Yes, this hard-driving comic-book extravaganza from Jerry Bruckheimer and Jon Turteltaub (“National Treasure”) pays tribute to the famous Mickey Mouse segment in “Fantasia” that was its inspiration at one point. Its young hero, Dave Stutler (Jay Baruchel), the apprentice of the title, tries to clean up his lab by using magical powers to set brooms, mops and pails to work. But the scene has none of the style and well-calibrated buildup of its model; its chaotic, unfunny sloppiness is characteristic of the failure of the entire enterprise. (And Trevor Rabin’s noisy background music only uses snatches of the Dukas tone poem, and bastardizes even those.) Like Dave, the filmmakers have called up—and pumped up—an absolute orgy of special effects, but all they’ve conjured is a horrid mess of a movie.
Be forewarned that should you go to “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”—something that’s absolutely not recommended—you’d better be on time. The first five minutes or so are an elaborate setup without which the rest of the picture is well-nigh incomprehensible. Seems that back in the eighth century—an odd time for an Arthurian reference—the great wizard Merlin (James A. Stephens) did battle with the evil Morgana (Alice Krige) and lost. That’s because one of his three apprentices betrayed him—Horvath (Alfred Molina), who was nonplussed because the feminine member of the trio, the beauteous Veronica (Monica Bellucci), chose the third, the noble Balthazar (Nicolas Cage), over him.
Still, the side of goodness won. Morgana was defeated, though Veronica had to literally consume her to do so, and all the Morganans—including Horvath and the self-sacrificing (and now stuffed) Veronica—were confined over the years in the various levels of a large nesting doll. That left the surviving apprentice, Balthazar, to guard the doll until he discovers the successor Merlin had foretold, the so-called last Merlinian, who will be pointed out by the great wizard’s dragon ring, which will wrap itself around his finger. Balthazar will then have to train him to take up his monumental responsibilities, which will certainly involve a final battle with Morgana and her minions.
Enter Dave, the unlikely chosen one. As a boy (Jake Cherry) in 2000, he had stumbled into Balthazar’s magic shop and was recognized as the answer to the Merlinian dream, but clumsily released Horvath from the doll, leading to the first great set-piece, in which he and Balthazar fight until they’re both encased in a jar—but only for a decade. The episode had made Dave a laughing stock among his classmates, including Becky, the girl he’s sweet on, and traumatized him. Now he’s nineteen, and played by Baruchel, who frankly looks way too old for the brilliant NYU physics underclassman he’s supposed to be. And soon he’s threatened by Horvath, who escapes the jar and demands the location of the doll from which he can free Morgana so she can raise all deceased Morganans from the dead and together they can conquer the world.
Of course, Balthazar also shows up to protect Dave and teach him what he needs to know to perform his mission. What follows is an episodic chain of flamboyant CGI sequences as Balthazar and Dave seek to outmaneuver Horvath and a contemporary Morganan, the punkish magician Drake Stone (Toby Kebbell), whom he makes his aide. But not only does Dave prove a singularly inept student; he’s also distracted by his effort to woo Becky (Teresa Palmer), now a beautiful coed whom he’s just met again—cute, of course. There’s surprisingly little excitement in the big fight-and-chase sequences concocted by the screenwriters, which involve such things as gargoyles and paper dragons coming to life but are directed by Turteltaub with remarkably little verve or sense of pace. And there’s too little imagination: when the warring duos get involved in a car chase through the crowded Manhattan streets, we’re essentially back in the dreary shtick of “Date Night,” and the fact that the vehicles shape-shift does little to relieve the banality of it all. Naturally everything winds up in a big confrontation in Central Park, where the bumbling apprentice proves his mettle and the forces of light triumph at last.
There’s a haphazard quality to everything that happens in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” which leads to the suspicion that the makers expected the effects and the cast to paper over the problems. But the CGI, though plentiful, isn’t really first-rate, and in any event we’re long past the point where a movie can survive on effects alone. And the leads prove a disappointment. Cage exhibits little of the exuberance that he showed in “Bad Lieutenant” and “Kick-Ass” here; his performance is dutiful rather than inspired. And Baruchel—in addition to being way too old—is even worse. He just repeats his nervous, geeky shtick from previous movies, and far from being adorably nerdy, he’s merely annoying. Molina is reasonably enjoyable playing a nasty fop, tossing off the most ludicrous lines with a smirk that shows his contempt for them, but it’s not enough; and nobody else makes much of an impression, with Palmer coming across in particular as pretty but vacuous and Kebbell camping it up to excess.
So the summer of 2010 brings us yet another dreary would-be blockbuster. Ultimately, the past Disney picture that “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” calls to mind isn’t “Fantasia” at all—it’s that horrendous 1993 mishmash “Hocus Pocus,” in which Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy mugged it up as three witches brought back from the dead who do battle with a trio of kids at Halloween. In addition to sharing a basic premise with this misfire, it too relied heavily on special effects to carry the day, and came up way short in the charm department. (And it also had an unsatisfactory young hero in the pallid Omri Katz.) A pity this “Apprentice” doesn’t seem to have learned anything from Disney’s past mistake.