At a time when Hollywood is plundering its vaults for anything remotely suitable for a remake -- Gen-X staples, dated TV shows, '80s slasher obscurities -- credit producer Jerry Bruckheimer for casting an eye toward other properties. Crackpot myths about hidden codes and signs in American documents and currency? That's two National Treasure adventures and counting. A Disney theme-park ride? Enough for Pirates of the Caribbean, a swashbuckling trilogy so overstuffed with mythology that each film is longer than the last. (A fourth is in the works.) And earlier this summer, Bruckheimer struck again, converting the popular video game Prince of Persia: Sands of Time into a hectic gloss on the sword-and-sandal adventure.
Now, out of the thin vapor of a Goethe poem, comes another unlikely Bruckheimer production. Goethe's "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" was popularized in a beautiful segment of Walt Disney's Fantasia, which turned Paul Dukas' orchestral imagining of the poem into a dark yet whimsical vehicle for Mickey Mouse, who gets into comic mischief after casting an errant spell to avoid the housework. Mickey's runaway mops and brooms make their requisite appearance about halfway through Bruckheimer's live-action version of The Sorcerer's Apprentice, dancing feverishly at the will of another young magician-in-training. It's the only sequence connecting the movie to its predecessor, yet it feels conspicuously shoehorned into place; not even Bruckheimer has the wizardly powers to pull a blockbuster out of 14 stanzas.
Reuniting with director Jon Turteltaub and star Nicolas Cage, the team behind those deliriously silly National Treasure movies, Bruckheimer turns less to Goethe for inspiration than to J.K. Rowling. The apprentice of the title is another Chosen One, phylum Harrii Potterus -- a young man plucked from awkward adolescence to fulfill his centuries-old destiny and save the world.
A wordy prologue details a conflict between the great Merlin and his evil counterpart Morgana in 740 C.E., but most of the action takes place in contemporary Manhattan, where Merlin's son Balthazar (Cage) protects a Russian nesting doll that houses enough evil wizards to whip up the apocalypse. Having spent more than 1,200 years traversing the globe in vain for his successor, the immortal Balthazar finds his man in Dave Stutler, a physics prodigy who's reluctant to embrace his calling.
Played by Jay Baruchel, the lovably geeky star of Judd Apatow's brilliant-but-canceled Undeclared and the recent She's Out of My League (and the voice of the unlikely Viking protagonist of How to Train Your Dragon), Dave learns lessons in casting spells and hurling "plasma balls" across the room, but he lacks Balthazar's confident swagger. Alfred Molina out-hams Cage as their chief nemesis Horvath, the rival magician who seeks the nesting doll at all costs.
In their early scenes together, teacher and apprentice have an appealing chemistry, with Cage reading every line with a deep wisdom-of-the-ages inflection, and Baruchel responding with sheepish half-shrugs and wisecracks. Molina, too, enjoys some testy exchanges with his own hapless protege, a faux-goth professional magician (Toby Kebbell) who's modeled cheekily after Criss Angel. The training scenes in both camps give the actors a chance to riff playfully off each other, and Dave's discovery of his newfound powers strikes the sort of neat-o tone that gave Harry Potter's origin story its appeal.
It isn't long, however, before the centuries-old blood feud in The Sorcerer's Apprentice has to be satisfied, which means a procession of noisy, chaotic effects sequences where wizards make grand pronouncements and zip multicolored light beams at each other. The lesson at the core of Goethe's poem -- that powerful spirits are not to be taken lightly, and should only be conjured by those who can control them -- goes out the window, and the mentor-student relationship gets swallowed up in the action. Bruckheimer may be the dark lord of Tinseltown, but he's the Mickey Mouse of this scenario, and the mops and brooms get the best of him.