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Non-Review Review: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is a movie that really works very much better than it really should. It’s clunky, predictable and standard box office fare, hardly designed to provoke or probe the extremes of the human imagination. It opens with a clunky exposition-filled narration which crams an entire franchise’s worth of back story into what should be a simple and straight forward tale, which even Ian McShane’s distinctive tones can’t completely elevate. From there on out, its by-the-numbers and fairly straight-forward. On the other hand, the movie has something that the vast majority of other summer blockbusters are seriously lacking in.

And that thing, my friends, is Nicolas Cage.

Cage certainly takes some balsy roles...

Cage has always been one of those strange actors who was never a truly neutral component in any given film. The movie might have been stunningly mediocre, but Nicolas Cage is always at the very edge of the scale. At his best, he’s far out and energetic, making a good movie great and pushing bad films into the realm of high camp (“not the bees!”), but it isn’t a consistent effect. He can also be downright terrible in others (as much as I dearly love Face/Off, Cage’s impersonation of Travolta was too subtle and nuanced for a film like that). Regardless of what you made of the film, you know whether you loved of loathed Cage’s performance.

And it’s Cage as the zany magician Balthazar Blake that makes the film as charming as it is. Cage plays an over-the-hill, little nuts (as he indicates with a finger gesture), worn-out, sarcastic and occasionally erratic magician locked in an eternal battle between good and evil. It takes an actor of rare skill to draw nearly as much dramatic weight out of the word “co-inci-dence” as Cage does in the opening sequence, and the actor manages to do what far too few performers can these days, in selling his audience the film’s comprehensive CGI.

Molina's also on fire...

A scene where our lead walks into a booby-trapped carpet that slowly swallows him would arguably seem kinda bland in any magic movie, an excuse for a minor CGI hurdle the hero should overcome with little difficulty, but Cage manages to make that small and otherwise forgettable sequence wonderfully entertaining by delivering the dialogue in his own slightly zoned-out style. “Persian quick-rug,” he exposits quickly. “And he said I was old-fashioned.” It probably reads as trite, but the key here is the fact that it’s all in the delivery – Cage reacts kinda like we all imagine a grizzled old wizard would when confronted with (what must seem to him to be) a mundane little obstacle. Cage convinces us that this is a dude who deals with this sorta stuff on a daily basis, without ever seeming too cynical or raining too heavily on the magic parade. And it’s surreal, but that’s the one moment in the film that I’m still thinking about with a smile.

Hell, Cage’s version of Balthazar even makes some of the movie’s stranger plot holes seem like telling character traits. Balthazar is a character who initially warns his young pupil that horrible and dangerous and ominous things will happen if mere mortals ever came to know about magic – and then spends the rest of the movie throwing around fireballs like it’s the fourth of July. One might wonder what the point of the warning was, since he doesn’t seem too concerned about mortals noticing something’s up later on, but Cage’s performance leads us to believe that Balthazar simply likes his melodrama. He’s a surreal blend of classic sorcerer wizard and modern showman magician, for whom these sorts of heightened moments of drama come easily.

Cage is pretty good on the fly...

Cage isn’t the movie’s only asset, but he is its strongest. I like Jay Baruchel’s style, as a young, socially awkward individual thrown into the role of reluctant sorcerer. It’s the same sort of geekish charm he brought to Tropic Thunder and even How To Train Your Dragon, and I worry that it might possibly grow old if he keeps playing characters with these exact same characteristics. Here, it works, perhaps because this is the first live action movie where I’ve seen him front-and-centre, and I haven’t grown tired of his routine. It also happens that Baruchel also actually plays very well off Cage and the actors seem to complement each other in the master/apprentice dynamic quite well.

The movie is fairly paint-by-numbers and the plot is dictated by fairly mundane exposition, but there are still some really nice sequences thrown in, scattered through the film like raisins in a cake. For example, there’s a weird car chase through some sort of mirror universe that is choreographed remarkably well for a high-speed car chase involving magic, and I do appreciate the wonderful sense of the humour the film has. It never seems to take itself entirely seriously, as if it knows that it’s unadulterated summer blockbuster fare. And I like that, in a movie season where it seems, more and more, the big-budget films take themselves far too seriously.

Welcoming his apprentice to the inner circle...

On the other hand, there are a few awkward moments, and times when the film seems to be running on autopilot rather than careful and considered plotting. There’s an homage to the classic Fantasia scene that inspired the film, but it actually feels a little awkward, despite the technical skill with which it is rendered – it feels like it is included because it’s expected rather than because anyone thought it was a good idea. There’s also a completely pointless romantic subplot that was perhaps inserted because they needed a female character who didn’t spend any of the film as an evil sorceress attempting to destroy the world.

I am a little wary of the fact that the movie, despite being self-aware enough to poke fun from time-to-time, seems so incredibly self-conscious about the magic that it needs to run on. I don’t know why, for example, the film felt it necessary to explain magic as some sort of strange pseudo-science. “You’ve heard how humans don’t use more than ten percent of their brain, right?” Balthazar asks, explaining that magicians simply unlock the other ninety. It feels like that awkward midichlorians explanation in The Phantom Menace, trying to rationalise the irrational with an irrational (and debunked) piece of pop science.

Doing it by the book...

C’mon! “It’s magic!” is a perfectly plausible explanation for a movie called “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” You might argue that this doesn’t explain why only some people can do magic, but the film does explain why some people can use more than 10% of their brains. It all requires suspension of disbelief, but I can’t see why one example is treated as inherently more plausible than another. I think it’s a sad example of how under-developed Hollywood seems to think kids’ imaginations are.

Minor misgivings aside, this is a conventional summer blockbuster. You know exactly what to expect going into it. Big setpieces, clunky exposition, a straight-forward plot rendered in an excessively complicated manner. The only rabbit in the hat is a delightful central performance from Nicolas Cage. The man has a capacity to be very good or very bad, and here he’s the juicy cherry on top of a fairly standard cupcake.

6 Responses

  1. Face Off definitely is one of my favors. I have to admit that I am a little disappointing for Cage’s performance in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, or may be the writer is the one I should complain about. Balthazar’s personality is not very consistent and as the nuts part, I can’t find anywhere else showing the same character besides the finger gesture.

    • Yep, but I’d argue Cage succeeds despite the script. That’s the mark of a good actor. It’s easy to be average with a bad script… but if you can find a way to make it work for you…

  2. I actually liked this movie pretty well, but you made some good points, especially about Nick Cage. Such an underrated actor! One of my favorites…excellent review 🙂

  3. I agree with most of what you said; Nicholas Cage did a good job playing the “zany magician” and the movie had an over-the-top exposition and a copy-paste plot. I, however, think you didn’t give enough credit to Jay Baruchel. It’s true that he usually plays these kinds of characters, but I thought he worked well with NIcholas Cage and fit into the role really well. Great Review by the way.

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