[Screen It]

(2010) (Nicolas Cage, Jay Baruchel) (PG)

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Fantasy/Action/Adventure: After more than 1,000 years of searching, an apprentice of Merlin attempts to train the heir apparent to the wizard in the ways of magic before another rogue apprentice and his accomplice raise the dead and take over the world.
Dave Stutler (JAY BARUCHEL) is a physics student in college whose biggest concern is trying to impress Becky Barnes (TERESA PALMER) and not embarrass roommate Bennet (OMAR BENSON MILLER) too much. Dave's known Becky since fourth grade, but an unlikely incident during a field trip forever tainted her view of him, at least in his opinion.

And that's when he had an encounter with Balthazar Blake (NICOLAS CAGE) and Maxim Horvath (ALFRED MOLINA), two opposing apprentices of Merlin who had been locked in battle for more than 1,000 years. Long ago, Horvath joined forces with sorcerer Morgana (ALICE KRIGE) to get their hands on a spell that would raise the dead and enslave all of mankind. To thwart that, Balthazar and Merlin's third apprentice, Veronica (MONICA BELLUCCI), battled them, with Veronica sucking Morgana's soul into her body before ending up trapped in a Russian nesting doll, while Balthazar trapped Horvath in a separate container.

Since then, Balthazar had been trying to locate the "prime Merlinian," a boy who would become Merlin's successor, and he knew he found him in Dave. But then Horvath escaped and then both he and Balthazar ended up trapped in a container until they reemerged ten years later. Now both apprentices want Dave -- Horvath so that he can find the piece and release Morgana, while Balthazar needs to train the young man as quickly as possible in the ways of magic so that he can take on Horvath should he succeed.

With the bad apprentice enlisting the aid of flamboyant bad boy magician Drake Stone (TOBY KEBBELL) to complete his quest, Balthazar races against time to get Dave ready, stymied by the fact that the young man is distracted by his attraction to Becky.

OUR TAKE: 3 out of 10
If there's one thing worse than a bad film, it's a bad one that doesn't try hard enough even just to fulfill the requirements and/or expectations of its chosen genre. For instance, romantic comedies that aren't particularly romantic or funny simply seem lazy when not pointless, horror movies that barely try to scare you are a waste of time, and movies about magic that aren't, well, terribly magical in their own right should get the wand.

Case in point for the latter is "The Sorcerer's Apprentice." If the title sounds familiar, you've either been inundated with the ads of recent, or perhaps you remember back to the 1940 animated feature "Fantasia" and the 9-minute segment in that featuring Mickey Mouse. He served as the title character in that cartoon short where he decided to take a shortcut in his cleaning duties by conjuring up a spell to get the brooms, mops and such to do his literal dirty work for him. Not surprisingly, thinks got out of hand and escalated until his master arrived to set things -- and him -- straight.

At this point, you may be wondering how Disney, producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Jon Turteltaub figured they were going to turn that fun bit into a full-length film, and whether Mickey has finally gotten his own starring role in such a flick. Sadly, the Mouse that made the House is nowhere to be found, and the aforementioned studio and filmmakers have opted for live-action footage rather than animated.

And the film really has little to do with said magical scene save for a brief recreation of it here. In short, that and the title are present for name recognition and drawing in viewers via nostalgia only, while the pairing of Jay Baruchel with lead star Nicolas Cage is presumably designed to make everyone think this is the second (okay, third, since there's already been a sequel) to "National Treasure."

At least those flicks tried -- albeit not particularly successful in the eyes of yours truly -- to mix action, adventure and history into a fun ride of escapism. Here, this tale about Merlin's 1000-plus-year-old apprentice (that being Cage in long hair, hat and trench coat, but strangely underplaying the role when it really needs zest) trying to teach the unlikely hero character (Baruchel certainly fitting that bill -- he might be the last person you'd pick to save the day, not to mention all of humanity) from a pair of villains (Alfred Molina and then Alice Krige as mixed with Monica Bellucci when the two inhabit the same body) simply lacks enough imagination to make it as fun, entertaining and, yes, magical as it clearly should have been.

Fingers could be pointed at any number of souls for that glaring problem, but they obviously have to start with screenwriters Matt Lopez and Doug Miro & Carlo Bernard. After an unnecessarily convoluted and rushed frenzy of exposition that establishes the back-story behind our current tale (and which easily could have been jettisoned with little to no ill effect), the scribes don't use a lot of imagination while lifting plot elements and such from previous flicks.

The most obvious, of course, is any number of student/mentor tales featuring a tutor with limited patience and time and his or her easily distracted pupil. The latter leads into the romantic subplot where the nerdy Dave Stutler is smitten with the hot Becky Barnes who'd normally be out of his league, but this being the movies... The fun, of course, is supposed to stem from him having to keep his ability to conjure up some magic secret from her, but even that feels borrowed from other flicks.

The fact that he doesn't use his magic to try to win her over (save for thwarting a subway thief) -- where that could have comically backfired (along the lines of the out-of-control cleaning), thus causing him to need to use more magic to cover up the mistake and so on -- is simply more proof that the filmmakers missed the boat in terms of delivering clever, imaginative, fun or entertaining bits with said material. The young love subplot also clashes with the main plot of Cage's character trying to get Baruchel's up to speed in order to stop the villains from carrying out their nefarious plan.

While Krige can't do much with her character (especially when stuck inside and sharing the body of Monica Bellucci), and the conclusion feels a bit like the big finale in "Ghostbusters" (minus the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, the good dialogue, spot-on performances, etc.), Molina is decent in his part. Yes, even he is hampered by a script that similarly doesn't take advantage of the comedic disdain his character obviously has for mere mortals. Apparently Horvath and/or the script writers never studied the witches and warlocks of the old TV sitcom "Bewitched" to see how to make that work.

So what we're left with is scene after scene of characters practicing and then battling with blasts of energy fired back and forth at each other (which gets quite old and repetitive fairly quickly) or villains morphing from piles of insects, goo and such into fully formed beings (an effect lifted from the "Mummy" movies).

There are car chases, foot chases, building gargoyles that turn into flying metal creatures, a backwards mirror world, a Chinese parade dragon that turns into the real thing and even a farting dog for those who enjoy flatulent humor. While much of that's frenetic in nature (thankfully not the latter element), most of it feels flat. That, and the fact that we don't care about the characters, their quest, or what's at stake certainly doesn't help in terms of engaging the viewer.

In short, most everything feels off to varying degrees and all of those elements fail to come together into a satisfying whole. There are a few standalone enjoyable moments (most notably regarding Toby Kebbell as a flamboyant and wise-cracking magician), but not enough to compensate for the rest of the problems.

And with the lack of true, onscreen magic being the first and foremost among them, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" feels like a cheap (albeit expensively produced) card trick that fails to impress. The film rates as a 3 out of 10.

Reviewed July 8, 2010 / Posted July 14, 2010

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