture of period drama and modern action / romance / comedy. Director Jon Turteltaub is adept at working with big budgets and special effects, but he can’t solve that particular puzzle.
[The Sorcerer’s Apprentice opens wide throughout Dallas today.]