Silver Screen: The Sorcerer's Apprentice **
Nicolas Cage is perhaps America's most treasured overactor.
That may sound like a backhanded compliment, but it isn't. Cage doesn't even bother appearing in movies where his hyperkinetic style might be a problem; he's not throwing off the naturalistic rhythms of a Richard Linklater movie or disrupting the somber quiet of Kelly Reichardt's latest work. He's pretty much confined himself to big, loud action movies (Ghost Rider, Kick Ass) or the weird end of the arthouse spectrum (Bad Lieutenant: Port Call of New Orleans, a cameo in Grindhouse).
Mostly he's in very, very bad movies, but his tics and twitches and manic energy help make a lot of them more watchable and interesting than they have any right to be. He's up to similar shenanigans in The Sorcerer's Apprentice, a half-baked, overstuffed, too-familiar fantasy-action movie.
Cage is probably more restrained than he needs to be as Balthazar, the only interesting element in this competently filmed, family friendly flick about a boy wizard trying to stop a powerful, dark magician from coming back to life and enslaving both the secret magical world as well as humanity. (Yes, of course this sounds familiar; we'll get to that later.)
Balthazar, we're told in an obnoxiously convoluted prologue, is one of three chosen assistants to Merlin. Merlin's nemesis, Morgana le Fay (Alice Krige), is imprisoned inside a magical doll. Followers of dark magic, led by the nefarious Maxim Horvath (Alfred Molina) seek to free her. Balthazar is tasked with ensuring that the magic doll is kept safe from the forces of evil, and also with locating the Prime Merlinian, a chosen boy who unknowingly has incredible powers that will enable him to do away with le Fay forever.
After a thousand-year search, Balthazar finds the chosen one; he's Dave (Jay Baruchel), a spindly science dork whose brief childhood run-in with Balthazar and Horvath caused him to have a nervous breakdown and become an outcast at school. Now at college working on a big physics project, and still creepily pining for his grade-school crush Becky (Teresa Palmer), he's stunned to see Balthazar return to his life and seems utterly incapable of becoming a powerful magician.
Thus enter the standard Jedi training sequences, the nervous quipping for which Baruchel has become quasi-famous, and lots of dudes making strained, constipated faces and pointing at one another while computer-generated beams of light and fire shoot from their hands. The Sorcerer's Apprentice covers an awful lot of familiar ground, and director Jon Turteltaub tries to shine it up with a lot of effects sequences and a pace so frenetic viewers almost don't have time to be bored.
Speaking of familiar: It's certainly true that the Harry Potter series is far from wholly original, but it is a pleasing, sharply executed mash-up of myths and magic stories past. Thus, to say that The Sorcerer's Apprentice is a Potter retread would do a disservice to the various source material from which they both draw. That said, it seems hard to imagine that The Sorcerer's Apprentice, written by a quintet of credited screenwriters, would exist in a world where Potter didn't.
There are a handful of interesting ideas in Sorcerer's Apprentice, but they're never explored very deeply-- that might distract from the ceaseless madcap action. Magic is presented here as a kind of metaphysical phenomenon that's really just a physical phenomenon we can't understand, but this concept is only exploited as a plot device at the end. Likewise, a possibly interesting character (played by Toby Kebbell) who's a real magician posing as a shoddy, Kris Angel-style huckster, is never exploited either for his villainous or comedic potential.
The Sorcerer's Apprentice is nominally aimed at being a PG blockbuster that is accessible to the whole family, not unlike Turteltaub and Cage's National Treasure series. But only the younger, more credulous members of this hypothetical family are likely to be onboard for the whole two hours.