Magic 101 with “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”

By Susan JAMES

Nicholas Cage returns to the realm of symbols and sorcery in director Jon Turteltaub’s new film, ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ co-starring Jay Baruchel as his geek-chic student. Cage plays Balthazar, himself a former apprentice of the legendary Merlin, trying for millennia to contain and control another of Merlin’s pupils, rogue killer Horvath, played with one-note efficiency by the usually symphonic Alfred Molina.

The story is the usual: wise but tormented magician, loyal but rebellious apprentice, nexus of evil agents plotting to destroy the world, race to Armageddon, triumph of light over darkness, at least for the moment. What this film has going for it is a sumptuous look choreographed by cinematographer Bojan Bazelli, embellished with lavish CGI effects. Cage, whose performances can be over the top, reins it in here and gives Balthazar a sense of power and prophecy that bring a central gravitas to the story. His apprentice is less believable and the script never gives the character a shot at stretching beyond the clichéd confines of kid-versus-demon.

Apprentices from the young Arthur to Luke Skywalker to Harry Potter have paid a high price for power and made great sacrifices for the knowledge that has enabled them to defeat the forces of darkness. Baruchel’s David is asked for no such sacrifice. Plucked as a 10-year-old New York schoolboy from a mass of children and anointed the Chosen One, it takes David 10 more years to make a real connection with his master Balthazar. By now, David is a college student at NYU majoring in physics and minoring in longing looks at long time crush, winsome blond Becky. But the game is afoot and David must suck it up and prepare for the day of reckoning when that most dreaded evil sorcerer of all, Merlin’s legendary foe Morgana, played by a barely glimpsed Alice Krige, is released from magical imprisonment. The sartorially snappy Horvath is to be the instrument of her re-empowerment. Morgana’s ultimate evil plot is straight out of ‘The Mummy’, the raising of a devil’s army, this time of reanimated bodies.  Zombies? Really? Again?

Special screenplay shout-outs also go to ‘Ladyhawk,’ ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘Star Wars’ as David studies Magic 101 with the kind but firm Balthazar while wearing Merlin’s dragon ring and hoping for the best. David’s lessons just aren’t as interesting as his predecessors’, nor unfortunately is David. Although the scenes where the love-smitten physics student plays the music of the Tesla coils for an astonished Becky are almost worth the price of admission.

What the film’s creators have failed to define here is the nature of evil and the cost of defeating it. Horvath seems more an irate flunky than a real villain and Morgana’s plot to destroy the world is so nebulous that it generates no real threat or urgency. The final battle between good and evil at the fountain in Battery Park looks less like Dumbledore taking on Voldemort at the Ministry of Magic than a shoving match at the local water park.

See you at the movies!