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Monday, January 26, 2015

Movie Review Rant: The Sorcerer's Apprentice (2010; dir Jon Turtletaub) -- A SFF Film Odyssey Review

Though not the first live-action remake of a Disney cartoon, 2010's The Sorcerer's Apprentice is part of what might be called Disney's 1st Phase of Live Action Remakes, sitting right between the last of the Pirates of the Caribbean (At World's End; 2007) trilogy films and the much more interesting Maleficent (2014).  If this is a phase of live action remakes, then it is a loose one, with an unclear path -- a test bed, if you will, since the previous remakes have mostly taken the form of almost faithful adaptations of existing stories (101 Dalmations in 1996 and Alice in Wonderland in 2010, for example) or adaptations of existing characters or rides:  The Country Bears (2002), Pirates of the Caribbean (2003, 2006, and 2007), and The Haunted Mansion (2003).  The Sorcerer's Apprentice, along with Alice in Wonderland, appear to be "cusp" films, resting on the precipice of a second phase of live action remakes. Now, Disney has or plans to release a torrent of remakes or adaptations in what seems to be its second phase:  Maleficent (2014), Cinderella (2015), Tomorrowland (2015), The Jungle Book (2016), Alice in Wonderland:  Through the Looking Glass (2016; the sequel to Burton's previous adaptation), Pete's Dragon (2016), and Pirates of the Caribbean:  Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017).

So how does The Sorcerer's Apprentice measure up in this new "renaissance" of live action remakes or adaptations?  Unfortunately, about as well as you'd expect:  on par with The Haunted Mansion, a less-than-stellar film which probably shouldn't have been made in the first place.  Unlike Maleficent, which was flawed but thematically compelling, The Sorcerer's Apprentice is a muddled mess of an adaptation.  Tonally inconsistent and obsessive in its need for grandiosity, this film is the mark of a studio that has yet to develop a clear path, which makes The Sorcerer's Apprentice forgettable and mediocre at best.

Let's begin, shall we?

The Plot(s)(s)(s)(s)
The Sorcerer's Apprentice isn't exactly a torturous film; a better description might be painfully mediocre.  The film opens by committing what I consider to be one of the Sins of Filmmaking:  opening with a narrated prologue that turns out to be more interesting than the actual main narrative.  Right from the start, we're told that Merlin had three apprentices -- Horvath, Balthazar, and Veronica -- who vowed to maintain order against a sect of sorcerers known as Morganans -- the followers of Morgana le Fey (Alice Krige), who decided, as evil people are wont to do, to destroy the entire world, presumably so she could remake it in her own image or something like that.  The apprentices seem to have Morgana and her followers under control; that is until Horvath (Alfred Molina) decides to betray Merlin, allowing Morgana to murder the famous sorcerer and steal his power.  In the final moments, Veronica (Monica Bellucci) casts a binding spell, merging her soul with Morgana's and forcing Balthazar (Nicholas Cage) to entomb both within a nesting egg as part of a kind of stasis spell.  With Merlin's final breath, he tells Balthazar to find the Last Merlinian using his magic Merlinian-detecting dragon ring.

Thus ends the first part of the narrated prologue.  I kid you not.  The first 5 minutes of this movie are spent telling us a story that would barely fit into a movie of its own.  And there's more.  There are entire minutes of Balthazar wandering around the world for centuries in search of the Last Merlinian, all with someone (I assume Molina) narrating it for us.  This is followed by our first introduction to our supposed main character, Dave (played initially by young Jake Cherry and later by Jay Baruchel), who lives in modern day Manhattan, has a crush on a girl, and can apparently wander off in the middle of a field trip with nobody immediately noticing -- especially if he wanders off in search of his "do you like me, yes or no" note.  Go figure.  That paper magically flies into a mysterious shop, in which Balthazar lies in wait, ready to pounce like the predator that he has become.  Dave is somehow convinced that he should stick around and let a weird creepy older man put a dragon-shaped thing in his hand.  And then all hell breaks loose.  Dave accidentally opens a giant nesting egg, which releases Horvath, who has, like others before him, been entombed for quite a while.  There's a wicked cool magic fight (seriously, the magic is pretty cool in this movie), Balthazar and Horvath are trapped in a weird gizmo, and Dave has a total freakout, only to be laughed at because that's what happens when you try to tell people there are wizards and what not.

