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The Sorcerer's Apprentice Review

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by Chris McEneany Dec 24, 2010

    The Sorcerer's Apprentice Review

    Please note that although the packaging for UK release states that the disc is encoded for B and C regions, it plays perfectly well on a US PS3 meaning that is, in fact, region-free.

    I don't know who you are.”

    Really? You don't recognise me?”

    Are you in … Depeche Mode?”

    The Sorcerer’s Apprentice begins with one of the worst examples of ultra-hurried scene-setting that I have ever cringed my way through. The frantic, overly dramatic prologue, set in the turbulent times of Merlin and Morgana Le Fay, hustles faster than that runaway loco in Unstoppable. In swift order, we see a last ditch defence of Merlin by his most trusted sorcerers, Balthazar Blake (Nicolas Cage) and Veronica (Monica Belluci), who have been betrayed by one of their own, the dastardly Maxim Horvath (Alfred Molina), the death of the grand wizard, himself, and the dutiful, centuries-long quest that Balthazar, the only survivor of the battle, undertakes in order to find a worthy successor to wear the sorcerer’s all-powerful dragon-ring and, subsequently, keep the world safe from dark forces. Or something like that. We learn of the Russian Doll-like prison of the mystical Grimhold, the ornate receptacle that incarcerates rogue magicians and demons including Veronica, Balthazar's one true love and the evil uber-witch, herself, Morgana. All of this is given a wretched voiceover that struggles to explain the gravity of what we are seeing, and barks out the threat to us all if Lord Sugar's – oops – I mean Balthazar’s search for an apprentice comes up short. To be blunt, this sequence would even be subpar in a Uwe Boll movie!

    We are then shunted forward to the year 2000, deposited in Manhattan and introduced to a younger incarnation of the character who will go on to become the film’s great champion, and the Apprentice of the title. Young Dave Stutler (Jake Cherry) is the typical nerdy-geek with the obligatory fat friend – in this case, Wimpy Kid’s Robert Capron, who could see himself going down the James Cordern route of chubby sidekick if he’s not too careful – who contrives, under the guiding hand of Fate, to come into contact with Balthazar in his bizarre bazaar of antiquity, the Arcania Cabana, and accidentally release the imprisoned Horvath. Before we can even draw breath, the battle is joined once again, centuries after their irreparable rift. Both realise that the unassuming Dave is the heir to Merlin’s powerful Dragon Ring and that if Morgana is also released from her phantom jail she can then summon-up the legions of her dead followers for the dreaded “Rising” and subjugate mankind. You know what these evil folks are like! And then, still within this strenuous first twelve-minute opener, the duelling wizards wind up locked within another jar-like prison, this time an ancient Chinese divorce-urn that seems to operate with a ten-year time-lock. Are you keeping up with all this?

    Another time shunt – of exactly ten years – occurs and we find ourselves in the present day with our Dave now all grown-up (and played by the curly-quiffed Jay Baruchel) and well on his way to becoming something of a physics wunderkind. He can't get a date and his previous encounter with those ancient wizards has left him slightly skittish and socially inept, but something must of rubbed-off on him because he is able to harness lightning and make it play to music down in his vast – and university unapproved – basement laboratory like he was Vangelis performing at Wembley Stadium. Across town, however, that big urn of trapped souls won't sit still and, just when it seems that Dave has finally rediscovered his childhood crush, Becky Barnes (Teresa Palmer), both Balthazar and Horvath break free once more and recommence their age-old quarrel all over again. Poor Dave is going to have to put Merlin's creepy Dragon Ring back on his finger, get into a pair of “old man shoes” and enter the circle of light to learn some magic real quick if he is going stop Morgana from escaping, too, and raising that obligatory army of the dead. But he's not going to let any of this esoteric brouhaha get in the way of wooing Becky either. And, hey, just maybe his role of apprentice sorcerer will work like, ahem, a charm on her, anyway.

