I’m a sucker for a good fantasy movie. And after sitting down to watch 2010’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, hoping for a good fantasy movie, I certainly felt like a sucker. Disney and producer Jerry Bruckheimer probably did too when they were done; there’s a lot this movie actually does reasonably well, but it’s dragged down heavily by all the inferior elements.
If some movies are more than the sums of their parts, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is less.
The story’s basic premise, divulged early on in the movie, is a decent one. In the twilight of the era of Camelot, Merlin trained three apprentices — Balthazar, Veronica, and Maxim Horvath (played respectively by Nicolas Cage, Monica Bellucci, and Alfred Molina — to aid in the fight against Morgana Le Fay, played by professional creepy lady Alice Krige. Jealous over the love between Balthazar and Veronica, Horvath turns traitor leading to Merlin’s death. Veronica fuses with Morgana to contain her, and the pair are trapped in the Grimhold, a magical device for containing evil sorcerers. With his dying breath, Merlin tells Balthazar to hold onto his ring, as it will lead him to the “Prime Merlinian”, a sorcerer of Merlin’s bloodline who will be able to cast magic without the use of a ring and who will finally destroy Morgana. Flash forward to the modern era, when coincidence brings a young boy named Dave Stutler to the door of Balthazar’s antique shop; Balthazar discovers this is the heir he’s been looking for, but a fight with Horvath breaks out, and the two sorcerers are trapped in a magical urn for the next ten years. Balthazar tracks down the now-adult Dave (Jay Baruchel) and attempts to convince him to become his apprentice, though Dave is only interested in impressing his long-lost crush, Becky (Teresa Palmer).
Naturally, Dave grows into his role, there are some fights, and some beautiful special effects (it’s Bruckheimer and Disney; that’s pretty much a given). Handled just a little bit differently, this could have been a great movie. The problems with it are just a myriad of little things that prevent it from reaching the “this is so cool!” portion of my brain that the film desperately wants to reach. First, the Grimhold, which could have been portrayed in a number of ways, but is rendered as a nesting doll. When your Artifact of Doom is one of the kitschiest possible decorating items, it’s a little hard to take it seriously. And while I understand what they were going for there, with it releasing one dangerous sorcerer after another, the movie didn’t really get any mileage out of that, as other than Horvath in the beginning and Morgana at the end, the evil sorcerers that get loose are just short term peons with no real sense of menace.
The acting is a mix of decent and awkward performances. Nicolas Cage does a good, if unimpressive, job as Balthazar Blake, the world-weary and mildly sardonic sorcerer. Alfred Molina is a bit hammy as Horvath, but hey, it’s Alfred Molina as a villain. You don’t make that casting call unless you want a little bit of ham in the movie. Toby Kebbell is supremely hammy as Horvath’s apprentice Drake Stone, but this is justified due to Stone being a successful stage magician. Theresa Palmer is believable, though not outstanding as Dave’s love interest Becky; it’d be easier to judge how well she did if there were more to the role, but it’s a bit on the thin side. (Similarly, Bellucci and Krige are off-screen for most of the movie, so while neither did exceptionally well or poorly, there’s just not much there to judge.)
No, the problem is largely with the eponymous apprentice. Jay Baruchel’s Dave Stutler is a neurotic mess of insecurities, and just about everything he says or does is done with an almost superhuman degree of awkwardness. Part of this is because that’s how the character is written, so not all the blame goes to Baruchel here. But the combination of the written character and Baruchel’s acting just makes the character totally unbelievable. It’s like Baruchel’s script said “awkward” and he read “move like you’re a robot, talk like you’re the guy the geeks in Revenge of the Nerds pick on.” He’s irritating, and not very likeable.
Of course, this awkwardness plays right into my biggest complaint with the movie: cringe comedy. I hate cringe comedy, comedy based on awkward humor, groin punches, and bathroom jokes. It’s very low-brow, and most people grow out of it when they’re about ten years old (though some grow back into it in their early twenties when they start drinking, and back out again in their thirties.) It can be done well… but I’ve never seen it done well by anybody who hadn’t developed a strong sense of timing by becoming skillful at other kinds of comedy. And that’s all this movie offers; it tries to be an action-comedy, and nearly all of the attempted laughs are cringe comedy. The funniest bit is one everybody saw in the trailer, with Dave asking Balthazar if he’s crazy and Balthazar pondering the question and putting his thumb and index finger an inch apart. “Little bit.” The rest is almost all bathroom humor, and I mean that literally: most of the jokes are centered, one way or another, on urination.
This poster perfectly exemplifies Baruchel’s role in the movie: Stiff, awkward, unnatural-looking, and disturbingly focused in the area of Baruchel’s crotch.
Also, if I could go off on a bit of a tangent here… I don’t usually mind when a movie has some scientific inaccuracies. If I’m watching a space opera, I actually enjoy it when there’s a “boom” accompanying an exploding ship. There may be no sound in space, but booms are fun. It may be implausible for numerous action heroes to survive multiple-story falls intact, but it’s part of what makes an action movie an action movie. But there’s one inaccuracy I can’t abide, partly because it’s too widely believed by the naive, and partly because it just turns up way too often in paranormal movies. When explaining why sorcerers can do magic and normal people can’t, Balthazar asks Dave if he’s familiar with the idea that people use only 10% of their brains. He then states that sorcerers can do what they do because they use all of their brain power. I am just utterly sick of this nonsense; people use their entire brains all the time, and there’s never been a quantification of the average person’s “brain power”. Just throw that tripe of a trope away. If you have to hand-wave why some people can do magic and some can’t, just chalk it up to genetic differences or something; it’s not like anybody in the audience actually cares.
There are enough tatters of a decent movie here to think it could have been salvaged. It is vital with a fantasy movie to avoid looking ridiculous, because people are essentially primed to look for it in a fantasy movie. The movie would nearly pull that off if it weren’t for the constant attempts at cringe comedy. Cringe comedy just doesn’t play well within the action movie genre; I don’t think even people who are fans of cringe comedy look for it in an action movie. Cringe comedy is centered around the notion that the subject is worthy of ridicule. Action movies, particularly fantasy, rely on the subject being believable; i.e., not worthy of ridicule. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is a movie which essentially sabotages itself.
Before I wrap this up, I’d like to point out some of the better things about this movie. The homage to the Fantasia sequence of the same name is nicely done. The special effects all look great, especially the transformations of the car, and all the cars in the chase sequence are cool cars (except, of course, the Pinto. But that was the point with that one.) If it weren’t for Baruchel’s character being designed to be an intense spaz, this would have been a very stylish movie, and that could have helped it be more enjoyable.
But in the end, there’s just too much working against it here.