In theory, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is based on the Fantasia segment of the same name, replacing Mickey Mouse with Jay Baruchel and Yen Sid with Nicolas Cage. In practice, it would not surprise me at all to learn that this was a script with a completely different name, that had the broom scene (changed to mops here) shoe-horned in to justify the title. There’s really no reason to call this The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which is always a good sign.
The movie, after a completely uninteresting narrated exposition-thon, goes to Balthazar Blake (Cage), a sorcerer who’s been looking for the Prime Merlinian, the only person that can destroy a trapped Morgana. It turns out that reluctant and awkward Dave Stutler (Baruchel) is it. After accidentally being trapped for ten years for no reason that matters to the overall plot, Blake finds Stutler again and has to race to train him in magic and stop the also-freed Maxim Horvath (Alfred Molina) from freeing Morgana and destroying the world.
As a whole, the story and characters are just filling in clichés. Dave is the nerdy and unlikely hero, Balthazar is the tough mentor, Maxim is the hammy villain played by a medium-name character actor. It’s not so much a cliché storm as it is a methodical checklist, constantly going down and checking off every plot point as it comes along. The movie has no real twists that anybody who’s seen a fantasy movie in the last 20 years won’t see coming. Characters are given traits randomly just so that they can be followed up on later. Dave’s love interest, Becky Barnes (Teresa Palmer) is afraid of heights, so of course she has to climb to the roof of a building in the final act. It’s not so much Chekov’s gun as it is a completely expected callback.
The love interest angle as a whole is just handled poorly. Dave embarrassed himself with her in 4th grade, so of course she’s the only girl he can possibly go after when he finds her again. They’re given no chemistry together, and Dave ends up looking creepy most of the time, stalking her outside of her job. It’s like it was just another item on the checklist that they had to mark off. Speaking of things that aren’t followed up on, Morgana is trapped in one of those Russian dolls, and each “layer” of person trapped has to be freed before she can be freed. This could’ve been a good opportunity to get in a lot of battles. Instead, the top layer is the villain and the 2nd layer is a mystical Chinese warrior for an early action sequence. The third layer is a Puritan girl who’s almost immediately killed, making her role in the movie completely pointless, and then it’s down to Morgana. It’s a silly magical item that could’ve been a way to have a lot of fights, but instead it ends up as…just a silly magical item.
For all of its flaws in story, there are a few good parts to the movie. A magic-influenced car chase through New York City stands out. As inappropriate as a car chase is, it’s actually a pretty good action sequence given a nice fantasy twist, showing what this movie could’ve had more of. When it lets the magic be pure fun, it also shines through a bit. The villain takes a calendar of wolves and turns them into a wolf pack chasing after Dave. Balthazar pulls out a palm-sized book and unfolds it until it becomes a huge spellbook. The Chinese guy is fought in Chinatown, where he turns a dragon costume into a real dragon. It’s cool, it’s different, and it gives the sense of wonder that most of the movie is missing. And, I’ll give it credit even though I shouldn’t, the mop sequence is actually pretty good (whether this is a nod to the filmmakers for adapting the sequence well or a nod to Walt Disney for making a sequence that continues to be great through time is up to the viewer).
It’s really not a bad movie. It’s also not a good movie. It’s a firmly OK movie, 110 minutes of family-friendly action-fantasy that you’d expect from the director of the National Treasure movies. For the movie’s few moments where there’s a real sense of magic, it’s almost worth sitting through.