Movies: The Sorcerer's Apprentice * * *
(PG, General Release)
It's been a good year for us closet Nicolas Cage fans, who secretly love his hammy ways and weirdly unmodulated voice which seems to go up and down of its own accord, but don't have the backbone to stand up and admit it in public.
Already in 2010, we've had his genuinely fantastic performance in Werner Herzog's magnificently nutty Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, and a show-stealing turn as a kind of demented anti-Batman in the otherwise overrated Kick-Ass.
By comparison with those films, his performance here is the heart and soul of moderation, but there's still the odd edgy Cage moment to enjoy and that's more than enough to be going on with. In fact, Cage's involvement in The Sorcerer's Apprentice goes beyond his mere appearance in it: apparently, it was his idea to make a feature-length film based on the Arthurian legends and specifically on the famous segment involving Mickey Mouse and a sweeping brush in the classic Walt Disney animation, Fantasia.
If that sounds like a slender premise for a summer blockbuster, it is. But, in one of the leanest years on record, it'll do and, as it turns out, for the most part The Sorcerer's Apprentice is reasonably entertaining. That's thanks to some decent jokes and a fine cast who manage not to be completely obliterated by the now customary deluge of CGI effects.
In an absurdly perfunctory prelude narrated by Ian McShane, who sadly fails to actually materialise, we learn how in 740 AD Merlin the Magician was betrayed and killed by one of his apprentices, Maxim Horvath (Alfred Molina), who joined forces with the evil sorceress Morgana le Fay (Alice Krige). In their efforts to save him, Merlin's other apprentices, Veronica (Monica Bellucci) and Balthazar Blake (the good Mr Cage) manage to imprison Morgana in a magic nesting doll. But it's only a matter of time before she escapes and before she does, Balthazar must find the 'Prince Merlinian', a young wizard powerful enough to defeat her.
Confused? Don't be, because now it's the present day, and Balthazar (inconspicuous in a floor-length leather coat) bestrides New York in search of the elusive Merlinian Prince. He thinks he's found him when he meets Dave Stutler (Jay Baruchel), a mild-mannered physics student at New York University. And while Jay is having none of it, Balthazar sets about teaching him how to unleash his latent power, before Morgana returns to trash the planet.
Maxim, meanwhile, is hoping to set his mistress free, and is out to get Dave before he masters his powers. Dave initially thinks it's all a load of nonsense, and is more interested in wooing a glamorous fellow student called Becky (Teresa Palmer), who he thinks is out of his league. But Dave is the Prince Merlinian alright, and it's only him who stands between mankind and a very angry sorceress.
Along with Michael Cera, Jay Baruchel is one of the go-to guys at the moment if you're looking for a gormless but loveable geek. He does it well, to the extent in fact that you end up halfheartedly rooting for him. Alfred Molina always makes for a satisfying baddie, though, unfortunately, he isn't given anything very humorous to say here. It's Baruchel and Cage who share the lion's share of the jokes, and they handle them pretty well.
A slender storyline is not enhanced by frequent clunky CGI setpieces, in which cars flit through mirrors into inverse worlds and a gargoyle atop the Chrysler Building turns into a massive flying metal eagle. It's Cage who keeps you interested, not so much through anything he actually does but curiosity about what he might do.
Like Peter O'Toole in his prime, Cage has the kind of slightly off-kilter appeal that can subvert the unwary film if it's not very careful. His Balthazar remains pleasingly unpredictable: you have the feeling he might tire of the whole business at any moment, shoot his moany apprentice and go back to being a very bad lieutenant.