So, here we are: The Sorcerer's Apprentice. Just a few weeks ago, Disney opened Prince of Persia, which struck me as a pretty obvious attempt to recapture the lightning-in-a-bottle Pirates of the Caribbean magic that singlehandedly resuscitated the studio's live-action feature department. I was invited but didn't go; I couldn't buy Jake Gyllenhaal as the lead character and the action looked dull as dirt. Now we have a second attempt, which gets more right but still seems blind to the reasons Pirates was a success. So, in case any Disney executives are listening: Johnny Depp's slightly-deranged characterization of Captain Jack Sparrow is your paydirt, fellas. In choosing Nicolas Cage, you correctly deduced the one actor that might just be able to out-crazy him, so why isn't there more madness to this method?
Cage has had a bad run of it lately. The Cage I like is the Raising Arizona/Wild at Heart Cage of the 1980s as opposed to the sleepy-eyed Cage of the '00s. Admittedly, he did make one of the best movies of his career with 2003's Adaptation (not to mention the vastly underrated Weather Man and last year's Bad Lieutenant), but the last decade has been cash-in after cash-in. I guess the trailers gave me some weird false hope, because I walked in thinking he might get a bit broad in this one. Sadly, while there are the briefest hints of madness in Balthazar Blake (he sells many a silly line, like the alarmed discovery he's standing on "a Persian quick-rug!"), he's clearly here to pal around with National Treasure director Jon Turtletaub, not loosen up his cockroach-chompers.
The film opens with a tone-deaf prologue that just spells out the film's conflicts with crappy narration rather than allowing the actors (Cage on one side, Alfred Molina as the treacherous Horvath on the other) to do their jobs. Sure, the footage looks as if Turtletaub meant for it to stand on its own, and if you told me a studio executive wrote the kick-in-the-teeth, explain-everything voice-over, I'd believe it, but then again, even the simple idea of two friends who become enemies is so bogged down with unnecessary mythology and uselessly technical details, I have a hard time buying that someone stepped in and made it worse. This gives way to a second, equally unnecessary prologue in which ten-year-old Dave (Jake Cherry) meets a slightly creepy, much older Balthazar in a chintzy antique store. The sequence drags on for far too long and piles on some incredibly contrived embarrassment in order to taint Dave with deep reluctance.
Finally, at what must be the half-hour mark, the movie arrives in the present, where Dave is now Jay Baruchel, looking much more comfortable in the leading-man role than he did in She's Out of My League. After stumbling through a few scenes with Omar Benson Miller as his roommate/best friend and the lovely Teresa Palmer as an all-grown-up childhood crush, the movie finally unites Baruchel with Cage as Sorcerer and Apprentice. It's a subpar retread of the standard Disbeliever Meets the Impossible face-to-face that involves repeated refusals, terrible one-liners, and eventual acceptance, but The Sorcerer's Apprentice lazily, haphazardly meanders through each beat as it remembers them. At a certain point, actors like Cage making studio pictures with directors like Turtletaub start going through the motions, and in the case of Apprentice, it feels so absent-minded and disinterested it's like the movie was already "housework background noise" during production.
If there's anything I liked amidst the muddled murk, Teresa Palmer's charismatic performance would be it. Despite Turtletaub's hamfisted, awkward decision to blast the new OneRepublic single "Secrets" during not one, not two, but at least three scenes with her and Baruchel to signal their feelings for each other, she's always got a glint in her eyes and enthusiasm to spare, and she even gets something genuinely relevant and important to do during the finale, even if it's a cheat in that she's barely on-screen, several miles away from the action. On the other hand, Molina is useless as the villain, whose on-screen crimes include mocking one of Dave's grade-school English reports, and sneering. Near the end of the movie, almost as an afterthought, the movie hastily introduces a magic-sapping plot that would make far more sense as a through-line for the whole movie, and wraps it up inside of five minutes.
Kids these days! The thought echoed through my head more than a few times during the film. As in, do kids these days have any awareness of the animated short that "suggested" this project? Sometime during the third act, Turtletaub and the film's five scribes (three credited with the story, three with the final screenplay, with only one crossover) are quick to trot out the iconic music and dancing brooms for CG-laden sequence, but why? Jack Sparrow is a memorable guy, and if Disney wants a franchise, that's where their focus needs to be. Instead, the whole project ends up feeling like the most bizarre attempt to update something, anything that could be considered "classic Disney" for the 21st century.
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