Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Scorcerer's Apprentice (2010)

Let’s face it – no matter how well executed a modern day wiz-kid magic flick may be, it’s more than likely going to come off as a Harry Potter knock-off. It may pale in comparison, or it may not. It could be about Greek Gods, like Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief (2010). Or it could be about ancient Merlin magiks, as Disney’s latest The Sorcerer’s Apprentice appears to be. It really doesn’t matter. As long as there’s a youth called to action against mystical creatures and powerful enchanted beings, Harry Potter is going to be the first thing to come to mind… and probably for some time.

To its credit, Apprentice is a different enough film. Its hero, Dave (Jay Baruchel), is a college kid; a science nerd with Merlin in his blood. And his mentor is a nutty eternal played by Nicolas Cage. There are no wizard beards or secret fantastical realms. Disney’s latest flick is as grounded in the familiar as it possibly can be, even opting to view magic through Arthur Clarke goggles – as a scientific presence in our everyday life.

Unfortunately, the lack of magical awe is actually what limits this otherwise erstwhile flick, as it uncomfortably tip-toes the line between wowed children’s fare and edgier young adult content.

Directed by Cage’s National Treasure cohort Jon Turteltaub, Apprentice is marginally paint-by-numbers – Dave is a shy kid with a crush on the cooler girl (Teresa Palmer) who finds his timid dorkyness endearing, but he needs to grow some cojones if he’s gonna win her heart, and save the world in his spare time. Cage is his teacher, appropriately named Balthazar. He’s here to train Dave, to help him accept his destiny, and to protect him from Alfred Molina’s Horvath, the wicked wizard bent on turning New York City into a cemetery.

Yep, the story is yawn-inducing. There’s no arguing that. And it only took FIVE writers (Lawrence Konner, Mark Rosenthal, Matt Lopez, Doug Miro, Carlo Bernard) to put it together! And they worked in a Fantasia reference! And an opportunity for Monica Bellucci to show up for a few scenes. Mission? Accomplished.

If there isn’t anything particularly exciting about Apprentice, there isn’t anything especially bad about it either. Turteltaub has a knack for mediocrity, and that’s on full display here. There are fireballs and dragons and nifty little mirror tricks. And of course there’s Cage acting a little weird and wacky, though he never cuts loose like the Cage we all know and tolerate.

The most interesting thing here is Baruchel… or rather, what’s interesting is how he got here. Ten years ago he was a struggling TV actor, bumping around in Are You Afraid of the Dark, then catching a break as the lead in Judd Apatow’s Undeclared, before having his career yanked out from under him by the network boys over at Fox. A decade and a dozen bit parts (2007’s Knocked Up, 2008’s Tropic Thunder) later, he’s the lead in a would-be Disney franchise starter. It’s the stuff dreams are made of, or would be if Apprentice was any good.

Baruchel isn’t bad here, but he at times borders annoying. His awkward humor plays better in the likes of She’s Out of My League (2010), when he’s not being asked to get tough and save the world. Anyway, he’s amicable enough. And I suppose the movie is too. But it’s got no teeth, and I get more entertainment from the latest two-minute Potter trailer.

Updated Summer Blockbuster Smackdown Standings:

1.) Inception
2.) Toy Story 3
3.) Despicable Me4.) The A-Team
5.) Iron Man 2
6.) Get Him to the Greek
7.) Knight and Day
8.) Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
9.) The Scorcerer's Apprentice
10.) The Twilight Saga: Eclipse

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