    Thus, modern New York City becomes a battleground. Giant metal eagles will swoop and soar across the skyscraper forests. Dragons will plough through Chinatown. A bronze bull will go on a car-flinging rampage. Lightning bolts and balls of mystical blue energy will redecorate the city as though it is the venue for a Jedi/Sith title bout. Our rival sorcerers will lay waste to various locales and even indulge in a roaring, hi-octane car chase through the crowded streets in a sequence that mingles the adrenaline rush of The Fast And The Furious with the shape-changing pizazz of Transformers. No-one can claim that they aren’t getting their money’s worth with this incantation-laden escapade. For every talky-bit, there’s a walloping new chapter of action just around the corner. And, after that ridiculously protracted opening, the film settles down to become immensely enjoyable, agreeably amusing and much better than all that glitzy Bruckheimer eye-candy would initially have you believe. Plus, for a film set in the most lensed city on the planet, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice actually paints New York with a few new colours and shows it off from some delightfully different angles, enough to make it seem genuinely fresh and exciting. Ghostbusters did pretty much the same sort of thing, transforming a place that seemed overly familiar even to people who had never actually been there, and director Jon Turteltaub and his DOP Bojan Bazelli work wonders with both the real locations and the sumptuous, large-scale sets devised by Naomi Shohan.

    For an action and FX extravaganza, it is also nice to discover that the characters haven't been overshadowed by the light show. There is nothing new brought to the clichéd formula by screenwriters Matt Lopez, Doug Miro and Carlo Bernard, but the cast do seem to be having a whale of a time, and this is an infectious quality. Smoke and mirrors may be the stock in trade for our leads, but when we can see them clearly enjoying themselves, it is hard not to follow suit.

    Having fun or not, there is no mistaking the fact that Jay Baruchel is a strange personality. For the first half of the film I wasn’t sure if I liked him, or if I hated him. He seems to be deliberately impersonating Cage for the most part (which would be an odd choice, to say the least, when you consider that he is actually acting opposite him), but there are also little shades of Tom Hanks about his perpetually caught off-guard demeanour that he likes to slide across the character from time to time. In-keeping with the film’s ever-so-slight indie angle, Baruchel plays Dave as someone who is defiantly left-field and knows it, too. He is the typical dweeb who struggles to fit in, can't imagine ever getting the girl, and has a long-distance relationship with anything even remotely considered “cool”. You can’t ignore that now horribly common shtick of the new boy having to be taught special powers or skills by an aged mentor to help him fulfil a prophecy – we’ve seen it in everything from Star Wars, Superman and The Karate Kid to Batman Begins, Transformers and Wanted – but the screenplay does manage to throw a couple of new spins on the corny old deal. Baruchel has the look of a more geeky Shia LaBouf, but this does him no disservice. The film would have been ten times worse if Dave had been played by some vaguely disguised hunk, or if he had ultimately removed his spectacles to reveal his rugged heroism in time for the final showdown. Dave Stutler is a spindly goofball at the start, and he is a spindly goofball at the end too, no matter what his new-found powers might entail. In part this adheres to the indie-vogue of both Kick-Ass and Scott Pilgrim – every nerd will have his day, the new breed of hero seems to say! Interestingly, having broken away from his obese childhood chum, the older Dave also appoints himself the company of an overweight companion in Forest Whittaker lookalike Omar Benson Miller who, in a completely unnecessary and highly unlikely plot development, contrives to get an absolute babe back to his and Dave's apartment. Our hero's stuttering, self-deprecating relationship with Becky is both touching and highly amusing, even if Teresa Palmer, as pretty as she is, isn't anywhere near as convincingly effective on the other end of this romance. But Baruchel, who voiced the young Viking, Hiccup, in the brilliant How To Train Your Dragon, is one of those come-the-hour champions that Hollywood has always loved as a tool of inspiration for those less physically capable or aesthetically pleasing. Oh, and by the end of the film, I came to the conclusion that I liked him. Quite a lot. I think.

    “This is the Merlin Circle. It focusses your energy. Helps you master new spells. It is where you will learn the Art. Step inside – you leave everything else behind. Once you enter, there is no going back.”

    “So I should … probably … pee first?”

