REVIEWED: THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE
August 19, 2010 Leave a comment
Nicolas Cage no doubt holds claim to one of the most inconsistent CVs of any major Hollywood star; for every Leaving Las Vegas, Adaptation and Bad Lieutenant, there is a Bangkok Dangerous, Next or The Wicker Man. On the basis of his recent work in the blockbuster arena, expectations were understandably low when he donned the pointy shoes, cap and trench coat to play the titular sorcerer in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, yet in fact, with a well-cast roster of comics behind a surprisingly witty script, Apprentice is one of this Summer’s little surprises, even if it is far from perfect.
The story begins in 740AD, with Merlin taking three apprentices under his wing; Horvath (Alfred Molina), Balthazar (Cage) and Veronica (Monica Belluci). However, Horvath turns on his clan, forming a pact with the evil sorceress Morgana le Fay (Alice Krige), leaving Merlin dead and Veronica imprisoned within a Matryoshka doll-like device called the Grimhold. A dying Merlin leaves Balthazar a special ring that will seek out the Prime Merlinian – the only person capable of destroying Morgana once and for all – and when Balthazar reunites with college student Dave Stutler (Jay Baruchel) in 2010, ten years after he first gave him the dragon ring to try on, Balthazar hopes that Dave is ready to put Horvath and Morgana to rest for good. Dave, however, is less than convinced; he’s more interested in physics and the attention of old acquaintance Becky (Teresa Palmer). Once Balthazar shows up on a giant metal eagle, however, Dave tends to be a little more game…
Fantasy films are a dime a dozen, and yes, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice devotes a lot of its runtime to reinforcing formula, but it is also uncommonly self-aware for something so deeply steeped in mythology, making light of its own campiness and reinforcing a sense of fun over serious business. It also has some thrilling visuals, brisk action sequences, and performances which are pitch-perfect in realising the tone that director John Turteltaub shoots for. The plot isn’t especially rousing – Dave and Balthazar battle through a few of Horvath’s buddies before the inevitable showdown with him and Morgana – but the colourful characters and solid pacing keep this enchantingly odd film snappily entertaining for the most part.
It takes all of one glimpse at Nicolas Cage’s get-up in this film to gauge that he looks absolutely ridiculous, but that’s the point; this isn’t Cage in the unrestrained mode we know he can achieve, but he has fun with it, and plays the role with the slight air of mania that it requires (though don’t expect anything of the Bad Lieutenant variety). Better cast is Baruchel in the type of role that he has perfected in his last few films – the socially awkward, clueless nerd – and paired with Cage, their amusing back-and-forth banter keeps the talkier moments from becoming stale. Better still are the villains; Alfred Molina can knock out these sorts of roles in his sleep, and he plays the fur coat-wearing, cane-totting Big Bad with the menace you’d expect, while as his minion, pompous celebrity magician and Depeche Mode lookalike Drake Stone, Toby Kebbel is hilariously dim-witted, and with his white-dyed hair and 80s clothing, looks totally absurd. Monica Belluci, meanwhile, doesn’t really get to do much and is mostly window dressing, while Teresa Palmer’s Becky is much the same.
The problem with so many fantasy films is that they lack the imagination to achieve the sense of spectacle that they pump those hundreds of millions of dollars into. With a $150 price tag, Apprentice could very well have become another soulless smattering of derivative plotting and uninspired, mechanised visual effects. Granted, the plot is a middle-of-the-road retelling of Goethe’s 1797 ballad, but the execution – of throwing mechanical eagles, gigantic fireballs, and all other sort of arcane trickery our way – far outweighs any narrative complaints. What’s more, the self-aware nature of the characters is especially refreshing; Horvath at one point uses the by-now clichéd Jedi Mind Trick-type spell to his advantage, yet the playful Stone rather amusing notes the reference to Star Wars himself. There’s also a car chase – perhaps the first in an out-and-out fantasy film – that keeps things from becoming too familiar for the genre. Postmodern touches like these keep the viewer on their toes.
It offers little in the way of surprises – save perhaps for a peculiar and rather funny spoof of Fantasia – but The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is that rare fantasy film keen to poke fun at itself and the genre. Some sections are fairly uninspired – most of all those desperately expository first five minutes – but there’s also enough imagination here to keep things agreeably off-kilter and just a little unpredictable. Given the surfeit of prime, purely entertaining blockbusters this summer, Apprentice is an assured – if not so original – dose of overblown silliness, and it goes down a treat.