Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Show, Don't Tell: The Sorcerer's Apprentice (2010)

Famed science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke once claimed, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Filmmaking is not without its own magicians, pioneering landscapes for our bewilderment. Georges Méliès took us on a trip to the moon in La Voyage dans la lune (1902), long before Apollo 11 touched down on it in 1969. In Star Wars (1977), George Lucas piloted us on a journey to a galaxy both far away and long ago. Terry Gilliam has traveled with us through the belly of a monstrous fish, to the moon, and explored the depths of a raging volcano and time itself in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989). These are only a handful of the artists who've waved a cinematic wand to make us believe in the impossible. They inspired generations through mystique. We all wanted to know the answer to one question; how was this possible? With DVD bonus features and behind the scenes documentaries we can now answer that question but the true masters have never revealed their secrets upfront. 

The fatal flaw which director Jon Turteltaub (National Treasure (2004), Cool Runnings (1993)) makes in his latest film, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, is attempting to rationalize magic rather than allowing us to lose ourselves in the nonsensical affair. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer, Turteltaub and the cast are keen on entertaining us to be sure but with the wrong elements. The tale puts us in the reluctant shoes of young scientist Dave (Jay Baruchel) as he's mentored by a centuries old Sorcerer named Balthazar (Nicolas Cage, wonderfully bizarre as always) who is trying to mold a worthy successor and stop the end of the world. We're shown the inner teachings of sorcery and given explanations for the plausibility of magic in the real world, information which is presented in a fashion almost as fun as reading stereo instructions. Ignore the fact that the script, by Matt Lopez, Doug Miro and Carlos Bernard, is a jumbled mess of untied plot threads and vanishing characters who would make Harry Houdini proud. If the film had focused on escapism instead of a halfcocked presentation of what would "actually" happen if Sorcerers were let loose in downtown Manhattan this could have been a really fun (albeit still guilty) ride.

Luckily, the film is not completely without its charms. Though the entire movie is unintentionally structured around taking the fun out of sorcery, there are still a few moments of genuine magic. Turteltaub is no stranger to elaborate set pieces and he manages to stage a few bewitching moments in the film. A high speed car chase while trapped within the reflection of a mirror is the definite highlight, though smaller bits involving a vicious fire-breathing dragon, a rescue by a giant steel hawk and early moments where Baruchel's character is finding his bearings still manage to entertain.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is (very) loosely based on a short segment of the same title from 1940's Fantasia but little of Walt Disney's magic can be found in this Jerry Bruckheimer / John Turteltaub incarnation. In the original we found Mickey Mouse alone with the Sorcerer's book of spells and watched as his inexperience and naivety led him to the stars, then brought him a slew of problems, which could only be fixed inexplicably by the master. While this scene has been faithfully recreated here, the film as a whole loses the magic we saw through Mickey's innocent eyes 70 years ago. Instead we're offered a magic show where the tricks are revealed and ruined before they've had a chance to surprise us. Some things are better left to the imagination.

-- Andrew Dupuis is a devoted cinephile and graduate of Brock University's Film Studies program with an extensive background in Canadian and popular cinema. He is currently working on his first book.

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