    We all know how unpredictable Nic Cage can be. His performances can go from the sublime to the ridiculous – though, thankfully, seldom in the same film. Sometimes it seems as though his credibility is governed by how wild or how under control his hair appears to be. Well, somewhat flying in the face of this equation, his hair, here, is rangy, long and unkempt, sort of a more down-and-out Aragorn look (or Kurt Cobain crossed with Van Helsing, perhaps), and yet his performance is actually very pleasing. Let’s put it this way, he gets the joke. This is not Cage under the illusion that he is making something of dramatic worth. He has plenty of archaic and magical dialogue to emote but he doesn't attempt to affect the customary English accent, which is a blessing. And, for some unfathomable reason, you actually buy into the notion that he is a thousand-year-old wizard far more so than, say, you bought into him being a firefighter in World Trade Centre or a physics teacher in Knowing. This is Cage getting to play the action hero, spout some surprisingly amusing one-liners and, against all the odds, actually bring some weight to an otherwise wafer-thin, stereotypical mentor-figure with the clichéd onus of a tragic love story background. Elevating moments of energy-ball hurling, invisible force-unleashing, spell-casting and spectral mirror games is that laconic sense of humour and lazy drawl that all-too often can reduce his characters to little more than mumbling maquettes. Here, though, it doesn’t seem to matter that he is not only playing someone who hails from medieval times, but someone who has been incarcerated in a magical jar for ten years as well. The script might not compel him to utter cool, hip jargon, but his street-wise savvy is still plain for all to see and the crazy thing is that it works. Cage shares an executive producing credit on the film as well, but it is clear that after Bad Lieutenant and Kick-Ass, he is on something of a creative roll. He's worked with Jon Turteltaub before on the two National Treasure outings and the pair obviously have an easy on-set chemistry. However, we all know that with Bruckheimer sitting at the monitor and breathing down their necks all the time, it is really he who is calling all the shots.

    However, the roll-call does promise more than it delivers. Having names like Monica Belluci and Alice Krige plastered on the poster may lead you to expect certain attributes of, respectively, physical allure and intense, regal villainy – but the truth is that the two ladies hardly appear in the film at all, with the former Borg Queen completely squandered as the big villain looming over the entire plot. But this is eagerly countered by employing the ever-reliable Alfred Molina in full-on caddish, whisker-twirling bad guy mode, and Toby Kebbell as his alarmingly bouffanted sidekick, the celebrity magician Drake Stone. Molina, admittedly, sleepwalks his way through most of the film, but then he is now so smoothly confident with such roles that it hardly matters. He walks a very thin line between high camp – all refined patter and cane-cavorting - and rakish malevolence, but even when spouting eloquent threats and goat-getting witticisms at his rival's expense, Molina mixes up the broth with assured brio and a sense of withering sarcasm. Kebbell, however, has a field day as the Russell Brand of the Magic Circle. With his rock star attitude and sheer zeal, he cuts a decadent dash as the egocentric dunderhead who has been waiting for his chance truly shine. It is pantomime … there's no getting away from that, I'm afraid … but their double-act works better than you would think. Kebbell is arrogantly caustic, yet a buffoon just the same. Molina doesn't waste any time with fake platitudes or charades to win over Dave's incredulous piggy-in-the-middle. He is evil, and that's that. No masquerade necessary. That hastily condensed mini-movie of a prologue leaves us in no doubt about his dark heart and his devotion to Morgana. Yet this does not mean that he can't be amusing, as well, and his toff-like mentality adds a strange new flavour to what's cooking in the witch's cauldron. My only concern is that he doesn't quite pull off the close-quarter combat he has with Cage so well. There's something horribly rehearsed and fluid-less about his moves. But then he's lacking those CG tentacles from Doctor Octopus, isn't he?

    The visual effects are excellent, but then we have come to expect as much.

    Tsunamis of light bounce around the screen like incendiary pinballs. Various things come to life to wreak havoc, notably that bronze bull in Battery Park and, better by far, a Chinese dragon that morphs from paper and sticks to the real thing right around the puppeteers who were inside operating it. The various smackdowns between the sorcerers are actually quite brutal. Each gets regularly catapulted against hard objects, or smashed right through them, the trail of devastation wrought across the city nothing special to a New York that has been pummelled by giant apes, aliens and Al-Quada in its time, but alarmingly exhilarating just the same. But you can definitely see how much family entertainment has changed over the years. Where once there would be no violence other than a cowardly snarl from the villain, now we can have reverse headbutts and demon squishing. There is even a sequence when a disgruntled Horvath actually fires a couple of daggers through the windscreen of a car, apparently killing the sarcastic driver. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is not, I should clarify, a painful film – all the fighting and the general nastiness is dealt with that breathe-easy comic-book panache that feels strangely inoffensive. And it should be added that it was Disney who broke their own mould way back in 1981 with the awesome Dragonslayer, in which we actually see a sacrificed princess being gnawed on by a brood of baby fire-breathers. But there is an undeniable new edge to such material these days. Disney doesn't seem afraid to portray some of the less savoury elements of society, as a subway mugging at knife-point makes quite clear. There was a time when you would never have seen that in a PG-rated fantasy. All of which gives a bit more bite to The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. And speaking of bite, check out the nasty pack of wolves that Horvath employs to hunt down Dave at one point – that big dark one looks truly terrifying! Seeing these things tearing through the Big Apple only makes me yearn for Michael Wadleigh's awesome Wolfen to finally put in an appearance on Blu-ray, though.

