Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Without Jay Baruchel’s incessant whining, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice would have been at least a mindlessly amusing thrill ride. Baruchel ripped the heart right out of this movie, and left pieces of it scattered all over the set. Baruchel plays Dave, this story’s Luke Skywalker; a young man, bored and discouraged with his average life, until centuries-old wizard Balthazar Blake (Nicolas Cage) bursts into his life, tells him he has special powers and he has to save the world, and starts training him. But he’s everything a Luke Skywalker character shouldn’t be. He’s whiney, he’s wishy-washy, he’s boring, he’s just plain annoying.

I was optimistic enough to hope that superstar Cage would prop up the movie where Baruchel let it drop, but I’m afraid Cage has passed his prime. What’s more, his costume seems a bit derivative. Take a look at him below,  next to a picture of Chicago wizard Harry Dresden and tell me you don’t see some resemblance.

The only cast member that carries his part particularly well is Alfred Molina as Maxim Horvath, the evil wizard bent on world domination. Horvath has adopted the modus operandi of a late 19th century British gentleman, complete with bowler hat and cane. Molina slips seamlessly into the role, infusing it with Horvath’s sinister nature.  He commands the respect that every great megalomaniac does. Toby Kebell rounds out the cast as his henchman, Drake Stone. Aside from Horvath, the only interesting character is a 17th century witch who gets a whopping ten seconds of screen time. Talk about disappointing.

Molina and Cage have some impressive fight sequences. Once again, Apprentice seems to be at its best, when it copies The Dresden Files. A good, visceral punch-out with a little magic thrown in is, in my opinion, the best thing a wizard story can have. Too much magic, and it starts to get ridiculous. This would have been a better movie with more of these and fewer over-the-top scenes.

Blake brings this statue to life and rides it early in the movie.

Apprentice is a bit too eager to show off its special effects budget. Right from the word go, we get an overbearing score crammed into our ears, in-your-face magic battles, and statuary turning into monsters that tear skyscrapers to pieces. The movie seldom pauses to build the plot or get to know the characters. It’s too bad, because the climactic battle is actually pretty intense, rather inventive, and very effective dramatically. It would have made the perfect bang to finish the movie with if it had been preceded by two hours of subtlety and development. Sadly, being preceded by a string of even bigger bangs, the relative pop at the end seems flat and empty.

Most of what happens is not only cliché, but painfully derivative, ripping off other movies and not adding anything original. When a clerk tells Horvath “I’m going to need to see your faculty identification,” Horvath waves his wand and says “You don’t need to see my faculty identification.” Drake then delivers the line “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for,” but it’s too late; half the audience has already said it. More annoying yet, when Dave is having a hard time cleaning up his lab space, he uses his new powers to make brooms and mops come alive. Guess what happens next. If you said “he can’t get them to stop and he nearly drowns, right before Balthazar saves the day,” you get a cookie. This scene copies the other Sorcerer’s Apprentice, to a tee, using the same music and even including a silhouette shot of Dave chopping up a broom with an ax. And it does nothing to advance the story. It’s just forced into the middle of the movie for its own sake – a classic big-lipped alligator moment.

Apprentice has a few things going for it. The special effects are cool, the action is cool, and the story, while bland, isn’t painful or preachy. It’s a pretty safe family film, and if you have kids, you could probably use Apprentice to shut them up for 90 minutes. You will be quite ready to leave before you see the credits, however. Ultimately, this is one more example of how the world’s biggest budget won’t guarantee a good movie. They couldn’t spend enough to hide the fact that Apprentice is simply one more re-hash of all the standard clichés clumsily thrown together, with none of them done well.

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How to Train Your Dragon

“Iron Man 2” is about to blast off, but “How to Train Your Dragon” has sort of become the hottest topic at the box office so far this year.  Yes, “Alice in Wonderland,” took the world by storm, but “Dragon” started small and has been raking in viewers every weekend since, showing legs that are like  the second cousin-twice-removed of ‘Avatar.’  So it is in this light that I decide to review “How to Train Your Dragon,” which I went to see only curiously out of its sweeping success.
Somewhat disappointingly, “How to Train Your Dragon” is not the heralded classic its Tomatometer rating might suggest.  The Dreamworks Animation feature has to be experienced on a purely visceral and visual level.  The 3D factor really helps nudge this one a cut above the rest, making a stronger impression than “Kung Fu Panda” and “Monsters vs. Aliens,” but still never reaching Pixar-level storytelling.

The plot involves a young blacksmith, Hiccup, born to the greatest viking in all the land.  Hiccup may be born of vikings, but he has little violence in his blood, as much as he tries to be the warrior his father is.  In an attempt to showcase some valor, Hiccup tries a shot at catching himself a dragon, and does so.  No one believes his story, but the young lad ends up training his newfound pet, Toothless, in secret, learning all the tricks and trades of the dragon population, which allows him to make 180-transition in his training simulations.  Over the course of the boy and dragon’s growing bond, Hiccup learns that the dragons really aren’t savage beasts, and decides he must try to stop the viking population from attacking these harmless creatures.

The story sounds as though it would appeal on an emotional level, but it never quite gets there.  The plot is very standard in the traditional sense of the animation universe, and I think the movie is best enjoyed as an entertaining 3D wallop, which it most certainly is.  Toothless, the dragon, is very cute, and the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless is no more than cute.  Perhaps I’ve been getting used to movies like “Up” and “Wall-E” that have had the opportunity to hamper my judgment with animated movies, but simply put, “How to Train Your Dragon” is not quite up to that quality-level of filmmaking–and there’s nothing wrong with that.  Dreamworks provides another serviceable entry to their canon that provides eye-popping action sequences in 3D that make a good argument for that extra dimension.  Audiences should be thrilled, entertained, and will certainly enjoy themselves for the movie is certainly never boring, but I didn’t find it to be as emotionally resonant as it thinks it is.

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Rating: 3.5/5 (2 votes cast)