Empty-calorie family fun once again whips a feature-length story up out of little more than a Disney-owned brand. "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" doesn't achieve the level of the first "Pirates of the Caribbean" but is a whole lot livelier than some of this season's other fantasy/actioners. (We're looking at you, Mr. Airbender.)
Casting Nicolas Cage as the sorcerer in question might raise eyebrows. But this is the Jerry Bruckheimer universe, after all, in which Cage serves as an all-purpose hero. The actor brings just a glimmer of his youthful weirdness to the role, leaving most of the twitching and self-consciousness to his young student Dave, played with fairly endearing goofiness by Jay Baruchel.
Dave is a nerdy outcast who, unbeknownst to anybody, is actually the sole possessor of a power that can save the world. (Funny how many nobodies out there turn out to be "The One.") In this case, he's a remote descendant of the wizard Merlin who has inherited the ability to vanquish Morgan Le Fay - Merlin's old arch-enemy, whose spirit has been bottled for millennia in a little Russian nesting doll referred to as the Grimhold.
The outer shell of that Grimhold contains the soul of another evil spell-caster, Horvath, who to viewers' good fortune is played by Alfred Molina. Dressed in Victorian garb and a very tasteful coating of villainous cheese, Molina is freed from the doll at the outset and keeps the story moving forward past familiar plot points - Dave's tentative initiation into the ways of magic, his unlikely but sweet romance with Becky (Teresa Palmer, who looks like a hybrid of Naomi Watts and Kristen Stewart) and his temporary rejection of his new calling in favor of young love.
Horvath and a couple of henchmen chase Dave through Manhattan, and the filmmakers get a lot of mileage out of local color, turning one of the Chrysler Building's steel eagles into a winged getaway-car substitute, having fun with a dragon parade in Chinatown and (OK, this one's a bigger stretch than anything the wizards do onscreen) asking us to believe that Dave, an NYU grad student, has been granted use of an abandoned subway turnaround station for his Tesla-coil experiments.
The screenwriters offer the bare minimum of wit, and some glaringly corporate-minded choices hit sour notes (no self-respecting student radio DJ would play the surely-Disney-affiliated generic pop songs Palmer's character spins here). But the action contains occasional unexpected rewards, like Monica Bellucci writhing with PG-rated sex appeal as her le Fay-possessed character tries to unleash the world's evil spirits in NYC's financial district. (Aren't all those bankers bad enough?)
And the movie eventually nods to its namesake, in a runaway-mop-buckets scene illuminating the dangers of frivolous sorcery.
The sequence can't compete with the Mickey Mouse original, of course. But it does serve as a reminder - not necessary, but welcome, given the self-seriousness afflicting many of the movie's peers - that this is all in good, goofy fun.
'The Sorcerer's Apprentice'
Our grade: B-
Genres: Comedy, Adventure, Fantasy
Running Time: 109 min
MPAA rating: PG
Release Date: July 14, 2010
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