‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ Original charm lost in an unrelenting siege of special effects

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Possibly the finest hour onscreen for Mickey Mouse was “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” the segment of 1940’s Fantasia in which he played the title role.

The episode is a wordless pantomime, which helps a lot for those of us who find the voice of Disney’s signature rodent grating, to the 1897 orchestral program piece by Paul Dukas, which in turn is based on Goethe’s classic poem, the story of a fledgling wizard who uses his magical powers to animate a broom to do his chores for him, then finds himself in over his head.

Not given to missing a trick when it comes to exploiting a property with name recognition, Disney now offers a big-budget, feature-length, live action version of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, with the young Canadian Jay Baruchel in the title role, and Nicolas Cage as the master sorcerer. After one of those long voice-over prologues full of trumped-up expository lore, the tale is reset in modern-day Manhattan.

Cage plays Balthazar, a student of Merlin, who has been looking for a protégé for centuries to help him defend humankind against his rival Horvath (Alfred Molina) and the wicked sorceress Morgana (Alice Krige). He finally finds him in the form of Dave (Baruchel), a physics nerd at NYU. All sorts of opportunities for elaborate special-effects sequences arise from Dave’s training, and from the big showdown with the evil sorcerers.

Several of these involve iconic NYC figures coming to life—a dragon runs amok in the middle of a parade in Chinatown, Balthazar domesticates one of the steel deco eagles from the Chrysler building to ride on, and Dave is terrorized by the bronze Wall Street bull statue outside Bowling Green Park. Dave even brings mops and brooms to life to clean up at one point, with results similar to Mickey’s.

These are all good, whimsical ideas, and they probably make the movie sound a lot more fun than it is. Somehow the CGI effects feel cold and soulless, and director Jon Turteltaub, of the National Treasure flicks, throws them at us in such a hasty, impersonal manner that they don’t stir much sense of wonder. The script is no help either; once again the plot is by-the-numbers out of the Disney playbook, with a misfit-underdog hero learning he’s been chosen by Destiny not only to Save The World but to Get The Girl.

That The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is tolerable is mainly due to the acting. The dark, slender Barcuchel, with his kvetchy, quavering voice, is good company, though he’d be hugely served by some better dialogue. Molina doesn’t even need good dialogue to bring off this dapper villain, and though she’s wasted in a zero role, Monica Belluci, as Balthazar’s long-lost love, is always welcome just because she’s ravishing.

As for Cage, despite his many career follies, he’s still unmistakably a movie star, and he’s a glamorous presence to watch even when, as here, you don’t buy for a minute that he’s who he says he is.

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