That's the end of stories two and three, by the way.  There's more.  Yes.  More.  Finally, we get to grown up post-therapy Dave, who has somehow become a physics nerd cliche.  Horvath and Balthazar are finally released from the giant weird urn that sucked them up in the first place, there's yet another fight over Dave, who was the last person to see the remaining layers of the nesting egg, and finally, we get to the point:  Dave is special McSpecial because he's the Last Merlinian; Balthazar will teach him (because he actually needs Dave to fix the binding spell on Veronica and banish Morgana forever; I know, there's a lot of shit here), and all of that has to take place while Horvath is having crazy fits of, well, crazy trying to either kill Dave, capture Dave, release Morgana while trying to kill Dave, or generally trying to hurt Dave somehow, but never actually doing it except in really small ways, because no movie villain would be complete without being utterly inept at the one job they were gifted to do:  kill the "good" guys.  Meanwhile, Dave has a crush on a girl from elementary school, and she's suddenly back in his life, so he tries to date her and be super suave; oh, no, I'm totally bullshitting, because Dave spends the entire movie assuming he's no good at basically anything other than Tesla coils...cause reasons.

That's story four.  There's also a fifth story:  it turns out that Balthazar and Horvath both fell in love with Veronica, but Balthazar actually got the girl, and that pissed off Horvath, who then turned to the Dark Side because his wittle feelings were hurt.  And that's still a thing in the present.  For narrative tension purposes, obviously.  Also:  Dave is kind of in love with Becky (Teresa Palmer), even though he hasn't seen her since the 4th grade, but since he's our hero, the film will make a big fuss about it all.  Otherwise, she's not that important to the movie.  Except for one brief moment where she moves a satellite dish and sorta saves the world.  But the film barely acknowledges that event...

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the plot we're presented in this movie.  Or, should I say, five different movies crammed into one 109-minute Disney flick.
And that leads me to...

You're a Confused Puppy, Movie
Much like the first of Jackson's Hobbit movies, The Sorcerer's Apprentice is utterly confused as a film.  It doesn't know if it wants to be an epic fantasy set in medieval Europe, a time-shifting magic journey through various exotic locals, a love story, another love story (but with a triangle and lots of betrayal), a kid's fantasy adventure in modern America, or a really late coming-of-age story about a dorky "uncool" kid finding out he's got wicked cool powers and can totally get the lady, y'all. It's like the film is having this conversation with itself (over and over):
It wants to be all of these things (even though the trailer is clearly of the "dark" variety), but by trying to do so, it ends up being none of them.  The overarching magic apocalypse plot is not enough to tie the pieces together into a coherent whole.  Rather, that overarching plot is so thin that it reveals how poorly constructed this film really is.  This was cobbled together from multiple subgenres, with no logical transition between any individual point.  The only real binding element is Balthazar, but he is discarded as the "main character" as soon as young Dave appears on the screen, reminding us that this story isn't actually about all that other stuff from "back in the day" -- and never was.

By being so cobbled together, The Sorcerer's Apprentice is tonally inconsistent.  The first narrative is actually quite dark by comparison to the subsequent stages of the film, each less serious than the supposed frame narrative -- this despite the pending magic apocalypse.  The "true" narrative is meant as an action comedy, with predictable (though sometimes amusing) master/apprentice banter and villainous buffoonery (most of which isn't actually funny).  The comedy feels out of place.  This is such a serious film from the start, so to try to turn that serious plot into a less serious one seems like an act of desperation:  the writers had to find a way out of what was clearly not a plot for kids (and, yes, this is a movie meant for kids because it's essentially that part of Fantasia, but drawn out for two hours).

Nicholas Cage, Will You Always Be My Magician Daddy?
Cage's role as Balthazar is probably my favorite of his numerous acting jobs in the last five years or so.  Though he has little to work with in this film, his role as the somewhat subdued but quirky mentor is actually enjoyable -- and almost lovable.  Given Cage's storied career, there's a certain irony at play here.  Rather than indulging in the kind of antics one might find in a film like Face Off (1997), The Sorcerer's Apprentice pokes fun, deliberately or otherwise, at the kind of characters Cage so often plays.  Balthazar is not Face Off crazy:
He's this much crazy:
That's a still shot from the actual movie.  After a fight scene involving an ancient Chinese wizard and a dragon, David literally asks Balthazar, "Are you insane?"  The response is almost precious.  These small bits of humor make the film enjoyable at times, so much so that I almost wish this were more of an epic film whose primary plot was the story of a sorcerer and his apprentice than a film that wants to be everything.

