By the time viewers sit through the two flashbacks—one set in the Middle Ages, the other a mere 10 years ago—that are required to get "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" (Disney) rolling, they will likely have a sense that director Jon Turteltaub's generally inoffensive but routine fantasy adventure is on track to do more lumbering than levitating.
And so, alas, it turns out, as the special effects-driven proceedings that follow fall well short of movie magic.
The second of the film's prologues introduces us to seemingly ordinary New York City school kid Dave Stutler (Jake Cherry). When Dave accidentally crosses paths with mysterious merchant Balthazar Blake (Nicolas Cage)—owner of a store called the Arcana Cabana—our diminutive hero gets caught up on the back story that was explained for us in the opening scene; to wit, Balthazar is, in fact, a wizard and a former pupil of the legendary medieval wonderworker Merlin.
For centuries Balthazar has been searching for the prophesied heir to his old mentor's powers while also keeping Maxim Horvath (Alfred Molina)—another of Merlin's proteges who went over to the dark side—safely cooped up in a Russian-style nesting doll. Dave, it need hardly be said, turns out to be the "prime Merlinian" Balthazar has been seeking.
Flash-forward to the present to find that Dave (now played by Jay Baruchel) has grown into a 20-year-old New York University student and physics geek who is convinced that his boyhood encounter with Balthazar was simply a hallucination. His unremarkable daily affairs are interrupted, however, when the newly freed Maxim comes calling, followed in short order by Balthazar.
Once Dave accepts his destiny, most of the remaining screen time is consumed by his efforts, under Balthazar's tutelage, to master the powers he has inherited—bring on the computer-generated "plasma bolts"—a task from which he's constantly distracted by his love for comely fellow NYUer Becky Barnes (Teresa Palmer), whom he started pursuing, as we witnessed early on, during their time together in the fifth grade.
While happily free of vulgar language, the script—credited to three screenwriters (Matt Lopez, Doug Miro and Carlo Bernard) working from a story with as many authors (Lawrence Konner, Mark Rosenthal and Lopez)—has the feel of an adventure by committee.
But, besides unbloody battle scenes too intense for tots and a passing invitation from a college friend of Dave's to join him in a drinking spree, the only material that might give pause to some parents is a bit of potty humor, as when we encounter a bulldog with gastric difficulties or follow Dave into a men's room where he expresses audible relief while using a urinal.
Like the rest of the magical rigmarole on display, the ability to raise old comrades from the dead, attributed to Merlin's nemesis, Morgana (Alice Krige), need not be taken seriously, nor need the inclusion of a Franciscan friar in the ranks of these deceased practitioners of the black arts necessarily elevate Catholic hackles.
The latter detail merely permits the camera to survey a group of unburied skeletons such as can be seen in the Capuchin crypt of Rome's Church of the Immaculate Conception, a long-standing—albeit somewhat macabre—tourist attraction.
The film contains extensive stylized violence and brief scatological humor. The Catholic News Service classification is A-II—adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG—parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
John Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.
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