Both movies and video games have a long history of looking to other forms of entertainment for inspiration. Many times, the two art forms even borrow from each other. Recently, Disney has turned inward to its classic cartoons, and Mickey Mouse in particular, when looking for that creative edge. On the video game side, the interactive team has been working hard on Epic Mickey while on the film side, the Mouse House has once again teamed with Jerry Bruckheimer for the summer blockbuster season. This time, instead of turning a ride into a film, Bruckheimer's production company has done what many thought impossible: taken the concept behind one of Disney's most famous cartoon shorts and turned it into an engaging motion picture.
For many, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" will forever be immortalized by a hapless Mickey Mouse who ends up in over his head after taking his master's magical hat for a spin. That specific incarnation even appeared on the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive as part of the Fantasia video game. Although Bruckheimer's "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" makes more than a few nods toward its source material (be sure to stay after the credits), the core of the film stands well on its own.
The story begins far in the past, highlighting the protracted battle between the famed Arthurian wizard and his arch-nemesis Morgana (Alice Krige). Just when it looks like Merlin has the upper hand, he is betrayed by Maxim Horvath (Alfred Molina), one of his three apprentices. The remaining two, Veronica (Monica Bellucci) and Balthazar Blake (Nicolas Cage), manage to turn the tide but at a great cost. Veronica sacrifices her freedom in order to trap Morgana within a magical prison. With his dying breath, Merlin casts a spell on Blake to prevent him from aging, but also entrusting him with a quest: He must search the ends of the earth for an apprentice with the potential to destroy Morgana's essence once and for all.
More than a thousand years later, Blake finds that potential apprentice in Dave Stutler (Jay Baruchel). Traumatized after a brief encounter with Blake and Horvath when he was 10 years old, Stutler is simply trying to finish his final project for college and graduate. Unfortunately for him, when you're seen as the deciding force in the ultimate battle of good and evil (by both sides, no less), you don't really have the option of walking away.
Playing Stutler as a reserved, yet intelligent, geek Baruchel brings a likeable naiveté to the character. He's clumsy and terrible with the ladies, yet has a heart of gold and a deep understanding of science. It is that very background that helps cement Stutler's initial distrust of Blake and his claims of magical prowess. Thankfully, the film doesn't saddle the audience with an in-depth explanation of how the powers work. They simply do. When they go big, the film is at its best.
Although there are a few early peeks, it isn't until the Chinatown sequence when both Stutler and the audience get the first real look at what these sorcerers can really do. It is here that the movie shows off some excellent CGI work, with a paper dragon turning into the real thing and chasing Stutler up, down and through local buildings. His mentor's single word of advice? An aptly understated, "Run." The producers also deserve kudos for knowing the difference between Cantonese and Mandarin in one of the key dialogue exchanges. It's a minor touch, but one sure to be appreciated by multilingual viewers.
Despite Stutler being the titular character, his role as the apprentice is nearly usurped by that of Drake Stone (Toby Kebbell), apprentice to Horvath. Very much the opposite of Stutler and Blake, Stone idolizes Horvath, while Horvath merely tolerates the inept magician. Stone may be a student of the dark arts, but, to Horvath's despair, he is more interested in fame and fashion than world domination. Think of him as an over-the-top version of Criss Angel, and you have a pretty good idea of Kebbell's characterization. He plays the role right at the edge of absurdity but never quite steps over it, making him a perfect foil for Molina's Horvath. Kebbell didn't have a chance to show off his comic chops in "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time," but he's guaranteed to be one of the most vividly remembered characters in "The Sorcerer's Apprentice."
Splitting its time between character development and all-out action, the film is very family-friendly. The film stays at the low end of its PG rating the entire time, with little in the way of sex or violence. Yes, things blow up and bad guys do kill a few people, but the deaths occur in a bloodless fashion. Still, the film is no lesser for it, and the pre-teen crowd at our screening seemed to enjoy the movie just as much as the adults.
It is the adults in the audience that are most likely to appreciate the broom sequence, which is the most direct homage to the original "Fantasia" short. Much like Mickey, Stutler is a bit overwhelmed when he attempts to use magic as a shortcut to quickly clean up before a date. The bit stands on its own and works in the context of the film, though if you've seen the cartoon short, it's difficult to not imagine Mickey running around in Baruchel's shoes.
In the end, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" ends up being exactly what it sets out to be: a fantasy film for the younger set, with a healthy mix of action and comedy thrown in. It's big, bombastic and some of the literary tropes are classic hero/villain stereotypes, but ultimately, it doesn't matter, as "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" is simply a whole lot of fun. If you're a film critic looking for deep meaning, you probably won't enjoy this one, but if you're a kid (or a kid at heart), it's going to be right up your alley. Here's hoping that the video game ends up being as enjoyable as the film.
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