The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was made to accommodate the attention spans of the age group it’s intended for. It doesn’t have much of anything in the way of plot or character development, but it has plenty of action and lots of dazzling visual effects for children and young teenagers to gawk at in amazement. Watching this movie, I thought back to the first time I saw Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, another fantasy film that relied heavily on action and special effects; yes, but it also told a story, and the characters were wonderfully defined, and the visual effects felt genuinely magical. For The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the effects zooming around the screen seem to be nothing more or less than a marketing gimmick for packaged products. Can’t you just see the action figures and play sets this film could inspire?
The title is, of course, a reference to the most famous animated sequence from Fantasia, in which a robed Mickey Mouse dons his master’s magic blue hat and unintentionally wreaks havoc by bringing brooms to life. The film The Sorcerer’s Apprentice pays tribute with a live-action version of this scene, mops and buckets and spray cleaners flying all around and sloshing water all over the floor while the soundtrack plays a newly orchestrated rendition of Paul Dukas’ score. Aside from the fact that today’s children are unlikely to know of such a film as Fantasia, this scene lacks the charm and wonder of the original animated sequence, in all likelihood because the aim was to be funny instead of magical. Indeed, the filmmakers regard this movie not as an adventure, but rather as a challenge to make every scene as funny as possible. Some moments naturally lend themselves to comedy, but others simply don’t require the insertion of a joke.
The film opens, as many fantasy films open, with an exposition-crammed prologue the target audience is likely to ignore, save for the visual effects. We learn that, thousands of years ago, the wizard Merlin had three apprentices, one of whom was a traitor. Of the two loyal apprentices, one sacrificed her well being to entrap an evil enchantress; they, along with the traitor, were then imprisoned in a device made to look like a wooden stacking doll. A dying Merlin entrusted his remaining apprentice, now a master sorcerer and apparently ageless, to search the world for a protégé who can carry on the traditions of magic. A montage reveals, mostly by costume changes, that this sorcerer searched for this special someone for centuries.
Flash forward to the year 2000. In New York City, a ten-year-old boy on a field trip named Dave Stutler (Jake Cherry) wanders away from his group and stumbles upon that most reliable of fantasy film clichés: The out-of-the-way antique shop no one ever seems to visit. Inside, he meets the ageless sorcerer, named Balthazar Blake (Nicholas Cage), and while the earlier montage showed him neatly dressed in suits appropriate to the era, he now looks like a bum in a black raincoat, his hair greasy and unkempt, his face stubbly. When presented with a special ring, Dave shows every sign of being the successor Balthazar has been looking for. But before anything can become of it, Dave accidentally breaks open the stacking doll, releasing the treacherous apprentice, whose name is Maxim Hovarth (Alfred Molina), who carries a cane and dresses like Oscar Wilde’s evil twin.
I will skip a number of tedious details and flash forward to the present day, where a twenty-year-old Dave (Jay Baruchel), now a college physics student who’s really into Tesla coils, reunites with Balthazar and reluctantly agrees to be his apprentice; they must stop Hovarth from unleashing dark forces that would raise an army of the undead to take over the world. It’s always about saving the world, isn’t it? Perhaps if Dave had gone beyond the conventions of a nerdy caricature, this might not have bothered me. Alas, he’s so thinly developed that he seems like a dweeb even when he makes magic balls of light appear out of thin air. There’s no sense that somewhere deep within is a hero waiting to emerge; if this were any other fantasy, he would be the comedy relief, not the main character.
Interspersed within sequences of training and fighting – all related to magic and, strangely enough, science – is a completely unnecessary subplot involving a college student named Becky (Teresa Palmer), the one girl Dave has had a crush on ever since the fourth grade. For someone who has never seen magic before, she’s remarkably understanding and supportive of Dave’s abilities. She didn’t feel appropriate. She felt like a contrivance, an excuse for the obligatory damsel in distress to be worked into a fantasy. But never mind that; Palmer and Baruchel have absolutely no chemistry, so it wouldn’t have mattered what either of them said or did because they shouldn’t have been cast together in the first place. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice may be a decent sight and sound spectacle for younger audiences, but making the story and the characters work would have required a rewrite, with a little help from a real act of magic.