Cage has a dozen or so moments like this, sometimes facilitated by Baruchel and sometimes reliant on a previous context (such as the joke about the shoes he forces David to wear).  Essentially, the film made Balthazar my favorite character, since it never seemed like Cage was trying to be funny.  He just was.  Horvath's apprentice?  Almost desperate to be the funny incompetent villain, but never successful at it.  He's just incompetent and irritating.  Baruchel?  The same.  Desperate whiney apprentice becomes mostly annoying apprentice who probably should die just to make the film interesting again.

But Balthazar?  Actually funny.  Actually interesting, if not flawed or thinly developed.  Such is life.

Oh, the Ladies Sorta Do Stuff, Too
There are three "main" female characters in this film:  Becky (a college student who runs her own radio station), Veronica (one of Merlin's apprentices), and Morgana (the villain...sorta).  You'd think a film featuring three women in various positions of power would actually get things right, but it doesn't.  For the most part, the women in this story do nothing of consequence.  If they do anything of significance, it either occurs in off screen or in the final minutes of the film.  Let's do a quick rundown:
Veronica, the first woman we're introduced to, is technically fridged in the opening moments.  She is ultimately what motivates Balthazar to spend centuries searching for the Last Merlinian, even though he actually needs David to do the job of finally killing Morgana.  Balthazar even keeps his love of Veronica a secret, leaving David to find out about it from Horvath in what is a convenient "see, your mentor lied to you and probably told you that girls were a distraction, right" plot twist that doesn't actually amount to anything because David doesn't react and nobody really seems to care.  And in the final moments, Veronica is not an active participant.  Despite being a far more powerful sorcerer than David -- if not in terms of power levels, then certainly in terms of experience -- she spends most of the battle lying on the ground or standing around doing nothing.  At the very least, you'd think she'd offer David advice in his battle with Morgana, but she neither helps him in the fight nor in his attempts to bring Balthazar back from the dead.  The great sorceress:  fridged love interest, and that's about it...
Morgana is a different story.  Taking the form of cosmic villain or force, she's less a person in the movie than the film's version of Voldemort.  Horvath does most of the work as villain, though he turns out to be more incompetent than his master.  Though Morgana does lose in the final moments, it's a mostly forgivable loss, since she did spend centuries in a nesting egg.  One is bound to get rusty, after all.  I think the portrayal of Morgana as cosmic entity suits the story, though I wish she had been a more active participant.  A more interesting narrative would have had Horvath release her near the beginning of the modern narrative, putting him as second fiddle to her villainous appetites.  Alas, like so many female characters in this movie, she spends most of the film doing nothing.
Like Veronica, Becky spends a lot of time staring at the man for whom she is the love interest, and despite running her own radio station and appearing to be in control of her own life, her role in this film is almost entirely that:  to be the love interest.  Though she does help David and Balthazar in the final confrontation by facing her fear of heights and climbing to the top of a satellite dish perched atop a skyscraper (so she can turn it and prevent Morgana's spell from functioning), this feels almost secondhand.  So little of Becky's story is integral to the overarching plot that any intersection between the two seems like just an excuse to make her more part of Balthazar's world, and thus also a hybrid like David, than a good reason to give us a competent female character who just happens to be the lead's romantic compatriot.  This is no more apparent than in the framing:  the first time we meet Becky (as a young girl), she is coded as "young boy's love interest" by David's presentation of a note that asks her whether she wants to be his friend or girlfriend; this is brought up again right before David goes off to fight Morgana and is finally answered after Morgana is defeated:  girlfriend.  That Becky faced her greatest fear and managed to save the world?  I guess that happened, but we can all forget that because of this:
The Sorcerer's Apprentice is hardly the worst offender when it comes to the portrayal of women in sf/f films, but it isn't one which does anything memorable with its female characters.  These are bog standard characters:  villains, fridged loves, and love interests whose actions are less important than whether she kisses the hero.  I guess I just want more, and now that there are so many films which feature female characters who give me more, I'm less patient with contemporary films that don't.

