Monday, November 29, 2010

On DVD: "The Sorcerer's Apprentice"

There are few sequences in all of animated film more iconic than the "Sorcerer's Apprentice" segment of Disney's Fantasia; even those who haven't seen the movie are familiar with the image of Mickey Mouse in his wizard's hat, conducting the bucket-carting mops. In Disney's shockingly unnecessary new live-action version of The Sorcerer's Apprentice, the guy from She's Out of My League casts the mop spell to help him clean up his lab for a big date with a hot radio DJ. That sentence may contain everything you need to know about the picture.

The film begins with a pre-title sequence so discombobulated and poorly stream-lined, it feels as though it should begin with a deep-voiced narration of "Previously on The Sorcerer's Apprentice!" It's a bunch of hooey about the "war between sorcerers" back in 740 AD, and the three protégé of Merlin, and one of them is evil, and the other is trapped in a doll with a force of pure evil, or something like that. At any rate, the only one to survive is a badly-bewigged Nicolas Cage, whose "Balthazar" spends the next several hundred years attempting to find the "Prime Merlinian." This sounds like some kind of obfuscating stock market term, but it's actually the successor to Merlin; Cage goes around putting a tiny dragon ring on potential sorcerers, as if it's Cinderella's slipper.

There's more plot to unpack in the first act, but it's mighty dull, so let's compress and move on. Point is, the ring fits Dave (Jay Baruchel), a gawky physics student, so Balthazar enlists him to recover the doll, and then trains him to meet his fate as the Prime Merlinian (the repetition of the term doesn't make it any less awkward in the movie, either). And hijinks and special effects ensue, and Cage gets lots of opportunities to glower and grimace and posture and generally look goofy.

The Sorcerer's Apprentice reteams Cage with his National Treasure 1 and 2 director Jon Turteltaub, a reunion I approach with about the same degree of enthusiasm as Brian Robbins and Eddie Murphy recapturing some of that Norbit/Meet Dave magic. There's precious little evidence that Turtletaub can, at even a basic level, put a movie together (his filmography includes such gems as Instinct and Phenomenon); the only indication that he's maturing as a filmmaker is that he manages to wait 50 minutes before having our hero get hit in the nuts. As a director, he's got no sense of pace or forward momentum--every scene feels like we're joining it in progress, and he uses the soundtrack of loathsome vanilla rock to spackle over the considerable narrative gaps.

He gets no help from the by-the-numbers screenplay, which is credited to a total of no less than five different writers. The dialogue is strictly expository and the plot is mumbo-jumbo; the film's idea of a clever exchange is to have Balthazar light up the sorcerer's circle and tell his apprentice, "Once you enter, you cannot go back," to which Dave replies, "So I should probably pee first?" Five writers it took to write this shit?

Baruchel does the best he can with his cliché role, and manages to put a spin on a few of his lines, but he's trying embarrassingly hard--he does a face-palm at the climax that would have been cut out of any competent silent movie for being too broad. His courtship with Becky (the fetching Teresa Palmer) is initially sweet, though it gets sticker and stickier the more time they spend on it. Alfred Molina pops up, presumably to subsidize his recent stage work, but he's playing way under his skills; Toby Kebbell, as his underling, appears to have been directed to do his best Russell Brand impersonation.

And then there's Nicolas Cage, who it pretty much goes without saying is half-assing it here--though I'll admit to scarcely blaming him for phoning it in, since every time he takes a risk and makes a decent movie (Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Lord of War, Matchstick Men) it tanks, while his stinkers clean up (this one, surprisingly, didn't). But he's astonishingly bad here; when he solemnly tells the young couple that "No one knows how much time they have... to be with the ones they care about," or when he is clearly meant to choke up when confessing to young Dave, "I have been searching... so long..." you can't help but snicker at his high school-level theatrics. Any randomly selected soap opera actor is more convincing; it's the kind of performance that makes you forget he was ever any good.

Even when the effects impress us at the climax, the moron dialogue ("I brought a little science with me!" Dave proclaims) knocks us right back out of the scene, and someone badly needed to sit composer Trevor Rabin down for a "dude, seriously, calm your score down" talk (is there anything more depressing than unexciting events scored with overexcited music?). He does his most cringe-inducing work during the big car chase through Times Square, where the rock guitars hit just as the warring sorcerers transform their automobiles into snazzy sports cars. Did a ten-year-old write this? Oh, sorry, five ten-year-olds.

The story and screenplay credits aren't the only ones overloaded--I count nine separate producers. These aren't just idle numbers; when you've got that many cooks in the kitchen, the resulting film isn't burdened by a unique voice or much in the way of passion. It turns out exactly the way this one does: as a soulless, empty piece of noisy product. When I heard about The Sorcerer's Apprentice, I couldn't think of one single reason why it needed to exist. Having sat through all 111 minutes of the film itself, I still don't have one.

"The Sorcerer's Apprentice" debuts tomorrow on DVD and Blu-ray.

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