Sean wanted to see magic and explosions in addition to dark dreamscapes this past weekend, so we spent a lot of time at the movie theater. I wasn’t nearly as excited about The Sorcerer’s Apprentice as I was about Inception, but I can compromise. Besides, the preview reminded me a bit of Pirates of the Caribbean, for which I have perhaps too soft a spot, so I figured, what the hell. Broad, campy performance at the center; arch, knowing humor; grand but goofy special effects—I can be into that.
Unfortunately for me, I was too optimistic. Oh, sure, Nicolas Cage is game, giving his kooky all, and that’s fun enough, but the movie itself is shambling and lifeless. Six people share credit for the screenplay, and it shows. The movie is packed with tacked-on character motivations and poorly conceived backstory, and the previews give away all the best special effects, so even that bright spot has been aggressively dimmed. Pirates, I think, is dumb in a fun, clever, energetic way; Sorcerer is dumb in a dumb way, which isn’t much fun at all.
So here’s the dumb premise: Dave (Jay Baruchel) is just another ordinary, awkward geek until he learns that he’s actually a sorcerer. And not just any sorcerer—oh no—he’s the Prime Merlinian (the term alone makes me want to gag), his coming prophesied by the great Merlin himself. Balthazar (Cage) has searched for centuries to find and train this heir to Merlin’s powers because only the Merlinian (retch) can finally defeat Morgana (Alice Krige), who has been imprisoned—along with Veronica (Monica Bellucci), the martyred love of Balthazar’s incredibly long life—in a set of nesting dolls for all that time. Dave, however, is reluctant to take on the sorcerer’s mantle because the training might interfere with his infatuation with Becky (Teresa Palmer). He had a crush on the blandly pretty blonde when they were both ten years old, and now that he’s stumbled upon her again a decade later, he has recommitted to that crush with enthusiasm. But when Maxim (Alfred Molina), one of Morgana’s followers, escapes from the nesting dolls and resolves to free his mistress so that together, for no good reason, they can unleash a zombie apocalypse upon the world, Dave reluctantly agrees to help Balthazar as best he can.
Whatever. A dumb plot isn’t necessarily the kiss of death in a movie like this. All you really need is sufficient narrative to string together a larky sense of humor and a series of cool-looking effects. It won’t be brilliant, but it’ll be moderately diverting, and that’s Good Enough. Fine. But the Sorcerer plot is actively obnoxious. First, the whole reluctant superhero thing is played out, and Baruchel, already prone to whininess, does not need any encouragement on that front. Second, the forced parallels between Balthazar’s decades-long relationship with Veronica, his partner and equal, and Dave’s twenty-four hour “relationship” with a girl he barely knows is insulting and stupid. I kept waiting for Balthazar to take offense and put Dave in his place, but no, Cage is forced to smile indulgently even when Dave is behaving like a spoiled brat when the Fate of the World is at stake. Please.
Worse, Maxim is eventually dragged into the allegedly romantic nonsense because (spoiler!—not that anyone should care) he apparently loved Veronica, too, and turned evil when Balthazar got the girl. Never mind that Molina hasn’t actually been playing Maxim as a vengeful, lovesick wretch—all of a sudden we have to watch him get all broody. Why is that necessary? Does an evil wizard truly need a reason to unleash a zombie apocalypse? No! That’s just what evil wizards do! Why not just let Molina stalk about being entertainingly depraved? Why belatedly decide that he, too, should be moping? Moping is not fun! No moping!
You know what is fun, though? Making the golden bull down on Wall Street come alive and attack dumb Dave. (I’ve always kind of loved that bull, mainly because the photos people take with it often look vaguely like they’re worshipping the damn thing, which makes me think that Moses will turn up any minute to start smiting people. Good times!) The movie really was filmed in New York—not in Vancouver or on a sound stage somewhere—and it makes good use of location, which gives Sorcerer some flavor it might not have otherwise. See also: bringing to life the giant metal eagles on the Chrysler Building and turning the Chinatown parade float into a real dragon. In fact, the magic itself is entertaining more often than not, at least when it’s imaginative and crafty, not just a bunch of plasma balls being shot back and forth. I couldn’t help but grin when Balthazar knowingly needles his reluctant apprentice by arguing that magic duels might be crazy but they are fun. Because he’s right! Magic should be fun! More magic, less mooning! Is that really so hard?