    “I'm afraid of flying on planes!”

    “Well today's your lucky day … because I brought an eagle!”

    Even if he is toiling under the flag of Jerry “Blow-everything-in-sight-to-smithereens” Bruckheimer, Turteltaub does not forget the classic inspiration for this tale. One sequence has Dave cast a spell upon the mop, the broom, the taps and the buckets in his huge science-bunker and, before you can warn him not to, the place is running amok with enchanted janitorial bedlam and hastily rising flood-water. We even see the wall-sockets squealing in panic as the water gets nearer. And all to the tune of Disney's lurching, spasmodic march from Mickey's magical encounter in Fantasia, as revamped by Trevor Rabin. It is actually a great little vignette. You must have known it was going to happen, but it still provides that grin-inducing connection with the ghost of Disney Past. And, having said this, with the jobbing Rabin providing the composing duties, I sort of assumed that the score would be rather unfocussed and poorly conceived, but I was pleasantly surprised in this department too. In the past, Rabin has been one of the lesser tunesmiths at work in Hollywood, his action and horror scores fairly run-on-the-mill and, barring one terrific theme in Deep Blue Sea, singularly unmemorable. But for The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, he unleashes a terrific orchestral barrage that perfectly accompanies the fast and hyper-kinetic proceedings as well as the more emotional moments. There are little similarities to the Klaus Badelt/Hans Zimmer scores for the Pirates movies (which doesn’t come as a surprise at all given that very familiar semi-comical flavour that Apprentice strives for) as well as the brooding wall of mood-building sound that permeated Batman Begins and The Dark Knight (which you will be reminded of whenever you see Balthazar standing on the edge of a high-rise), but this is still extremely enjoyable stuff and marks possibly his biggest and most complex gig yet.

    I suspect I will always have problems with that opening stretch – it is both too rushed and too long - but I am very happy to report that once The Sorcerer’s Apprentice gets into its own peculiar groove it motors along with plenty of exciting and amusing set-pieces, a clutch of guilty pleasure characters and a situation that you don't mind getting caught up in. There is a smidgeon of an alternative vibe, certainly enough to please the older kids, but younger minds will just love all the colourful skirmishes and the big creatures. Throwaway gags such as the sinking carpet booby-trap in Drake Stone's palatial apartment - “Persian Quick-Rug … and he called me old fashioned!” - and a couple of knowing Star Wars riffs add some great little asides to a film whose trailer misinformed us about the tone it would embrace.

    When placed alongside 2010’s other family action/fantasies such as Clash Of The Titans, Percy Jackson, Prince Of Persia (which shares two of this offering’s stars in Alfred Molina and Toby Kebbell) and even the Harry Potter And The Deathly Boredom, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice actually fares very admirably. It has its tongue wedged in its cheek and it plays with the genre’s conventions – not a lot, granted, but enough to give it a slightly wicked and offbeat appeal not a million miles away from 2009’s curio, The Vampire’s Assistant. I mean you can see that there is a clear affinity between the two just from their titles, can’t you? Jay Baruchel is something of an enigma, though. He really is a weird guy and it is somewhat difficult to imagine him carving much in the way of film-career variety out of such an instinctively screwball presence. And as magnificent as he is at portraying indecisive, mumbling idiots this sort of thing could wear thin very quickly unless he can find another string for his bow. Although Cage could have played his sorcerer completely over-the-top and still have gotten away with it, he wisely keeps Balthazar restrained and all the more believable as a result. In fact it is only the ladies who let the side down with either utterly bland performances – in the case of Palmer – or simply tacked-on, bookended cameo appearances. The romantic element may already be one of those contrived ingredients that the writers felt compelled to supply but it is hampered further by Palmer's dedicated lack of personality. Only Baruchel is able to inject any spontaneity into their exchanges.

    But regardless of it hailing from the Bruckheimer stable of lavishly generic action and explosions, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is damn fine entertainment and comes well recommended as an antidote to all those lame and charmless CG fantasies that have bludgeoned and blundered their way onto Blu-ray over the past year.

    Great fun!

    Conscientiously, Disney have placed a warning – albeit small – on the packaging to inform buyers that the film contains flashing imagery. This is certainly a wise move. A while ago I reviewed Eureka's otherwise excellent BD release of La Planete Sauvage and was surprised that they hadn't made reference to the extended sequence of intense strobe-like effects that could well have induced problems for those prone to such things. So, hat's off to Disney for making the gesture.