The Harry Potter knockoffs keep coming, quickly and with more than a tiny hint of desperation. The thought process seems to be: give the people lots of teenagers crossed with the supernatural, and see if you can spread it out over at least three, and possibly eight movies. That's eight times the ticket sales, don'tcha know! So we get goodness knows how many awful Twilight movies. We get the stuffy, dreary Chronicles of Narnia films. We get the stupid Golden Compass. We get Chris Columbus -- the director of the first two Harry Potters -- going back and selling his soul for the dreadful Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief. We even get The Last Airbender, which -- heaven help us -- may be the worst of the lot. And there's no telling how many more sequels are still yet to be generated.
At least Disney, for its new ripoff, has gone back to a source that predates Harry Potter: a segment from the classic Fantasia (1940). In that, Mickey Mouse tries to use magic to do his chores, and pays the price as an army of renegade brooms begins to take over and flood the room. The new The Sorcerer's Apprentice cheerfully borrows this idea for one scene, but otherwise gives us a new-ish story. It begins with an oppressively stupid prologue, packed to the gills with exposition and bad writing. In the 8th century Merlin chooses three disciples: Balthazar (Nicolas Cage), Horvath (Alfred Molina) and Veronica (Monica Bellucci). Horvath goes renegade and decides to help the evil sorceress Morgana (Alice Krige) destroy the world.
Merlin is killed, and Veronica absorbs the soul of Morgana into her own body. Balthazar imprisons her inside a wooden doll called the grimhold. He also imprisons Balthazar there, and a few other evil sorcerers. Now, it's up to Balthazar to find the "next Merlin." He will do so by locating the one person who can wear a special, magical ring. He waits over a thousand years before young Dave comes along in the year 2000. They have a weird, scary little scrape in an antique store, before Balthazar and Horvath are imprisoned together in a magic urn for ten years. This gives time for Dave to grow up into Jay Baruchel. If you missed any of this, don't worry: the movie explains it over and over again.
After all this stuff is spewed out in an irritating, noisy mess, the movie happily settles down into a brighter, more cheerful mode. Director Jon Turteltaub (the National Treasure films) allows Jay Baruchel to be his usual character, which is more or less the same guy from She's Out of My League; he's smart and nerdy and unsure with women, although he's in love with blond hottie Becky (Teresa Palmer). He's convinced that his encounter with the sorcerers was a hallucination, so their reappearance makes him extra edgy, causing lots of nervous one-liners. Since most of these kinds of Harry Potter knockoffs are dreadfully humorless, even this kind of creaky, neurotic comedy is most welcome.
The rest of the movie is a race for the grimhold, and then a race to save the world. The best scenes are those between Cage and Baruchel; Cage finds a very nice balance for his character. He's mostly stoic, but slightly impatient and a teeny bit loony. (We like Cage best when he's on the verge of insanity.) He barely reacts to Dave's line deliveries, which makes Baruchel seem funnier, but Cage is more than just a straight man. He knows how to fire off his own kinds of deadpan jokes, such as dropping a line about "itch cream" in front of Becky. He goes straight for Dave's weak spot: his neurosis.
However, it seems as if these moments are more the result of lucky casting than anything director Jon Turteltaub has done. He expends the same amount of energy on other scenes with Molina, and with Toby Kebbell as Horvath's despicable disciple Drake Stone, a successful stage magician. Watching Molina here, it's hard to remember how great he was playing an equally evil fellow in Spider-Man 2 (2004); in that movie he had a kind of tortured soul. It was possible to understand him. Here he just spouts evil lines. We know what his goal is, but we don't really understand it. (Why does he want to destroy the world again? Because he couldn't get a date?) And Kebbell is just more comic relief, but without anyone to play off of. He flings his arrogant jokes in a vacuum.
Turteltaub also exerts the exact same amount of energy on the action and special effects scenes. During fights, he shakes the camera and cuts several times per second. Other action scenes are played for comic effect, rather than suspense, and yet they, too, roll on by without much real investment. If Turteltaub were a conductor, he would be holding his baton in the same position throughout an entire concert. This is impersonal, disconnected filmmaking without the benefit of basic, journeyman skill. It's only due to a lucky combination of acting, music (by Trevor Rabin), visual effects, and editing that certain scenes manage to come together.
It all comes down to that prologue. The reason it's there is that the filmmakers have assumed that the audience is stupid. It's true that this is a PG-rated movie aimed at kids, but kids are young, not stupid. Kids are able to follow well-told stories with very little spoon-feeding. The Sorcerer's Apprentice is not really about storytelling as much as it is about marketing. It's not about "what happens next" as it is "how much stuff can we cram in there, and how well can we sell it?" But at least this movie provides two helpful services. It's a reminder of just how well the Harry Potter movies work, with their genuine sense of personality, wonder and mystery. And it's much, much better than The Last Airbender.