(Originally published in The Palo Alto Weekly)
About 30 minutes into “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” after a particularly dramatic magical showdown, sorcerer-in-training Dave (Jay Baruchel) looks incredulously at his new master, Balthazar (Nicolas Cage).
“Are you insane?” Dave asks.
“Little bit,” Balthazar responds drily.
That exchange can, in so many words, sum up “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” the latest offering from producer Jerry Bruckheimer, the guy who brought us “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “National Treasure.” “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” follows the Bruckheimer tradition of big stars and big special effects, often at the expense of truly compelling characters or a believable plot. However, what sets this film apart from other action-adventure blockbusters of the summer is that it is aware of its own absurdity and wastes no time attempting to convince the audience that what it’s watching has any significance whatsoever.
The plot is pure fast-paced, summer-popcorn inanity. While on a school field trip, lovesick fourth-grader Dave meets Balthazar, a 1,000-year-old sorcerer literally locked in an epic battle against evil sorcerers Horvath (Alfred Molina) and Morgana (Alice Krige). The encounter leaves Dave the laughingstock of his classmates but Balthazar convinced that he’s the young boy he’s been looking for lo these many years who will succeed the greatest wizard of them all, Merlin.
Fast forward 10 years. Balthazar manages to convince the nerdy (and still lovesick) college student Dave to learn the craft of sorcery and help him defeat Horvath and Morgana once and for all. Together, Baruchel and Cage have surprisingly good chemistry as the skeptical student and the tutor patient yet assured in his coaching methods. While Baruchel’s Dave is basically a live-action version of his chatty, dorky Hiccup in “How to Train Your Dragon,” Cage as Balthazar is understated and kind of cool.
The film’s action sequences are fun, if more than a little predictable. Much of the movie was filmed on location on the streets of Manhattan, which gives the film a neat sense of authenticity despite the ridiculousness of the magical pursuits themselves (think “Harry Potter” wizardry without any real fear of bodily harm). Mention must be made of the film’s clever nod to the Sorcerer’s Apprentice sequence in the 1940 Disney classic “Fantasia,” in which Dave makes like Mickey and tries to use his powers on a few mops and buckets. It’s this unabashed silliness that makes “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” enjoyable in a mindless kind of way.
The film falls short in its supporting characters and smaller plot details, which ultimately leave the viewer detached from the film’s suspense. Alfred Molina does his best as the villainous Horvath, but we are told next to nothing about him or the extent of his wickedness. Dave’s love interest Becky has an integral role in the climactic battle, apparently, yet we don’t see her carry out her mission. And don’t even try to understand how the sorcerers’ magic, an odd combination of spells and physics, works.
But then, in a movie so confident in its own insanity, who really cares about making sense?