I am convinced that producer Jerry Bruckheimer secretly lurks through the back lots and theme parks of Disney looking for ideas on which to base his next film. For he already has a story formula down (just check “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “National Treasure” or Prince of Persia”), all he needs is a setting and an established name to exploit.
His victim with “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is Disney’s crown prince – a mouse by the name of Mickey – who starred in a chapter of “Fantasia,” the animated musical film from 1940. This simple tale is the seed on which Bruckheimer will spread his fertilizer.
Instead of an animated oafish mouse, we know have a live-action mousey oaf in the form of Jay Baruchel. You may remember Baruchel as a gangly, geeky teen in the series “Freaks and Geeks,” or perhaps in film, as the gangly, geeky roommate in “Knocked Up,” the gangly, geeky soldier in “Tropic Thunder,” or the gangly, geeky lead in “She’s Out of My League.” Here spreads his acting wings to play Dave Stutler, a gangly, geeky aspiring physicist. It’s not that Baruchel is a one-note actor. In fact, he shows sparks of his capabilities throughout the film. But the awkward, voice-cracking bit is getting tired, and in a film which requires him to be an action hero (more or less) it’s downright distracting.
But that’s getting ahead of things, for there are far more problems with “Apprentice” than Baruchel. The original “Apprentice” gets a clunky nod from director Jon Turtletaub (“National Treasure”), but only after some painfully long exposition involving Merlin, Russian matroyshka dolls, dragon rings, centuries-old curses and grade-school crushes.
All this takes us to the year 2000, where we undergo another round of story exposition. A 10-year-old Stutler wanders into a dingy New York City magic shop in which a scraggly Nicolas Cage, sporting a leather duster and speaking in whispers, locks him in, gives him gifts and tells him how special he is.
Not a great start for a kids film.
We are then transported 10 years into the future, where college-age Stutler is experimenting with Tesla-like projects and undergoes training with Cage’s character, Balthazar, a 1,000-year-old disciple of Merlin. Balthazar is convinced Dave has the magic touch, but the young man is convinced his hocus pocus lacks focus.
The reason for Dave to undergo this Jedi-like training is there is another ancient alchemist loose within the Big Apple. Maxim (played by Alfred Molina) threatens to pull more than a rabbit from his derby and is prepping for world domination.
“Apprentice” is so interested in building a franchise name like “Pirates,” “National Treasure” and last-month’s stillborn “Prince of Persia,” that the film is frontloaded with useless information, all of which vanishes when the film focuses on conjuring up special effects. But there were more entertaining illusions in an episode of “Criss Angel’s Mindfreak” than those coughed up by computers in the film’s climactic battle sequences.
Cage gives his PG-friendly version of his battier side, sufficiently squelching any hint of having fun like he did earlier this year in “Kick-Ass.” He also serves as producer along with Bruckheimer in this, their sixth collaboration. The two not only dogpile the original under plot and pyrotechnics, they essentially wrestle it into submission and take an ax to it, much like Mickey to the mops in the animated short.
The bombastic climax is nothing but CGI smoke and mirrors, with the plot hitting all the requisite points to wrap things up tidily while still leaving a door open to sequels. But do not be tricked. Any resemblance to entertainment is “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is but an illusion.