By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 14, 2010; C01
Amid the whiz-bang special effects and moderately unhinged performance by Nicolas Cage as an ancient wizard at work in modern-day New York, one nagging question keeps popping up in "The Sorcerer's Apprentice": Where have I seen this before?
The answer, in this flat-footed fantasy, is not what you might think.
Although it's true that the live-action film is based loosely on Disney's 1940 classic "Fantasia" (or at least the portion that featured Mickey Mouse as a hapless wizard's apprentice), the connection is tenuous. There is a sequence in the new movie depicting out-of-control animated mops and buckets, as in the old one. It's bigger, but far from better: The CGI upgrade, while visually impressive, lacks the charm of the hand-drawn original.
No, this "Apprentice" has far more recent antecedents. In its story line about a geeky wizard-in-training named Dave (Jay Baruchel) and his grizzled mentor Balthazar Blake (Cage), it shares large chunks of DNA with the "Harry Potter" series. Just like J.K. Rowling's hero, Dave is a kind of chosen one -- a powerful yet unseasoned sorcerer known as the "Prime Merlinian" -- who prophecy foretells will one day rise up to defeat the forces of black magic, in the person of evil sorcerer Horvath (Alfred Molina).
Okay, so Horvath is no Lord Voldemort. He's kind of clownish, in fact, and has his own apprentice, a Las Vegas-style magician named Drake (Toby Kebbell). But as the movie's chief evildoer, the sorceress Morgana le Fay, Alice Krige bears a striking resemblance to Helena Bonham Carter's Bellatrix Lestrange from the "Harry Potter" movies, down to her wild eyes and "Bride of Frankenstein" hair.
All that's missing, seemingly, are Ron and Hermione.
"The Sorcerer's Apprentice" is not completely without its own late-adolescent angst. There are frequent breaks in the action to follow a subplot involving Dave's awkward attempts to court his blond college classmate (Teresa Palmer). During those scenes, in which Baruchel recycles the stammering-nerd routine he perfected in "She's Out of My League," the movie loses all momentum. It takes every ounce of magic Balthazar can muster to get it back.
As Balthazar, Cage doesn't disappoint. He's just manic enough to keep the character from becoming too predictable.
More's the pity, then, that a pro like him has to cede so much screen time to his character's young protege. With his irritatingly nasal voice and yet another twitchily mannered performance, Baruchel will remain, for many, an acquired taste. The movie's tag line is "It's the coolest job ever," but I suspect it'll take more than this "Apprentice"-ship to learn to love its star.
The Sorcerer's Apprentice
(109 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG and contains fantasy action violence, mildly crude language and brief bathroom humor.