Even before "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" opened in theaters, detractors were quick to pronounce it a guaranteed disappointment. I'm not sure why. Maybe Jimmy Buffett is wrong. Maybe you can't "mess with that Mouse in Orlando." After all, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" was Mickey's big segment in the original "Fantasia," and some fans regard such things as sacred. For others, the name Jerry Bruckheimer is all they have to hear to set them off. The point is, I had heard that this film was mediocre at best, and I was probably just as guilty as the next person of assuming the worst. Then I watched it with my family, and while the vote was mixed, we agreed on one thing: the critics who trashed this film were being way too hard on it.
My 12-year-old son said he'd give it 3 1/2 out of 4 stars for the action, special effects, and story. My nine-year-old daughter, who wanted more from the female character (as she always does), said she'd rate it a 3 out of 4 because it was exciting. My wife, meanwhile, said she thought it did what it set out to do and therefore fell between a 3 and a 4. As for me? Once I got past a dizzying opening that threw way too many proper nouns and altogether too much backstory at me, I thought it was a kernel-solid popcorn movie with nonstop action, likable enough characters, great special effects, and just enough humor so we know that none of the filmmakers took it too seriously. Which is to say, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" operates well on the level of light entertainment, though there's not enough character development or original-slash-intelligent dialogue to make it a film of greater consequence. But how much do we really need to know about a centuries-old sorcerer or his 21st century apprentice to appreciate that these guys are mankind's only hope against an evil sorcerer who wants to destroy humanity?
If "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" is loosely based on the famous Mickey Mouse segment with the brooms--which is to say ONE scene pays homage--it's just as loosely based on "The Sword in the Stone." Just as Merlin battled Madam Mim (a kind of cartoon version of Morgana, from Arthurian legend), the prologue shows us Merlin and Morgana going at each other, so when Merlin's main guy Balthazar (Nicolas Cage) and Morgana's sorcerer Horvath (Alfred Molina) go at it full-bore, it's really an extension of that medieval struggle. The wrinkle is that mankind will never be safe until Horvath and Morgana's evil minions can be destroyed once and for all, and apparently Balthazar's powers are only sufficient to keep things at a stalemate. He's been searching all these hundreds of years for the "Prime Merlinian," a boy who is foretold to be the one who could defeat the dark forces with, of course, the proper training.
That's really all there is in the way of plot, except for a romantic subplot ala "Spider-Man" and other superhero films. But there's something likable about Jay Baruchel as the unlikely sorcerer's apprentice. The guy's a Nerd with a capital "N," and was ridiculed years ago as a junior high student because of his first exposure to Balthazar. So when he's summoned again, he's a teaching assistant at the university where his heartthrob Becky (Teresa Palmer) is a student. It's hard not to root for this guy, whether he's in training or stumbling all over in an attempt to win the fair lady's hand.
But of course the main attraction in a Bruckheimer film is the action and the special effects that make it all look explosively real. Or in this case, magically real. Director Jon Turteltaub, who was a classmate of Cage's at Beverly Hills High School, insisted on doing most of the visual effects on-camera instead of in post-production using computers. Bonus features show complex webs of wires pulling and launching objects . . . and performers. The final visual result is impressive, but "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" isn't just a visual effects film. It's also a fun variation on the buddy cop action-comedy, where a loose cannon (in this case, Balthazar) is partnered with a rookie or more conservative hero-in-training (in this case, young Dave). Roger Ebert wrote that he thought this film would appeal mostly to people Dave's age or younger, but I don't agree. I think the buddy cop action-comedy trope is enough to make it appealing to a wider audience.
Enjoyment comes first in a Bruckheimer film, and if it happens to have a script that gives it more substance--as in the case of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" or "National Treasure" films--so much the better. Unfortunately, the script from Matt Lopez ("Race to Witch Mountain," "Bedtime Stories"), Doug Miro and Carlo Bernard ("Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time") isn't packed with as much clever writing or plot twists as the films from those two franchises. But the script isn't bad, either, and when you throw in solid performances, great chemistry between Cage and Baruchel, and spectacular special effects (the Chinatown scene and Chrysler building bird especially), it's hard to find fault with this film. Although many did.
All I can say is, lighten up, people. There are times when you want high literary drama, and times when you just want to put your feet up and escape the day's drudgeries. "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" is great escapist fare . . . for all ages.
Can I just say, wow? In 1080p HD, transferred to a 50-gig disc using AVC/MPEG-4 technology, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" looks "Avatar"-fantastic. Colors are dynamic, the level of detail brings out every spark and every texture, and the special effects never suffer under the microscopic scrutiny of HD. Black levels are super, skin tones are natural, and even when the screen has a deliberate wash--blue, for example--there's no loss of detail and no evidence of artifacts or other transfer deficiencies. "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" is presented in 2.40:1 aspect ratio.
Again, wow. If I had to pick which was stronger, the audio or the video, I couldn't do it. It's a coin toss, with the English DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack as dynamic as the visuals. The soundfield absolutely bristles with electric energy, and though this is a LOUD film, the dialogue is nicely prioritized so that you're never left wondering what people are saying. Rear speakers rock when the explosions and plasma balls wreak havoc, but even those rare quiet moments are filled with full, rich ambient sounds. Additional audio options are an English DVS Dolby Digital 2.0, and French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks, with subtitles in English SDH, French, and Spanish.
After seeing the special effects, my son couldn't wait to hear the filmmakers talk about them on a commentary track or to watch pop-ups on a Blu-ray trivia track. But he's going to have to wait, because there is no commentary track and no pop-ups. There isn't even an in-depth feature on how those wonderful effects were created. The closest we come is "Making Magic Real" (11:44), which shows the wire work but doesn't get too terribly technical. It's enough to make you appreciate the visual effects work, though. Same with "The Science of Sorcery" (10:27), which talks about how the filmmakers were inspired by the convergence of science and magic, which explains those plasma balls. Every magic effect was rooted in scientific possibility, we learn, and that's straight out of Jules Verne's playbook. The other main featurette is "Magic in the City," which shows locations throughout New York City as the crew films.
Rounding out the bonus features are "'Fantasia': Reinventing a Classic," an under 10-minute look at the film's crossover scene; "The Fashionable Drake Stone," an under 2-minute blip that shows the actor reveling in his character's posh pad; "The Grimhold: An Evil Work of Art" (4 min.), which takes a brief look at the nesting dolls that play such a large part in the show's "high concept"; "The Ecantus," a virtual book-of-spells flipbook; "Wolves & Puppies" (3 min.), a look at those scenes; "The World's Coolest Car," Cage's Rolls Royce Phantom that he loaned the picture; and eight minutes of deleted scenes followed by three minutes of outtakes.
Fans might have a look at a virtual roundtable with visual effects supervisor John Nelson, or a combined interview with Cage and Baruchel.
"The Sorcerer's Apprentice" is a great family film that packs PG-13 excitement into a PG-rated film. It's nowhere near as bloody or violent as it could have been, and yet the action and visual effects are none the worse. Parents have to appreciate that, even if critics don't.