In turn of the (twenty-first) century New York City, a bright ten-year-old boy called Dave is doing his best to impress a girl on a school trip. In a cute little moment, he passes a note for her with two checkboxes, asking to tick which box applies to her—friend, or girlfriend? She ticks something, and leaves the note for him. But the wind, and fate, have other plans for his note, and it ends up across the city in a strange little shop, staffed by a thousand-year-old slightly batty actor called Nicolas Cage. Sorry, I mean, a thousand-year-old slightly batty sorcerer called Balthazar Blake. There, he and Blake discover that Dave is not only a ladies’ man/boy but actually a descendent of Merlin, and someone very important to the fate of the world. Then, because he’s a goofy kid, he accidentally unleashes an ancient evil in Alfred Molina’s Maxim Horvath, and subsequently leads both Horvath and Blake to be trapped in a vase for ten years, which Dave spends trying to believe what he saw in the shop that day was hallucinations brought on by a glucose deficiency.
In 2010 New York City, a bright twenty-year-old called Dave (Jay Baruchel) is a physics student building a Tesla coil and pining after Becky Barnes, the girl he loved in fourth grade. His youthful shenanigans are long past, but the ring he received from Blake that day still hides in his sock drawer. And now that ten years have passed, a certain vase is now about to unleash Blake and Horvath back into the world, and Dave is going to have to step up and become a sorcerer’s apprentice to stop Horvath’s ultimate plan—to free the trapped Morgana Le Fay and have her destroy the world.
By the time I was at the box office this afternoon, I realised I’d exhausted all the blockbuster films I desperately needed to see. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice looked kind of corny, I was sick of Jay Baruchel this year (see How to Train Your Dragon and She’s Out of My League), and going to a kids movie during the school holidays always ends up with me expecting to be pelted with M&Ms throughout the viewing. But I just plain love going to the movies, so I buttered up my beloved until we decided that this was the movie that looked the least terrible out of rivals Charlie St Cloud (the previews of which explained the whole movie), Cats & Dogs 2: The Revenge of Kitty Galore (talking/barfing/pooping animals, ugh) or The Last Airbender (apparently about as much fun as watching The Happening for a second time). But as we watched this, after I broke out into a grin for the twentieth time, I decided: this is actually a pretty decent and fun movie.
It’s a bit cheesy, of course, and follows a fairly well-worn path of magical movies: person denies skill, caves and picks up some skills, makes an error, declares themselves rid of magic and runs away, realises using their power for good is actually helpful, returns to take on The Big Bad. But formulaic can still be fun, and this movie was. The casting had a lot to do with it, from young Dave (Jake Cherry), who is a dead ringer for Jay Baruchel, to Nicolas Cage, toning down the batshit to be a palatable sorcerer as Blake. Alfred Molina has the facial hair to be properly evil and looks ominous in a top hat, and Dave’s love interest, Australian Teresa Palmer, plays a flattered/interested/confused pretty lady really quite well, all the while looking like a twenty-year-old Naomi Watts. Feeling a little tacked on but entertaining all the same was Drake Stone, famous magician and secret sorcerer, requisitioned by Horvath to be his sidekick in the quest for evil, and played by RocknRolla’s Toby Kebbell. He’s over-the-top, and the idea of a real magician making a living as an, er, “pretend” magician isn’t touched on, but he is as flamboyant and playful as Russell Brand and adds good comic relief to the darker, deadly moments.
I realised almost straight away just how odd it is to see a kids movie in two dimensions and not three. I worried that the film would be flat, but the effects are quite extraordinary, from a steel gargoyle eagle prying itself off the side of a building to fly away to the Fantasia-like cleaning sequence with mops and brooms doing their best to clean Dave’s messy (and improbably large) physics lab. When Dave woos Becky with his Tesla coils it’s a genuinely good-looking moment, not to mention heartfelt, and you’re pleased for him because he is just so. damned. awkward. You could team him up with Michael Cera in a movie and cause some kind of mass death though excessive audience cringing. He spends a large portion of the film saying, “W-what’s h-happening?” or similar and looking embarrassed. He is basically playing the same person as he was in How to Train Your Dragon, including flying around on giant winged creatures and scoring with cute blondes, except that he has to do the physical acting as well as the voice acting.
It’s kid-friendly in that the worst swear you’ll hear is Dave saying, “What the heck?”, but involves a lot of carnage too (including someone being shot in the head) even if it is bloodless. Some scenes can get quite serious and upsetting, then are alleviated with such classy things as Dave’s dog farting or peeing. Choosing a college-aged man as a protagonist for a Disney movie aimed at children seems odd, but it works well because Dave doesn’t do other college-type things like spend every moment drunk and running around with knickers on his head. Instead he is a diligent student and the most he gets up to with Becky is (mild spoiler) a little smooching.
I don’t know enough English mythology to stand by the movie’s version of Merlin and Morgana Le Fay’s history, but it skips over it fairly lightly. There’s a few glossed over moments towards the end, like when Hovarth goes to all Dark Side and releases, amongst others, an evil little witch who is fairly frightening yet only onscreen for about twelve seconds. It also followed that movie rule where apparently whenever a character goes to Chinatown, it’s Chinese New Year and there’s a huge parade involving a dragon and a crowd for the bad guy to get lost in. I can’t dodge the fact it was a pretty clichéd film, but all the same, I had a genuinely good time watching it and would recommend it, even though it has flown a little under the radar and when I say, “I saw The Sorcerer’s Apprentice!” my friends will probably say, “What? Is that the American version of The Philosopher’s Stone?”
In summary: Exceeds Expectations. Also, stick around until after the credits, and you’ll get a little teaser.