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Cinema Signal: Too much of a good thing overstuffs this pic with more magical CGI amazements than needed.

The Haunted Mansion: From the Magic Kingdom to the Movies
by Jason Surrell
(Discounted Paperback from Amazon)
. "The Sorcerer's Apprentice"

The magic I need is a sign from Merlin advising me on a rating for this action/love story/coming-of-age/effects-laden thriller. Where the problem lies is in the balancing between what works and what doesn't. So, while the attractions are a Nicolas Cage fully enjoying himself with the unworldly powers of a crack CGI team; an engenue actress who gives meaning to the term eye-candy; and some funny and damn cleverly designed magic-act routines that perk up the film through the yawn period--the counterweight is a co-star I had trouble believing in; a, perhaps, too thin premise to survive the time alotted to it and, well, the underwhelming effect of a pot full of talent.

A prologue takes us back to 740 AD, when the master sorcerer of the ages, Merlin (James A. Stephens), in a battle to the death, submits to greater forces and leaves his mortal coil. But not before he manages to turn the supremely evil Morgana Le Fay (Alice Krige)--who wishes to end human life as we know it--into a Russian nesting doll, a form in which she's destined to remain until a follower attains enough power to free her. That task remains undone, but in the year 2000 changes are in the air as 10-year old nerdly dude Dave Stutler (Jake Cherry) is trying to get noticed by his gorgeous classmate Becky (Peyton List).

The other players in this stew include Merlin's apprentice Balthazar Blake (Nicolas Cage), his old pal Horvath (Alfred Molina) turned enemy when he sided with Morgana--reason enough for the omniscient Merlin to nest him in the doll box, as well. Unfortunately, Balthazar's honey, Veronica, entangled into the soul of Morgana, winds up in the doll box, too, meaning that she doesn't get released until Morgana does. Ahh, Balthazar. He has a problem, but his life, as the protector of the nested doll box, is a long one.

What he needs as he journeys through the ages is a back up plan and, fortunately, Merlin has provided one. There is another sorcerer's apprentice who will one day emerge and be the only one with the necessary power to destroy Morgana and, by extension, save the world's population. Balthazar's quest is to find this individual.

Destiny takes over 10 years later when a note between grown-up Dave (now Jay Baruchel) and Becky (stunning Teresa Palmer), still classmates, is blown away in a gust of (magical) wind. It flies across the city and leads the erstwhile young lover (now a more than promising student of physics), smack into Balthazar's store. It's a dusty den filled with a trove of magical apparatus and delights, including the nested doll box containing Merlin's captives. What it isn't, is a place where much commercial activity is going on. Business is the last thing on this proprieter's mind.

As this foreordained connection between sorcerer and apprentice ignites the themes of the legend, story threads and participants are laid out in a mesmerizing first act that would blow the socks off any 9-year old and provide considerable interest to adults. Possibilities, one feels, are ripe. The action begins when twitchy Dave inadvertently unleashes Morgana-disciple Horvath (Alfred Molina) from his layer in the box, and from there it's a Jerry Bruckheimer feast of effects-laden sparks and gravity-defying collisions.

It seems clear from this that, when the studios are putting together a big, expensive tentpole action project, they have a recipe of "must" elements that have to go into it. However well the original script was crafted, the bottom line has to be served, calling for a corps of screenwriters (Matt Lopez, "Race to Witch Mountain," Doug Miro and Carlo Bernard, "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time," Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal, "Mona Lisa Smile") providing x-number of minutes of visual thrills to capture the target demographic and ensure a payback.

Unfortunately, the storyline suffered by the overbrew of effects. Oddly, in the context, the glowing fireball being hurled back and forth as a measure of relative magical energy was so overused that it ultimately indicated a lack of uninspiration. Maybe that's why the project had almost as many writers as producers.

As an idea that Cage dreamed up, his "National Treasure" director Jon Turtletaub perhaps tried too hard to satisfy his star and, in the process, overstuffs the brew until the cauldron boils over like an oil spill in the Gulf.

Two cast members' appearance here are in reprisal roles from past successes. Alfred Molina seems to have walked off the set of Superman 2 and turned his Doc Ock personna into servicability as the very elegant Horvath. But, as we've seen this villain act before, freshness to the supernatural enterprise was limited.

The second of my reprisers is Monica Bellucci who brings iconic beauty to any role. Here, we remember her Mirror Queen in "The Brothers Grimm" somewhat mirrored in her brief appearances here.

Fortunately for them, both actors have enough of a credit list to have no worries about type casting.

Baruchel is perfect for one kind of movie. "How to Train Your Dragon" and "She's Out of My League," have rendered him into a very hot young actor. But I believe that by going for boxoffice heat they made a fatal miscalculation in thinking his gangly awkwardness would adequately fulfill a role in need of of charisma.

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The DVD
SPECIAL FEATURES:
  • The Making Of
  • Deleted Scenes
    The Sorcerer's Apprentice (Three-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo+Digital Copy)
    SPECIAL FEATURES:
  • In Enhanced High Definition:
  • Magic In the City
  • The Science of Sorcery
  • Making Magic Real
  • Fantasia: Reinventing a Classic
  • The World's Coolest Car
  • 5 Deleted Scenes
  • Outtakes
    The Sorcerer's Apprentice (Soundtrack):
    Leonard Bernstein & The New York Philharmonic

  • As a Cage fan, I enjoyed the gusto with which he sunk his teeth into the Balthazar character--if only there wasn't so much of him. By the last act and the grand finale, the tricks seem routine and the love between Balthazar and Veronica as flat as a spent balloon. They kiss, but old Balthazar doesn't seem like a man whose powers of concentration lean toward romance.

    If there is a good reason to see this movie in a first-run theatre it's because of the sheer brilliance of the visual quality on the screen. Cinematographer Bojan Bazelli, production designer Naomi Shohan and art directors David Lazan and David Swayze contributed mightily to make the magic show a wonder. Original music by composer Trevor Rabin added his supportive flavors and tempi and the New York location manager came up with some beauties that provided just right atmosphere.

    So, there's my problem with balance. There are certainly some good things here, including a few excellent magical concepts. Cage's concept was a promising one and, with unflagging attention to the needs of the story, it might have earned a green light. But, alas, the over-indulgence tips the wand toward weak magic.

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                                          ~~  Jules Brenner  
    

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