The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Disney, 2010)

I know what you’re thinking: Why would the guy who assassinated Prince of Persia a couple of months ago want to review Jerry Bruckheimer’s even bigger fantasy flop from this summer? Two reasons. One, the trailer showed gargoyles on the Chrysler Building snapping and writhing, and I’m a sucker for New York-set fantasies. And, two, last year I was charmed by the production’s transformation of Chinatown into a two-week Chinese New Year’s celebration, a spectacle I enjoyed nightly as my subway traversed the Manhattan Bridge. How would it look on film, I wondered?

Synopsis: I guess I wasn’t that interested, as, like you, like everyone, I skipped on seeing it at the movies. Has boredom finally set in with Nicolas Cage? Bruckheimer product (I wish)? Sorcery? Beats me; it may have just been a sameness to the concept, or fallout from the Persia disaster. Maybe that it smelled too strongly of kids’ stuff, being based on a segment (however classic) of Fantasia with Mickey Mouse, who doesn’t speak to today’s Playstation-savvy youth. The movie’s biggest failing, as it turns out, is that it’s not kiddy enough.

Otherwise–and I’m shocked to be writing this, paramedics may need to be alerted–it’s quite entertaining, something I never thought I’d say about the canned goods peddled by director Jon Turteltaub, the most synthetic of filmmakers. My nightmare is imprisonment, whose only escape is for me to write The Films of Jon Turteltaub, forcing me to relive the misery of Phenomenon, Instinct, and the National Treasure movies. This chapter won’t be too taxing.

Studio Cage (as I call him when he’s at half mast, working for the man) is Balthazar, a “Merlinian,” or age-old ally of the Arthurian legend, whose constant task is too keep “Morganians,” adherents of the evil Morgana Le Fay (one-time Borg queen Alice Krige), bottled up (literally) for all eternity. He’s also on the lookout for the “prime Merlinian,” the only sorcerer who can defeat Morgana once and for all. (I hope I got this right; it’s mostly in the sturm und drang prologue, then leaks out into the actual movie.) His search takes him to Manhattan, where, in the guise of running an antiques shop, he scopes out prospects. Into the store bounds ten-year-old Dave Stutler (Jake Cherry, already an old hand at this sort of thing with the two Night at the Museum movies under his belt), who shows signs of being the one. But their first encounter ends humiliatingly for the easily humiliated Dave and traps Balthazar in his bottle prison for a ten-year stretch with the villainous Morganian dandy Horvath (Alfred Molina, wearing a top hat with aplomb, and more at home than in Persia, where he also did time with Toby Kebbell, who is amusing here as his Vegas-y magician sidekick).

A decade later…well, here’s the problem with the movie. Cage and Cherry would have given a typically Bruckheimerian script (event-packed, emotionally thin) a father-son dynamic to pivot on. Cage and Jay Baruchel, as the college-age Dave, are more like wary siblings, riffing off one another’s eccentricities. Baruchel, an appealing nebbish, lacks the childlike wonder or Mickey Mouse-ish mischief to pull off his role as Horvath and fellow Morganians escape and plot. And his scenes with rote love interest Becky (Teresa Palmer) are for fast-forwarding, not that she doesn’t pull a rabbit out of a hat of her own. (The making-of reveals her to be Australian, which I wouldn’t have guessed; does the U.S. have a deficit in cute blondes, too?) The bewitching Monica Bellucci, meanwhile, spends way too much time in her own bottle, waiting to be uncorked as Balthazar’s love interest (and the possible destroyer of worlds, as her Merlinian houses Morgana’s wrathful spirit, or something. Check the Wiki page.)

How much all this matters depends on how much slack you’re willing to cut a movie that makes a fantasyscape of New York. Me, a fair amount; I love King Kong and Ghostbusters and the heavenly 1948 drama Portrait of Jennie and the scary-funny Chrysler Building-set Q (1982), and while The Sorcerer’s Apprentice isn’t altogether in their league a hell (or, PG-rating, heck) of a lot happens. A gargoyle takes flight and saves the day on an elevated subway platform; a dragon roars through that Chinese New Year’s parade; cars chase through a “reverse” Times Square; and a fiery pentagram unites five downtown skyscrapers. All this is catnip for me. (And the CGI recreation of the broomstick sequence in Fantasia isn’t bad, either.) Ever wonder what the Charging Bull statue on Wall Street would do if it came to life? Wonder no more. Movies that are wall-to-wall trickery usually bore me; this one hit my sweet spot.

Audio/Video: Slick, bombastic, and in anamorphic widescreen (2.40:1 aspect ratio)–the DVD is a shiny new toy fit for stocking stuffing. I imagine the Blu-ray is doubly glossy and loud, Bruckheimer-style.

Special Features: I received one of those combo discs that combine the DVD with the Blu-ray, and is designed to make you feel inadequate for not turning Blu. The dowdy-looking DVD has the serviceable 20-minute making- of that concentrates on the effects and the location shooting, plus a deleted scene; the handsomer Blu-ray piles on the featurettes, including one about Fantasia, which has also been reissued in both formats. What spell do I have to cast on the bosses to get me a Blu-ray player?

Bottom Line: More fun (and at 109 minutes blessedly shorter) than any of the slow and somnolent Harry Potters, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, an also-ran in the wizardry sweepstakes, should entertain families who have had their fill of Harry and friends for now and anyone enchanted with New York.