Every week it's the same thing. I screen and review some horrible movie, and get a bunch of notes telling me that the movie wasn't horrible, it was popcorn. And what's a popcorn movie but a horrible film that someone just decided to like? Well, the time has come for me to join the Popcorn Brigade—The Sorcerer's Apprentice was a horrible movie that I just happened to like.
It's stupid and childish, but also utterly charming. Jay Baruchel's nebbishy performance—and we're talking nerd nerd here, not movie nerd—saves the day better than his heroic character does.
But, as I said, the flick is a mess. It starts, as all bad films do, with a voiceover. And this one is a doozy. Merlin (MERLIN!), who looks a lot like Santa, foolishly found himself three apprentices, and only one of them is a beautiful woman. Her name is Veronica (played by the criminally underused Monica Belluci) and because she is a woman, she has almost no lines and doesn't appear in 99 percent of the film. The other apprentices are Balthazar (Nicolas Cage, who'll play a clown at your kid's birthday party if you meet his appearance fee) and Horvath (Alfred Molina, steadfastly refusing to act). Given that "Horvath" is a creepy-sounding name and Molina is fat while Cage is still in pretty good shape for an aging weirdo, you can guess what happens in that little triangle.
Then Morgana le Fay shows up to find a special world-conquering spell called "The Rising" and then she gets sucked into a nesting doll called a "Grimhold" with Veronica after killing Merlin and then years go by as Balthazar traps other evil wizards in the doll and then actually years DON'T go by because Merlin, with his last breath, gives Balthazar a special "dragon ring" for the "Prime Merlinian"—a young boy who'll inherit the arch-wizard's power, and then, okay, years really do go by this time and yes, the introductory voiceover scene does introduce FOUR separate and distinct McGuffins and actually must double back on itself in order to do so.
Cut to the yeeeeaaaaar twoooo-thoooooousaaaaand, and Balthazar is rocking the sort of long leather duster that nerds think is cool, and living in Manhattan running a magic shop after a long career of determining that the Prime Merlinian certainly won't be African, or Indian, or Ron Weasley. And then little David shows up and a bunch of lame magic happens as Hovarth escapes the Grimhold but then Hovarth and Balthazar are sucked into ... no, not the Grimhold so painstakingly established in the previous scene, but a magical Chinese urn. Little David then pisses his pants in front of all his school chums, including cute blond Becky.
Luckily for me though, I wasn't able to find the fire alarm in the theater and pull it, because once Baruchel enters the picture as the adult David of 2010—a physics genius at NYU with his own lab in a former subway station—the movie actually picks up. Baruchel's Dave is screechy-voiced, a bit dopey, and utterly lacks the placid cool that makes Michael Cera and Jesse Eisenberg's nerd characters so unrealistic. Baruchel is perfectly charming and entirely believable, which is exactly what an effects-driven kiddie movie like The Sorcerer's Apprentice needs to keep us grounded in the events of the film. When Balthazar and Hovarth, their ten years imprisonment up, come after Dave to find the Prime Merlinian and the Grimhold respectively (and the dragon ring is still in the mix), there's more dumb magic, but Dave and Balthazar soon team up and Dave becomes ... say it with me now ... the sorcerer's apprentice!
I shouldn't have to tell you that Dave isn't exactly a natural at magic, nor is he a natural at romance with the now-grown Becky. (Teresa Palmer, who can't act, but it's not like she's asked to.) Some of the bits are actually pretty funny, and the New York setting is mostly realistic, well-used, and well-realized. Though least one of the five (five!) credited writers thinks that New Yorkers call carbonated soft drinks "pop"—it's soda, you pigs, SODA!
David also meets his opposite number in Drake Stone, a young sorcerer who has used his powers to become a famous a Criss Angel/Russell Brand mash-up. Toby Kebbel can't really act either, but he sure can behave, and he works really well with both Molina and Baruchel. Really, Drake Stone should have been the major antagonist in the film, but his secondary role was enough to provide several guffaws.
As the stakes are raised, the magic grows a bit more subtle. After a number of exhausting lighting bolt versus fireball battles, we get some good touches—Hovarth makes a random pedestrian appear to be Veronica for just a few moments, long enough to distract Balthazar and actually show us something of Balthazar's character. There's also a neat scene in a mirror universe, and a joke about the very large number of yellow cabs in Manhattan. Of course, David uses his newfound magic to clean his lab ... with funny, if predictable, results. And even Becky actually does something to help stop Morgana from destroying the world. Or is it enslaving the world? Eh, the movie's five writers can't seem to decide, so hell if I know.
Maybe I'm just happy that The Sorcerer's Apprentice was better than Disney's last attempt at a summer picture, Prince of Persia. Maybe I'm grading on a curve because the last magical-savior movie I reviewed, The Last Airbender, was so bad it actually gave me strep throat. Maybe the popcorn was just better this week than it's been in weeks past. But I'll say it—if you're interested in a couple of hours of air conditioning, a few laughs, and even a teensy bit of that ol' Disney magic, go ahead and see The Sorcerer's Apprentice.
A matinee anyway.