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The Post-Ironic Horror of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Written by: Anastasia Salter, Pop-Culture Editor

ImageWhen I saw the trailer for The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, I felt a moment of interest. Slick editing put together the image of a Harry-Potteresque contemporary fantasy with plenty of allusions to classic films. The last successful movie like that to come out of Disney studios was Enchanted, a film that brilliantly poked fun at the “pre-ironic” era of Disney while still delivering on the fairy tale ending. After watching Enchanted, I wondered why Disney hadn’t done more with this type of referential, tongue-in-cheek storytelling. After watching The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, I had an entirely different question: how did the name “Prime Merlinian” ever make it past a drafting board?

The premise is dismayingly familiar. A nerdy boy—no, not one of those hot Hollywood men with a pair of taped glasses, but a true, voice-impaired, utterly hopeless, nerdy boy as played (or embodied?) by Jay Baruchel is a scientist brought into the world of magic by Nicholas Cage, dressed like he raided Hugh Jackman’s wardrobe from Van Helsing but forgot to invest in the right hat and accessories to pull it off. And apparently, science is a lot like magic, as explained in a few scenes that bring back haunting memories of the first time George Lucas slipped the term midichlorians into the Star Wars franchise.

Unfortunately, as we learn through an over the top “exposition” scene at the beginning involving good old Merlin himself—though those opposed to actual history or mythology needn’t worry, that name is as close as this film gets to drawing on the traditional stories-this boy is destined to be the Prime Merlinian. Couldn’t they just have stuck with chosen one, or boy who lived, or something that doesn’t conjure up geography lessons? Once that term comes up, it is impossible to take the rest seriously, as both Cage and Baruchel are hampered by painfully overwrought dialogue as they face the Big Bads gradually escaping from a nesting set of Russian dolls. What do they want? Well, after decades of living inside tiny dolls, they want to destroy the world. Yes, really. Various caricatures of villainous sorcerers escape the nesting dolls, but none are as irritating or shallow as Baruchel’s supposed love interest, a blonde girl who exists mostly to be desired and stalked by our nerdy hero as Cage looks on disapprovingly.

Even the moments that should be the highlight of a summer blockbuster go on too long and with little fanfare. Instead of memorable sorcerer’s battles, we have a bunch of men waving their arms at each other and throwing around fire and force bolts. A tedious car chase sequence makes use of the wizard’s morphing power in a way that is supposed to echo the battle between Merlin and Madam Mim in The Sword in the Stone, but while those two used witty self-transformation the modern sorcerers can only seem to battle it out with bigger and faster cars. If you squint and ignore the clothing, it’s possible to imagine you are watching Fast and the Furious or any of a number of identical car scenes—at that point, why bother with magic at all?

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice wants so desperately to be ironic and postmodern that it oozes with obvious references. The crowning moment of this, of course, is a remake of Mickey’s magical cleaning spree in Fantasia. Unfortunately, it’s the best scene in the movie. I'd like to be able to talk about in-jokes, about choices the directors and writers made to incorporate the Disney mythos with a nudge and a wink. But that would imply there was any subtlety to this film, and, well–there wasn't. Everything hits like a hammer, leaving only a dull thud in its wake. An evil sorcerer uses the Jedi mind trick, explaining to a student that he doesn’t need to see his faculty identification, and his wise-cracking flamboyant side-kick feels the need to finish out the quote, just in case anyone in the theatre has missed it. Many moments like this simply insult the audience, children and adults alike.

It’s worth noting that the movie opens with the hero as a young boy, ten years before he becomes a college student and the main story arc takes place. This boy is a stand-in for the audience, ostensibly the same age as the target market. When this boy looks up at the Empire State Building on his way into the city, he draws King Kong on the window, aligning it with the real building to create, for a moment, the classic movie image. For a brief moment, the director seems to have remembered that 10 year old boys have the imagination to take icons and see them in their own ways, and to view the world around them with wonder. Perhaps if the same respect for the youthful audience had been shown anywhere else in the script the film could have found redemption.