“Are you familiar with the grey wolf?”
Considering the story goes that Nicolas Cage was the catalyst for getting The Sorcerer’s Apprentice off the ground—he really wanted to do a movie where he had magical powers—and how well-suited his over-the-top theatrics are to family film fare, it’s surprising he hasn’t made a point of doing more this past half decade. All those direct-to-DVD entries can’t be paying him that much money. He did make a run with the two National Treasure movies, coincidentally hatched by the same team of producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Jon Turteltaub. While similar in scope, however, they don’t quite hold the same level of unbridled fun as this rehashed Disney tale. There’s just something perfect about an unhinged Cage in long scraggly hair, leather trench coat, and pointy shoes.
Inspired by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe‘s poem of the same name—think Mickey in his blue hat conjuring mops to life in Fantasia, homaged here with live action counterpart Dave (Jay Baruchel)—an opening narration sets the stage with a mouthful of exposition. The gist is as follows: Merlin had three apprentices trained to fight the evil Morgana (Alice Krige) who sought to raise an army of dead. Horvath (Alfred Molina) sided with her, Veronica (Monica Bellucci) sacrificed herself to stop them, and Balthazar (Cage) was left to clean the mess. The latter trapped everyone into a magical nesting doll, buried the pain of losing his love Veronica, and promised Merlin to find the wizard’s successor. It took a thousand years, but found he was. Enter Dave, his clumsiness, and a fight for humanity in the twenty-first century.
This film has everything you’d expect from PG-rated fantasy adventures. The eccentric sage (Balthazar), goofy science nerd (Dave), out-of-his-league love interest (Teresa Palmer‘s Becky), and nonplussed, loyal villain (Horvath) trying not to murder his one ally (Toby Kebbell‘s Drake Stone) before exterminating the rest. Balthazar hopes to save Veronica from the doll, Horvath seeks to free Mordana, and Dave simply wants to live through the ordeal. Discovering he has the power to do what his Tesla coil does and more isn’t the easiest thing to swallow, but who wouldn’t eventually embrace the chance to shoot plasma balls from your fingers and spontaneously combust things with your mind? No matter how cool, though, carrying the pressure of saving the world can prove too much. Especially for someone dealing with ten years of therapy to overcome widespread ridicule.
Dave’s initial encounter with Balthazar as a boy left him a pariah due to his ranting about magic. And just when he thought the craziness was officially behind him after living like a hermit throughout his teens, the chaos unceremoniously returns. Not just Balthazar and Horvath’s war with him in the middle as Prime Merlinian (no joke, that’s the moniker earned when Merlin’s ring chooses him as successor), but also the fateful possibility of rekindling the romance he never got off the ground with Becky. Is it coincidental he runs into both simultaneously? Maybe. But what do you expect from a film about sorcerers, witches, and a zombie army animating to control the world? You have to give the kid a chance at happiness and a reason to live if you’re dumping the apocalypse in his lap.
Turteltaub and his quintet of writers don’t try reinventing the wheel for this film and neither do any of the actors more than willing to play into the tropes of their characterizations for laughs. Baruchel’s voice and awkward demeanor has given him a career and his Dave is no exception to the rule. Endearing, pitiable, and worthy of exceeding the expectations of those around him, he is the perfect stand-in for geeks in the audience dreaming of grander futures. Cage similarly was born for Balthazar as well—a smidgeon insane, a lot sassy, and just enough sarcasm to make Baruchel wheeze his embarrassment and shake his head. Add Molina’s over-arching villain with Kebbell’s self-righteous and entitled brat by his side and you get a live action cartoon like only Disney can create.
Throw in all the weird terminology and expansive histories you want to place everyone onto the same path—along with one-off cronies like Nicole Ehringer‘s witch Abigail Williams and Gregory Woo‘s dragon conjurer Sun-Lok wreaking havoc. The more the merrier, especially when it all looks so good. Bringing Arturo Di Modica‘s Charging Bull to life and morphing a parade’s Chinese dragon costume into a fire-breathing monster risks the potential of over-reaching your capabilities and painting everything in a false light. Thankfully big studio budgets can afford the computer effects to make it seamless. Even Cage unfolding a magical book in his hands looks pretty good. A big part of this visual authenticity too is Turtletaub’s use of practical effects to assist verisimilitude.
Was Disney biting off more than they could chew by going ahead and teasing a sequel via their post-credits sequence? Sure. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t successful in their goals to provide Cage a vehicle to ham it up nor to breath some life into Goethe’s poem and Paul Dukas‘ “L’apprenti sorcier”. It never goes too dark for the PG audience or too childish for adults watching to escape the real world for a couple of hours. The comedy is effective and the action rousing while the romance remains subtle enough in its cliché to not takeover the main plot. That is where this script could have truly derailed—giving too much “will they/won’t they” angst. We know from the start that Becky could like Dave and the filmmakers thankfully refuse to pretend otherwise.