There is exactly one element of The Sorcerer's Apprentice that's of any use whatsoever to any viewer old enough to drive themselves to the theater, and it's not something that I, at least, would have anticipated: Nicolas Cage is absolutely on fire, bringing 1000% to a role that does not require, justify, or reward such effort. But it's still always nice for Cage's trademark loopiness to be entertaining and arresting, rather than annoying and tic-ey, especially so soon after his Werner Herzog collaboration The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans managed to restore a goodly measure of luster to the actor's tarnished persona.
Yeah, though, that's it. There's nothing else to drag The Sorcerer's Apprentice from the deepest depths of slick, instantly forgettable mediocrity, without even the mesmerising badness of The Last Airbender to give it some heft, any kind of heft at all. A smart person would not of course go into a Jerry Bruckheimer production looking for anything other than facile commercialism, but even then, we've been habituated to expect a certain level of storytelling exuberance entirely absent here. He made his name on films that were dumb and fun, after all, not dumb and sleepy. But sleepiness is all we get with The Sorcerer's Apprentice, which puts up a good fight for the title of Most Inconsequential Movie of Summer 2010, alongside dandies like The A-Team and Bruckheimer's other misconceived flop, Prince of Persia: Something Something Time.
Bearing about as much relationship to Goethe's 1797 poem, Paul Dukas's 1897 composition, or the segment from Disney's 1940 Fantasia as it does to the films of Chantal Akerman, The Sorcerer's Apprentice opens in Britain in 740, informing us of how the great sorcerer Merlin (James A. Stephens) was betrayed in his age-old battle with Morgana le Fay (Alice Krige) by one of this three apprentices, Maxim Horvath (Alfred Molina). Though Merlin died, Morgana was stopped by the sacrifice of one of the other apprentices, Veronica (Monica Bellucci), who took the sorceress's spirit into her own body, so that they could both be captured by the third apprentice, and Veronica's lover, Balthazar Blake (Cage). There's a prophecy of sorts involving the Prime Merlinian, which feels for all the world like a phrase out of one of Dan Brown's novels but is actually the sorcerer to beat all sorcerers, and before you can say "This has fuck-all to do with actual Welsh legend", we flash to New York in 2000, where a kid named Dave (Jake Cherry) is found by Balthazar to be the fulfillment of the prophecy, but Dave is an absolute idiot who manages to free Horvath from the Grimhold, an enchanted nesting doll in which Balthazar has captured all of Morgana's followers that he could find in the last 1260 years. Fortunately, Balthazar and Horvath get sucked into a magical Chinese urn for ten years, to the day. Christ, we're not even through the exposition and I'm already sad to be typing all of this out.
In 2010, a college-age Dave (Jay Baruchel) is now a physics nerd, and pretty darn quickly he ends up apprenticed to Balthazar to fight Horvath, who wants the magic nesting doll. But ho, Dave would rather canoodle with Becky (Theresa Palmer), the girl that he had a crush on in fourth grade and just re-met. Though being a sorcerer would be pretty cool. Which path will he choose?
More importantly, do we care? An unlovely flimsiness pervades every inch of the movie; it's hard not to see the appeal of even something as over-used as thr Chosen Youth trope, but even the hoariest cliché needs to be given a bit of life, and for a movie ostensibly about how fantastic and awesome it is to use magic, The Sorcerer's Apprentice is noticeably shy on imagination. Dave's numerous training sessions with Balthazar merge into an uninflected lump of CGI shit getting tossed around, and the bigger battle sequences reveal a faintly distressing - and quintessentially Bruckheimer-esque - tendency to give up and throw a couple of big fireballs at us. It's disappointing if not tremendously surprising that Jon Turteltaub, who previous worked with Cage and Bruckheimer on the National Treasure movies, exactly the kind of "dumb but fun" that The Sorcerer's Apprentice so desperately fails to be, should oversee something so altogether listless; you would hope that a scene of a CGI dragon tearing its way through New York's Chinatown, for example, would be a bit peppier than it turns out to be, with the distinctly uncinematic emphasis on close-ups and insert shots, and the patently CGI-ness of the effects. It doesn't seem that it should be this easy for filmmakers who aren't obviously incompetent to screw up popcorn movie action scenes, but there you have it.
It's tempting to throw some blame at the actors, but then again it's hard to say how much fault they bear in relationship to the perfunctory characters given to them by the screenplay (the story was put together by three men, and the script by three men also, with only Matt Lopez overlapping the two groups). Certainly, Baruchel isn't the right fit for this material; his limitations as an actor run towards the ironic and self-distancing mood that Bruckheimer doubtlessly assumed would have all the audience in stitches, but it's a deadly match to the sense of wonder that the scenario requires. Molina does a bit better - in fact, a lot better - but he's not as good as you'd have every right to expect from "Alfred Molina playing an embittered evil sorcerer with a bowler and goatee". About Palmer's performance as the immensely thankless love interest in an action film for 10-year-old boys, I would be happiest saying nothing.
The odd snatch of good humor or wit here and there - a visual gag during the otherwise ludicrous and desperately unmotivated "mop" scene, the single reference to the original story in all its incarnations; the first appearance of Horvath's Criss Angel-parodying assistant (Toby Kebbell); the one truly brilliant effects scene, which involves a roomful of Tesla coils and no magic at all - are not enough to drag The Sorcerer's Apprentice screaming up to the level of watchability. Cage almost is; he's obviously having a lot of fun playing a magic-user with a dry sense of humor, and some of his line deliveries reach the level of pure genius. Meaning that Cage completists - and you know they're out there - are probably going to make it all the way through without feeling too bad about the experience. For the rest of us, the film's best use is an excuse to take a nap of a summer's afternoon, preferably not while exposing an innocent child to the wanton imagination vacuum that Bruckheimer and his team have puked up.