You’d think that the combination of awesome that is Nic Cage, Alfred Molina, and plasma orb throwing would make The Sorcerer’s Apprentice a sure bet. Sadly, this was not the case. While Jon Turteltaub brings us a reasonably entertaining romp through New York with plenty of magic, wizardry, and Cage one-liners — the viewer isn’t left with a lot of heart, or much reason to get emotionally invested in the characters.
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is based on a 1797 poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, about a…well, a sorcerer and his apprentice. Most people know the story based on Disney’s Fantasia, the part of the apprentice played by the iconic Mickey Mouse.
In the current iteration, a lot of story and background have been created to make this a full length film. The apprentice is Dave Stutler (Jay Baruchel), a physics major at NYU with a past he’d like to forget. Ten years earlier while on a field trip, Dave has a chance encounter with Balthazar Blake (Nicolas Cage), an ancient wizard who has been walking the earth in search of the bloodline heir to Merlin’s ring; the eventual wearer destined to defeat a great evil in the future. Young dave learns the ring belongs to him, but before any apprenticing can commence, Balthazar’s nemesis Maxim Horvath (Alfred Molina) appears and through a series of explodey events, Balthazar and Horvath vanish — leaving Dave with ten years to bury the experience and pretend it never happened. When the two battling wizards land in his life once again, Dave is forced to come to terms with hs destiny as a great wizard under the watchful eye of Balthazar and the clock ticking down to a final showdown with Horvath and various baddies. All this, of course, while pursuing his dreamgirl in fellow student Becky (Teresa Palmer).
From what I’ve described, there seems like there is a lot going on, and in a very window dressing sort of way — there is. We get hints of stories and situations that would be exciting if we had seen them, but the actual story being told is rushed and short on hooks to draw you in.
I’m a huge Nic Cage fan, and most of what he does no matter how wacky resonates with me somehow. Balthazar is a character you can easily get into — but less so for what you get in the majority of the film, and more because of where he came from. My biggest gripe in the film is the part that I liked the most, and that’s the implied history of Horvath and Balthazar.
Early on you learn that Horvath, Balthazar, and the sorceress Veronica (Monica Bellucci) were a team of trusted wizards working under the wing of Merlin to protect the good. There is a betrayal there between the two men that lends to a story all its own. We get snippets of these moments thousands of years ago, and the interaction between Balthazar and Horvath after the betrayal are compelling. I want this story, and because there was so much implied — it kept me invested in what was actually on screen probably more than was deserved.
This is not a bad film — the potential for greatness is all over the place; it simply needed more ambition — and more movie. With as big a story as they tried to tell in such a short time, it almost requires a bold hand from the start — a standard for scope that demands more films. The story is in there. A strong prequel focusing on Balthazar and Horvath would do a lot to bring gravity to the first film after the fact, and perhaps have enough punch to bring a third movie out of the gate swinging. I’d like too see that because, again — there is sense of depth to the characters that simply does not get the opportunity to be fully drawn out.
Instead, we’re rushed through the apprenticeship of Dave, rushed into his building a relationship with Balthazar, and rushed into a climactic battle that feels like it could have used another film to give it weight. When Dave finally comes into his own as a sorcerer; when he has his big moment, I wasn’t gripped at all. Stealing a page from the Harry Potter series, in this case, is a fantastic idea; these characters needed room to truly evolve. I had little reason to invest emotion in Dave, his relationship with Becky, his friends, the life he leads — nothing. Baruchel is a fine actor and I really like his mannerisms and timing, but there just wasn’t much there for him to work with. Also, really…the big trademark scene from Fantasia is unforgivably short and without any of the whimsy of the classic. Again, I cared about the film more for what was implied about the past than what was actually there.
Finally, this movie made me realize just how much extras bring to a scene. This is a very empty New York. The streets are far from teeming with activity, NYU looks vacant, and huge action scenes are devoid of diving pedestrians and honking cars. I realize that for benefit of certain action sequences, reality has to be suspended — and this is a story about wizards after all…but there is a car chase in the film that makes me wonder if this is New York post-pandemic.
It feels all that more startling when we’re dropped into a massive celebration in Chinatown with fluttering colored paper, lamps, dancing dragons, and streets filled with celebrating citizens. This is the most populated part of the film, and it leaves everything before and after looking strangely abandoned. Near the finale when magical happenings are a citywide spectacle, nobody but the main characters in the film are there to react to it. No sirens, no lights in windows coming on, not a single passerby. It’s jarring.
There is a lot that can be done with this story still, and again — I wouldn’t mind if someone got a second shot at it. I simply hope that whomever helms what could come, they remember that development is key, and extras are more than icing on the cake.
The Upside: The magic is pretty, well done, and fun to watch. Also, there is a great story to be told in Balthazar and Horvath, and if it is and done right, they could come out swinging with a third.
The Downside: Rushed, underdeveloped, and a vacant New York City.
On The Side: There were a few scenes where it looked like Nic Cage was going to have a, “Put…the bunny….back…in the box, ” moment. I sort of wish he had.