Kid flicks have ruled this summer, with movies like “Toy Story 3,” “The Karate Kid” and “Despicable Me” racking up box-office grosses far beyond industry predictions. Now comes “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” which looks likely to repeat that money-minting feat. Like all great kid flicks, though, it’s too good — too fast and too funny — to be confined within the “family film” ghetto.
It’s a Disney picture, of course, derived from a segment of the studio’s 1940 animated classic, “Fantasia,” in which apprentice sorcerer Mickey Mouse did battle with a platoon of out-of-control buckets and mops. For this live-action version of the tale, that eight-minute episode has been much-enlarged (although thanks to some of the year’s tightest editing, the movie still runs well under two hours). Now the story begins in 740 A.D., with the legendary sorcerer Merlin bequeathing his magical secrets to three acolytes, Balthazar (Nicolas Cage, back in top comic form), Horvath (Alfred Molina) and Veronica (Monica Belluci). But Horvath is secretly in league with the evil Morgana Le Fay (Alice Krige), who wants to use Merlin’s secrets to (what else?) “enslave mankind.” Morgana knows that Balthazar loves Veronica, so she takes possession of Veronica’s body. Balthazar is torn, but Veronica implores him to imprison her (and her inner Morgana) within a Grimhold — a nesting-doll contraption designed as a repository for all sorts of nasty Morganians.
The director, Disney vet Jon Turteltaub, sketches in this prologue with gratifying brevity. The story then leaps ahead some 1,200 years. The immortal Balthazar is now the proprietor of a curio shop in downtown Manhattan. When a boy named Dave (Jake Cherry) blunders into his store one day, Balthazar — who still has the Grimhold, and has been searching for a kid to turn into a supremely great sorcerer, the “Prime Merlinean” — realizes that Dave is the one. But then Horvath materializes in the cluttered store, a fantastical wizard fight ensues, and the Grimhold is lost (well, misplaced). Jumping ahead another 10 years, we find that the grown-up Dave (Jay Baruchel) is now an NYU physics student well on his way to becoming a career nerd. Balthazar reappears to instruct him in the magical arts he’ll need to help recover the Grimhold. But Horvath is back on the scene, too, and soon recruits his own apprentice, a celebrity illusionist named Drake (Toby Kebbell, delightfully daft), whose rock-star affectations — snakeskin pants, bleached rooster hairdo — are decidedly post-Merlinean. (“Are you in Depeche Mode?” someone asks.) Now the furious hunt for the Grimhold gets underway in earnest.
The movie’s action, which rarely lets up, is a stunning blend of practical stunt-work and highly-imaginative CGI. (And the digital effects are so precisely applied that very little of what we see here looks like a cartoon.) You’re still marveling at a huge metal eagle that has sprung to life on the side of the Chrysler Building (Balthazar climbs aboard and flies away on it), when a frantic car chase (this is a Jerry Bruckheimer movie) gets underway, tearing through traffic-clogged Times Square, with Balthazar’s Rolls-Royce transforming into an SUV and Horvath’s Mercedes morphing into a Ferrari, a taxi and a scary garbage truck. (In one of the movie’s cleverest inventions, the two antagonists careen into a mirror-world universe in which all the famous Times Square signage is reverse-lettered). Then there’s a spectacular sequence set amid the confetti-blizzard of a clamorous Chinatown street parade, in which Balthazar and Dave are menaced by an exotic Morganian called Sun Lok (Gregory Woo) and a papier-mâché dragon that suddenly springs to rampaging life.
I’m leaving aside the raging wolf-pack attack, the angry iron bull and all the furious sword-and-sorcery (and fiery plasma-ball) combat. “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is really a high-caliber action movie, and it’s not just for kids. Although there is a message, of sorts, for all the little nippers who’ll be pulling their parents along to see it. After listening skeptically to one of Dave’s evasive excuses for screwing up his magical training, Balthazar says, “You’re a bad liar, Dave. I like that.”
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