Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Charm Offensive: THE SORCERER'S APPRENTICE

It’s not every day that you can see a big summer action-adventure based on a Goethe poem that was previously adapted into a short segment in the beloved Fantasia, but that’s exactly what you get with The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. It’s loud and expensive, much like other Jerry Bruckheimer productions including the dumb National Treasures which share, in Jon Turteltaub, the same director as this new feature. They also share the same star, Nicolas Cage, but Sorcerer’s Apprentice has the good sense to embrace the actor’s loopier side.

Looking through a mess of long hair and a floppy fedora, with a long trenchcoat flapping behind him, Nicolas Cage certainly looks the part of a more than one-thousand-year-old sorcerer now living in Manhattan, who trained under Merlin and has spent centuries searching for his master’s replacement. Cage hams it up, bugging out his crazy eyes and strutting through each scene with a magical confidence. He’s also hilarious. Early in the film, following a statement made by Cage, a character asks “how do you know that?” Cage spins and fixes a wild gaze on the character while shouting “because I can read minds!” Total commitment to a ridiculous role is the name of the game here, and the film is better for Cage’s participation.

It helps that Cage is facing off with a rival ancient sorcerer played by Alfred Molina, who brings an equal commitment to his suavely villainous cheeseball. He makes a grand entrance, forming out of a squirming mass of cockroaches. Out of all the actors in the world, perhaps only Molina could look so effortlessly nonchalant about a cockroach crawling up his nostril in his first big close-up. He’s having a ball, chewing on all his lines with clear satisfaction and infectious fun.

The two sorcerers are after a nesting doll that contains the trapped essences of various evil magicians from centuries past. Cage wishes to keep it out of the hands of Molina, who wants to free the evil in order to raise an army of the dead. To further complicate matters, this hunk of magical wood was inadvertently lost a decade earlier by college student Jay Baruchel, who may just be the one true heir to Merlin’s powers. Cage suspects as much, so he takes the lad under his wing to teach him the ways of using sorcery for good, not evil. And, of course, he’ll need his help to battle all the encroaching forces of darkness. What would a summer blockbuster be without encroaching forces of darkness?

This all sounds complicated, but the film wears its mythology lightly, preferring instead to go right for the big, splashy, effective set-pieces involving all kinds of kinetic magical danger and derring-do. Mixed in is a healthy dose of humor. This is a movie that is faintly aware of just how ridiculous it own story is. Cage and Molina aren’t the only ones having a ball. Baruchel is charming and funny as a geeky asocial guy who only cares about this girl (Teresa Palmer) that he’s loved since he was ten and with whom he just might be making a connection. She might even want to, you know, date him. And then all this crazy stuff about legends and curses and magic and good and evil? It’s almost more than he can take.

I went into the theater with very low expectations and, while I wasn’t blown away, I was pleasantly surprised. This is a mostly fast moving and enjoyable experience. The effects are convincing and are put to good use. It’s genuinely exciting and amusing. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is not great, but it’s much better than the majority of this summer’s offerings from this genre, and it’s certainly just right for an uncomplicated couple of hours at the multiplex.

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