Here's the thought that lingers in the mind after seeing The Sorcerer's Apprentice (other than the self-admonition not to spell it "sorceror"), which opens Wednesday:
Do you think that producer Jerry Bruckheimer thought of doing a human reenactment of the Mickey Mouse version of Sorcerer's Apprentice from Fantasia and then decided to build a whole movie around it? Or did he have a movie called The Sorcerer's Apprentice and said, "Hey, you know what would be cute to throw in...?"
Or was it simply a movie about magic and sorcerers with a different title -- and someone said, "Hey, we could call this The Sorcerer's Apprentice -- and then put in a small homage to Fantasia."
No doubt Bruckheimer considered all three.
Unfortunately, The Sorcerer's Apprentice wants to be a 21st century version of Ghostbusters, with ancient spirits and magic and the wisecracks and hilariously deadpan mentor with his panicked young student.
That describes several movies this summer, including the much-funnier Knight and Day. Sorcerer doesn't have half the laughs of that film and has visual effects that are garish without being thrilling.
Mostly this has to do with the writing, which neither humanizes Nicolas Cage's stern Balthazar Blake, a disciple of the original Merlin, nor features laugh lines for the blundering Dave (Jay Baruchel), the aforementioned apprentice. Baruchel is a very talented young actor, but he flounders without strong material, falling back on mannerisms that could turn him into his generation's Don Knotts, instead of its Eddie Bracken.
Baruchel plays Dave, a physicist who also happens to be a direct descendant of Merlin -- called the prime Merlinian, to make it sound all math-y and serious. He stumbles across the path of Blake at a moment when another former disciple of Merlin, Horvath (Alfred Molina, at peak sneer), escapes from a bottle where he's been trapped for centuries. It's actually a nesting doll full of trapped evil wizards, starting with Merlin's chief rival, Morgana LaFay (an ill-used Alice Krige).
To thumbnail it, Balthazar has to keep Horvath from freeing Morgana or she'll raise an army of dead warriors and take over the world. If she gets loose, the only one with a prayer of stopping her is the prime Merlinian, who needs a lot of schooling to tap into his inner magician. Insert current alt-pop hit here to underscore montage of training scenes a la Rocky and The Karate Kid.
But most of the subsequent action has to do with the ability to summon and hurl plasma bolts from your fingertips, as opposed to finding an inventive application for the magic. That would require actual imagination, something that still doesn't come in a computer program, the way those special effects do.
At this point, Cage's resume is so full of this kind of prefabricated Bruckheimer bushwah that it's hard to take him seriously as an actor, particularly when he's wearing a wig that would make a WWE wrestler blush. It makes you wonder just how bad his financial situation is that he allows himself to be lured into pedestrian paycheck pictures like this.
Even more worrisome: What happens when his paycheck starts to dive, reflecting his downward trending box-office appeal? You can't keep making stinkers forever, Nic, and still take home the big bucks.