By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, July 16, 2010; WE26
Despite some whiz-bang special effects and a moderately unhinged performance by Nicolas Cage as Balthazar Blake, 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.
While it's true that the live-action film is based loosely on Disney's animated classic "Fantasia" (or at least the portion of that 1940 film that featured Mickey Mouse as a hapless wizard's apprentice), the connection is tenuous. This, despite a sequence in the new movie that depicts out-of-control animated mops and buckets, as in the old one. The CGI upgrade, altough visually impressive, lacks the charm of the hand-drawn original. It's bigger, but far from better.
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 (Cage), it shares large chucks 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 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.
Not that "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" is completely without its own late adolescent angst. There are frequent breaks in the action -- which, truth be told, is none too shabby -- to follow a subplot involving Dave's awkward attempts to court his blonde 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.
And speaking of Balthazar, Cage doesn't disappoint. He's just manic enough to keep the character from becoming predictable.
More's the pity, then, that he 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.
* 1/2 PG. At area theaters. Contains fantasy action violence, mildly crude language and brief bathroom humor. 109 minutes.