'Apprentice': Bruckheimer, You're Fired!
Mary Pols, Special to MSN Movies
Everybody's different. If you had the rights to an iconic bit of film history, such as "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," that joyful chunk of 1940's "Fantasia" in which Mickey Mouse attempts to control a bewitched mop, you might say to yourself, "Wouldn't change a thing! Let's just put it on a loop for posterity." But Jerry Bruckheimer, a man keenly attuned to possibilities, he looks at Mickey in a robe and thinks to himself, "How can we make this work for Nicolas Cage?"
The answer: crassly, loudly and with the kind of cheesy special effects we all thought were top-notch in the 1980s -- the lightning bolts that zig and zag across the Manhattan skyline are very "Ghostbusters." Bruckheimer's "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" is vulgar and of fleeting interest, but when you're sitting in front of it with a big bucket of popcorn, it goes down far more easily than you'd ever expect from a bastardization of a treasured classic. We could grumble about Goethe rolling over in his grave -- he wrote "Der Zauberlehrling," the 1797 poem that inspired the original Disney version -- except for all we know, he might actually be reaching into our bag of popcorn, whispering, "Das leather jacket Herr Cage wears is just vhat I had in mind for Der Sorcerer!"
But at the beginning of Bruckheimer's "Apprentice," all Goethe's ghost would be saying is, "Vhat's going on?" The frantically overstuffed prologue liberally expands the legend of Merlin and Morgan le Fay (here called Morgana and played by Alice Krige) to include three apprentices to the great Arthurian wizard. In the grand tradition known as a conventional Hollywood plot, their ranks include a noble hot shot, Balthazar (Cage); a treacherous talent, Horvath (Alfred Molina, one of our favorite villains); and Veronica, the love interest who brought about the division. (Of course she did; she's played by Monica Bellucci.)
From this whirlwind of exposition, we glean that Morgana, in pursuit of a spell called "The Rising" (which is supposed to conjure the dead, but mostly makes us think about Bruce Springsteen's album) tricked and killed Merlin, at which point Veronica made the supreme sacrifice of imprisoning Morgana in her own body. Balthazar, acting as a magical cleaning crew, stuffed the whole gang into a series of nesting dolls, which he then toted around for a century or two.
With his dying breath, Merlin spoke of a successor, a boy who Balthazar should find and train as his apprentice. He'd be the only one powerful enough to kill Morgana. Merlin referred to this boy as the Prime SomethingOrOther, which sounded, as mumbled by Cage and others like the Prime Millennium or the Prime Meridian and conjured up images of sleazy mortgage holders or credit card companies (more likely it was supposed to be the Prime Myrddin, a reference to one of the literary variations on Merlin's name). Either way, the planet-saver turns out to be an NYU student played by Jay Baruchel ("She's Out of My League").
Conceptually, this seems a bit of a stretch, but remember, Mickey Mouse played the Sorcerer's Apprentice in 1940, so why not a Jerry Lewis type in 2010? And as the unwitting Prime Myrddin, aka Dave, Baruchel is likeable. He's a social misfit, still recovering from his first encounter with sorcery, a trip to a magic shop 10 years prior that ended badly, with Balthazar locked in an urn with Horvath for 10 years, young Dave a sniveling wreck and his grade school classmates, including his crush Becky, believing him to be an unhinged pants-wetter.
The movie proceeds exactly as you'd expect, only longer and with much less insanity than you'd expect from Cage (it's a relaxed performance, easier than we're used to from him). Balthazar and his apprentice develop a decent rapport and set out to save the world from Horvath and Morgana. Becky (Teresa Palmer) is all grown up and handily, not only still cute as can be, but also attending NYU, giving Dave a chance to win her heart.
The only matter of any real curiosity is whether director Jon Turteltaub (who teamed with Cage for the "National Treasure" movies) and his handful of writers will work in a reference to the "Fantasia" version of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice." They do, but if you don't happen to know "Fantasia," the homage will likely seem like just an incongruous slapstick involving Dave's highly unlikely urge to mop the floor of an old subway tunnel. It's much more silly than sublime, but at least that old familiar piece of music, Paul Dukas' "L'apprenti sorcier," still sounds just as good as ever.
Mary Pols is a Bay Area-based journalist. She reviews movies for Time.com and was for many years a film critic for the San Jose Mercury News, Oakland Tribune and Contra Costa Times. She is also the author of a memoir, "Accidentally on Purpose," published in 2008 by Ecco/Harper Collins. When she's inspired, usually by something weird, she blogs about it at www.maryfpols.com.