I think that my love of genre entertainment comes across strongly on this blog, which is why I wanted to see this film. I wasn’t expecting it to be anything special, but I was curious to see how the film would handle magic in the modern setting. The end result is neither disappointing nor anything special, but scrapes through as well-made passable entertainment.
The set-up: Merlin has three apprentices – Balthazar (Nicolas Cage), Veronica (Monica Bellucci) and Horvath (Alfred Molina); Horvath betrays him to his enemy Morgana (Alice Krige), who kills Merlin. Veronica traps Morgana in her own soul but, to stop Morgana killing Veronica, Balthazar traps her in a ‘grimhold’, which looks like a Russian nesting doll (no, really). Balthazar then spends the next millennia trapping other Morganian sorcerers (including Horvath) in the grimhold while searching for the Prime Merlinian (stupidest name ever), the sorcerer (and Merlin’s successor) who will be able to finally kill Morgana.
The present day (thereabouts): our hero as a 10 year old happens upon Balthazar’s shop, where Merlin’s dragon ring recognises him as the Prime Merlinian; however, our young hero accidentally knocks over the grimhold, releasing Horvath, who fights with Balthazar and they get trapped in magical vase with a 10-year lock, meaning that our hero is led to believe that he made this all up. Ten years later, our hero Dave (Jay Baruchel) is a physics student at New York University, whose life is changed when the sorcerers return, Horvath is after him, and Balthazar takes him on as his apprentice.
Seeing that this film was based on Cage’s idea to do a live-action version of Fantasia, it’s a lot of effort to set this up. However, it works to a degree to initiate the special effects, training montages, developing a relationship with a girl so far out of his league she’s in another universe, sacrifice and accepting responsibility you’d expect. The magic is well handled, and I liked the attempted science connection, although it seems for the most part that magic is mostly about telekinesis (either lifting things or using plasma bolts) – quite a limited range for what is something essentially only limited by the imagination – and the Chrysler building eagle coming to life is a nice touch, if illogical when it seems to save a character as if it is a sentient creature in its own right (how did it come to life at that point?).
Cage plays it fairly straight as the approximately 1,300-year-old sorcerer, which seems like a missed opportunity for his over-the-top acting style, but it doesn’t drag the film down. Baruchel does nerd well, but I found his voice to be slightly annoying and his delivery irksome, which gets in the way of empathising with the main character. The most fun is provided by Molina, who can always be relied upon for good value (he was the best thing in The Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time, for example), and he enjoys playing the bad guy with relish. The strangest appearance is Bellucci – her role is nothing more than a glorified cameo, appearing in the early flashback sequences and right at the very end; what was the point of having such a well-known actress in such a slender part? It made no sense.
Jon Turteltaub, who seems to only work with Cage on film now after the National Treasure films, directs with efficiency; you know where every story beat is going to hit and he does it correctly. It is a Disney film – Baruchel has a wisecracking black room-mate at college, to demonstrate diversity, and the hero characters all end the film happily – but why does that mean that the crux of the story is all about love? Horvath turns against his best friend Balthazar because Veronica loved Balthazar and not Horvath – how petty a reason is that for him to join forces with somebody who wants to destroy the world? And why does Morgana want to destroy the world? I’ve never understood that as a genuine motive. However, at least it is not a complete Disney movie – if it had been a super-traditional Disney film, the apprentice would have been the 10-year-old kid learning lessons about himself; this version with an older protagonist has a little more validity.
On the whole, it was enjoyable enough, and I even liked the homage to the Fantasia dancing mops and buckets sequence (although I’m not sure how much currency it would have with the younger audience). I’m not sure if it has opened the door for a Doctor Strange movie (this film has a lot of similarities, with Balthazar as a Strange type and Horvath as a Baron Mordo type, especially the extensive use of New York as the backdrop to the film – I half expected them to fly over Manhattan and see the unique window of a certain sanctum sanctorum in Greenwich Village), but I don’t think it did any harm. But I left it with a strange thought: the final moment of the film sees Dave take the beautiful girl (who is rather blatantly given a task to do in the final act just to show she is not just a pretty face) on the Chrysler eagle to go to Paris – surely they are going to get very, very cold flying over the Atlantic sitting on top of a metallic bird?