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The Sorcerer's Apprentice

If you've ever sat through Fantasia and wished that Disney would just make that whole magical broom thing into a live-action sequence, then you're in luck. Apparently Nicolas Cage had the exact same wish as you, and because he's Nicolas Cage and you're not, he can make all his whims happen. Want to marry Elvis' daughter? Check. Want to name your son after Superman? Check. Want to get one of Hollywood's most powerful producers on board to make a vanity project? Check.

And yet, let me give Cage credit. He worked up the idea for The Sorcerer's Apprentice, and it's not a horrible story. He surrounded himself with good actors who still somehow make him seem subtle. Showing that Cage truly is a showman - and I do mean that as a compliment - he also lets Jay Baruchel be the lead. This is, after all, about a sorcerer's apprentice, and Cage can be no less than a sorcerer.

Though the elements are in place, The Sorcerer's Apprentice ends up being like McDonald's french fries. Okay, you wanted them when you saw them because you've been conditioned to, you didn't hate eating them, but nothing about them really stays. Bring on the next Happy Meal!

Director Jon Turteltaub does a journeyman's job of putting it all together, but as in last month's Prince of Persia, there's a lot of dense exposition to get through before the actual story can begin. First we see the Fall of Camelot through the eyes of Merlin and his two acolytes - the improbably alliterative (he's a superhero!) Balthazar Blake (Nicolas Cage) and Veronica (Monica Bellucci).

They've been betrayed as Morgana (Alice Krige) tries to take over the world. One of their own, Maxim Horvath (Alfred Molina), has sided with evil because, well, there's a reason you should see coming a mile away but let's just settle on because he's named Maxim Horvath. With a name like that, you don't really have a choice but to be suavely evil.

And oh, does Molina have a blast with that. He's a little more reserved here than he was in Prince of Persia, but he still just makes every scene he's in fun, even when he has to spout turgid lines like "So this is what passes for a Morganian?"

For it turns out that somehow this is essentially Armageddon, and Merlin (James A. Stephens) has to wait for a savior to turn it all around - the Prime Merlinian. Luckily, Balthazar wins a temporary victory, but at a great price, and then wanders around the world for a thousand years looking for that chosen one.

So that's Prologue One. Then in the year 2000, he finds young Dave (Jake Cherry), a creative mind who wanders away from a school field trip and into Balthazar's magic shop. Things go awry, and everything gets delayed ten years after Dave convinces himself he had a glucose deficiency that caused hallucinations.

Now played by Jay Baruchel, Dave has become a physics student of uncertain age. The script places him at 19 or 20, contradicting itself in a couple of places. The only thing for certain is he's the only college student in the world with a hard-partying roommate who doesn't actually … party. All the better to keep that PG rating.

Of course, Horvath has returned determined to bring back Morgana, and Balthazar has to convince Dave of his destiny and train him to be strong enough to fight her.

It's just too bad that Dave found a different kind of magic - love in the form of Becky (Teresa Palmer), cute and winsome and falling in love with Dave just because without it there wouldn't be nearly as much tension. Even she comments that their dates really don't go well at all.

Following the numbers of what a summer blockbuster is supposed to be, at least The Sorcerer's Apprentice throws in the occasional loopy detail. Dave works with Tesla Coils as his Senior Thesis, a project which would probably not actually be approved because of the potential for large block-destroying, Big Trouble in Little China-sized explosions. Thank heavens he does, though, because that means he has a big stone dungeon-like workshop, perfect for sorcery training.

Unfortunately a lot of what passes for sorcery seems more like using the Green Lantern power ring, and a lot of the beats here will look familiar to fans of that character. It's all about will and focus and a dragon ring with glowing green eyes, until a sorcerer gets powerful enough to become Ion, er, Merlinian.

At least when the magic is going on, the movie has a goofy appeal. Despite the charm of Baruchel and Palmer, the romance feels contrived and there because it has to be. (Palmer's character is a college radio DJ who doesn't seem to know a thing about how radio actually works - and often leaves the studio before anybody else shows up to replace her. Hmmm… maybe that is how college radio works.)

Baruchel also needs to learn not to work so hard. He's up against heavyweight reputations like Cage and Molina, and so developed a series of quirks and tics to make him stand out. It works, but it's also really distracting after the third or fourth time you realize that Katherine Hepburn didn't shake this much (though early George Clooney did).

Better to take the route of Horvath's minions, who really let costume and make-up do most of the work and enjoy the ride. Toby Kebbell, who was also in Prince of Persia in a very different kind of character, shows up as stage magician and Morganian Drake Stone, proof that Criss Angel, Mindfreak is actually evil. Fans of The Crucible may also be happy with Horvath's surprise assistant, though she gets way too little to do considering how creepy she could be.

But then, this has to be kept at a safe PG, because despite the big explosions and wild stunts - many of which are a heck of a lot of fun -- The Sorcerer's Apprentice is a family film. It will absolutely draw in the kids, and on a scale of The Last Airbender to Toy Story 3, it's not bad. I'm just ready for the next summer movie.  

Derek McCaw

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