To be honest, I didn't go to The Sorcerer's Apprentice (opens July 14, 2010) expecting it to be especially satisfying as a fantasy film, or even as a mindless summer CGI-fest. I've long since given up expecting to be entertained by Nicolas Cage's rough-hewn, joyless performances. The writers' previous credits are Race to Witch Mountain and Prince of Persia, neither of which will win the screenplay Oscar. So why did I go? To see if there were any mop jokes.
I expected a brief, wry pop-culture reference ("Can I borrow that mop?" "No."). It turns out my expectation was wrong. In fact, most of my preconceptions were wrong.
This movie started with Cage wanting to do an adaptation of the famous "Sorcerer's Apprentice" segment in Fantasia (1940), a synergy of Paul Dukas's 1897 symphonic poem and the 1797 Goethe poem it was based on. While Mickey Mouse's smugness-turned-frantic desperation is one of the most memorable moments in film history, the segment is so self-contained that it's impossible to embellish out to a feature-length film.
So the end result has mutated into the story of a boy discovered to be the true successor to Merlin by the sorcerer Balthazar, who's been searching for this chosen one for a thousand years. If the trailers, which contain scenes not in the movie, are any guide, the radical mutations this movie underwent from conception onward continued right through to the day the prints were shipped out to cinemas.
Here's what's interesting, though. Normally, that kind of ungainly, lurching development away from a core concept creates a Frankenstein's monster kind of movie, full of lumpy, grafted-on bits that have nothing to do with each other and collectively don't work. Here, the opposite effect is achieved. The one scene that doesn't belong in the movie is the one that derived directly from the film's original conception.
Because the movie had radically departed from its Fantasia origins I expected nothing more than a fleeting joke about mops. Instead, director Jon Turteltaub elected to repeat the Mickey Mouse sequence more or less verbatim, complete with the dramatic intervention of the master at the end -- but without consequence or payoff.
The mop scene is a mistake in terms of its source material: the Fantasia segment establishes that the apprentice starts the mops and pails going because he's lazy and sees magic as a shortcut to avoid actual work; the situation getting out of control is his comeuppance, and the master's return his humiliation. Here, Dave (Jay Baruchel) is rushing to get ready for a girl coming over, and starts the cleaning supplies going on their own so that he can shower and accomplish two urgent necessities at once -- not the same thing as laziness at all.
Worse, its position and provenance at the literal and figurative center of the movie should have some impact on the plot, but in fact there's no effect whatsoever. The scene is a storyline cul-de-sac, and neither Dave's self-esteem -- he constantly derides himself until the girl, Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), convinces him he's worth her attentions -- nor his relationship with Balthazar (Cage) is shifted in the slightest -- all the relationship development happens before and after the debacle with the mops.
In fact, the one worthwhile moment in the Fantasia-derived segment is the bit that's original to the movie: Dave meeting Becky at the door and trying to shoo her away, while a pair of mops tries to clean him from behind.
Leaving the mop sequence aside, the rest of the movie works surprisingly well. The plot holds together nicely -- there could have been a string of disconnected set-pieces that don't advance the characters, as in Percy Jackson, rather than just the one. The visual effects are uniformly excellent and never overwrought.
What helps sell The Sorcerer's Apprentice is the fact that it's done straight: the premise of a young sorcerer named Dave could have played out in a tongue-in-cheek, winking sort of way, which would have robbed us of our ability to care.
Jay Baruchel (She's Out of My League) plays up exactly the right sort of "physics nerd." He's confident in his abilities and deriving great joy from his experiments (he's built a giant Tesla coil apparatus in an abandoned subway turnaround chamber) but he's also fairly certain life won't offer him anything more than that one compartment of happiness.
When Balthazar drags him into his world, Dave has to wrestle with the the lure of magic on the one hand and his own self-protecting resistance to anything where he might end up a failure on the other -- a process mirrored by his push me/pull you alternation between hesitation toward Becky and trying to impress her. Baruchel's evocation of these conflicts is pitch-perfect, and his cautious approach to his role as apprentice and, ultimately, being the chosen one, develops in lovely symmetry with the story.
As much a revelation as Baruchel's performance is the discovery that Nicolas Cage, after all these years, is perfectly capable of smiling! It's not like all his performances of late have been dour glowering -- but it certainly was a delight to see Cage enjoying a role and engaging both the material and his costars and a satisfying way. It's not a brilliant performance; he's not nearly as convincing as Baruchel. But Cage and Baruchel working together create a rapport that lifts the whole film.
While we are praising performances, let us not forget the invaluable Alfred Molina, playing the urbane villain Horvath. Molina has some great moments, both dramatic and comedic, and he skillfully navigates playing the big moments big while underplaying the comedy like the seasoned pro he is.
The rest of the cast is perfectly fine. Palmer does a good job with Becky, but her character exists as an object of desire more than as a participant in the plot (up until the climax, anyway): this is a boys' film, where the motivations involve love of, and rivalry over, idealized women. In that context we also get Veronica (Monica Bellucci, Magdalen in Passion of the Christ), Balthazar's love, who's been trapped in a magical nesting doll for a thousand years and so reduced to more of a concept than a woman. Toby Kebbell, as Horvath's comedy-relief apprentice, a mild send-up of self-important young stage magicians, also gets the job done, but he doesn't have a character to play on the level of Dave.
There is another scene that might not part of your first conception of a sorcery film, which is the lengthy car chase. But they do some cool things with it (morphing the cars and briefly entering a mirror world). And besides, all movies have to have car chases now, right? Even the last Tina Fey movie had one.
The Sorcerer's Apprentice has not been getting glowing reviews, but one of the standards I use for myself is whether I'd want to see a film a second time. In this case the answer is definitely yes, largely thanks to an excellent, carefully measured performance by Jay Baruchel.