A few months ago, I had a discussion with a friend who argued that Nicolas Cage, particularly in his worst roles, seems to view the whole acting thing as a massive lark not to be taken seriously. I insisted that Cage is just terribly uneven. However, after Cage’s wigged out turns in Werner Herzog’s The Bad Lieutenant (2010), Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass (2010) and now Jon Turteltaub’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, I’m beginning to warm up to the idea that he might be at best our most subversive actor and at worst our most self-indulgent. You might not enjoy yourself at a Nicolas Cage flick, but that’s not going to stop him from getting his jollies. Who knows what’s going on in Cage’s head? (Where’s the Shadow when you need him?)
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice has all the earmarks of the worst of Cage’s mainstream fare, right down to the animal pelt hairpiece plopped upon his head (I call this one “wet yak”). Nevertheless, Cage seems to be enjoying himself, and by proxy, the film’s kind of fun, too.
A lot of this probably stems from the fact that this is Cage’s project. He originally pitched to Disney the idea of a live-action version of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” segment from Fantasia (1940). While there is a pretty cheesy version of this in Turteltaub’s film, the movie is a different animal than both the Fantasia segment and the two-centuries-old Goethe ballad it was based on. What we’re given is a fully fleshed-out story revolving around Nicolas Cage, who strikes the right balance of palatable and plain old odd as Balthazar Blake, an apprentice of Merlin the Magician’s (James A. Stephens, Sherlock Holmes). Balthazar has been tasked with a multi-millennial search for Merlin’s rightful heir. It seems there’s going to be one of these chosen-one types running around at some point—and finding him is important because he’s the only person who can finally destroy the evil Morgan le Fay, who currently happens to be trapped inside a magical nesting doll.
The search brings Balthazar to Dave (Jay Baruchel, She’s Out of My League), a modern-day college student—and your usual nebbish movie nerd—who turns out to be the Kwisatz Haderach of our little tale. The rest of the movie consists of Balthazar and Dave attempting to best the ornery Horvath (Alfred Molina), who wants to resurrect Morgana and—dare I say it?—rule the world.
This leads to all kinds of CGI fireworks and lots of wizard-on-wizard action. The film takes a sandbox approach to all of this that—like Horvath being attacked by strands of a beaded curtain—is occasionally clever and often entertaining. The film is surprisingly amusing when it isn’t slumming it in the realms of gaseous bulldog jokes and Baruchel being hit in his more sensitive regions with magical plasma bolts. Any movie that has a leather-pants-wearing and frosted-hair-sporting Criss Angel look-alike (Toby Kebbell, RocknRolla) being mistaken for a member of Depeche Mode can’t be all bad.
But this is only when the film gets things right. Unfortunately, there’s a lot it doesn’t quite nail, and with five credited writers, the movie is often too scattershot. The romantic subplot surrounding Dave and his boyhood crush (Teresa Palmer, Bedtime Stories) is just dull, while a lot of the movie feels worn-out. There’s nary a surprise to be found, which makes good chunks of the film feel tedious and trite. This isn’t enough to completely wreck the film, but the things it gets right aren’t exactly enough to raise the movie above mediocrity. Rated PG for fantasy action violence, some mild rude humor and brief language.