Jay Baruchel, Oh How I Loathe Thee
The Sorcerer's Apprentice holds the distinction of being the only film to date that has made me dislike Jay Baruchel.  It's not that Baruchel is a bad actor or anything like that; the problem is that Baruchel is never given a chance to transcend his nasally "no confidence" caricature into anything resembling a sympathetic hero.  He does participate in the final battle by actually becoming a Super Saiyan...
OK, well, not quite.  He really did a thousand hadoukens while fighting a shadow version of Morgana, having spent most of the movie being remarkably inept at actually using his magic powers.  But, y'know, in a clincher, he can just fire off ten straight minutes of hadoukens like they were nothin'.
Here.  See for yourself:
Sure.  That looks cool (not really; the whole "let's borrow stuff from DBZ and Street Fighter" is beyond lame), it has no bearing on the rest of the film, since at no point does Dave actually grow as a character.  There's no transition.  Right up until the final "battle," Dave is always on the verge of walking away or believing he is basically worthless.  Some of that is understandable, given what happened in Narrative #3, but after a while, it gets tiring.  The attractive college girl is obviously into you, dude.  You know how we all know?  She willingly came over to your not-quite-legal underground physics lab (in what looks like an abandoned camp for war time prisoners) at night, and also willingly climbed into your metal cage and let you shoot lighting from Tesla coils all around her.  By that point, either she really really likes you, she's really really really into slightly mental physics tricks, or she's insane.  Those are your three options.  

Also:  when a guy who has been around for nearly 1,000 years and rides a giant metal bird monster tells you you've got what it takes to be a great sorcerer, you should probably listen.  Especially if he's Nicholas Cage.

But, no.  What the film gives us is a Doubting Dave doing his doubt face all over the place.  Totally ace.  It's exhausting...

One Final Thing:  That Scene You Know a Film Called The Sorcerer's Apprentice Would Have
You know what I'm talking about.  This scene:
Well, The Sorcerer's Apprentice remakes it:
My problem with this isn't the act of the remake.  The scene is fine by itself.  It's even a little fun.  The problem I have with the scene is that it feels so forced in the context of the film.  David is already kind of a failure by this point of the movie.  He gets flustered by his inability to do what Balthazar wants him to do, despite numerous attempts on his master's part to remind him that it takes time, and he never seems to accept that his responsibility in this new world is such that Balthazar would naturally be disappointed by an apprentice going after a girl instead of training.  So we don't need this scene to make that disappointment more apparent.

Likewise, the scene just doesn't fit.  The Fantasia version is lighthearted.  Mickey Mouse stomps around and conducts an imaginary orchestra while mops run about cleaning things -- per silent instruction from his master.  It's fun.  Silly.  Goofy.  It's a moral tale about messing with powers beyond your control, but told through a children's cartoon.

The version in The Sorcerer's Apprentice is none of those things.  David only wants to clean his magic physics dungeon so he doesn't drive Becky away by seeming immature.  If there's a moral lesson here, it's one muddied by the intent, which is implicitly a sexual one.

Given that the film bears no resemblance to Fantasia's most memorable sequence, this all seemed painfully unnecessary -- in the same way that the reversal of the Kirk/Spock relationship in Star Trek Into Darkness seemed unnecessary.

Conclusions:  Oh, Right; I'm Supposed to Have Final Opinions
Honestly, I don't think The Sorcerer's Apprentice is anywhere in the worst 100 films of all time.  It's probably not even in the bottom 200 or 300.  But it's certainly not a good film.  If anything, this is just a lazy movie, and it's that laziness that makes this film less than enjoyable.  From the bloated plot to its confused tone to its typical treatment of its female characters, The Sorcerer's Apprentice is more or less what you'd expect from a studio trying to cash in on a quick buck.  Unfortunately for Disney, it doesn't look like they succeeded.

Directing: 2/5
Cast: 2.5/5
Writing:  1/5
Visuals: 4/5
Adaptation: 2/5
Overall:  2.3/5 (46%)
Inflated Grade:  D+

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  1. So not even good Torture Cinema material. Boo.

    1. Sadly, no. It's just...mediocre.