About half-way into this genial, nothing-special fantasy film, the eponympous hero has fifteen minutes to get his underground lair ready for a visit from the girl he has always been in love with and the familiar Dukas theme comes on the soundtrack and he brings the brooms (and mops and loofahs and other cleaning tools and products) to life. Because this set-piece isn’t featured in the trailer, it was only then I registered that, of course, it’s a Disney movie and they have Fantasia among their most-prized intellectual properties. The scene doesn’t go overboard, and no mouse-ears intrude, but it’s possible that the script was developed purely to take advantage of this … the rest of it is bog-standard geek-turns-out-to-be-destined-to-save-the-world stuff, with more than a few comic book elements (villainess Morgan LeFay is – like Ares – one of the rare characters to get equal time as a baddie at Marvel and DC, and some of Nicolas Cage’s conjurings suggest Dr Strange who, as owners of Marvel, Disney would eventually get round to) and quite a bit from millennial fantasy bildungsromans like Harry Potter, Darren Shan or Percy Jackson. Winningly, it’s also one of those Jewish-but-it’s-never-mentioned nerd-in-a-genre-hero fantasies which have proliferated since geeks got to be execs and filmmakers (cf: Kick-Ass, Zombieland): Jay Baruchel is neurotic, patters wildly and does self-deprecating schtick even as the situation gets more serious and Cage strides about as a magician who insists he’s a master not a mentor.
A long eighth century set-up has Merlin (James A. Stephens) murdered by nemesis Morgana (perfectly-cast Alice Krige) thanks to the treachery of apprentice Horvath (Alfred Molina) and trapped in the heart of a Russian doll by another apprentice Veronica (Monica Bellucci); over the centuries, Balthazar Blake (Cage), the third apprentice and Veronica’s true love, collects shells for the doll by imprisoning other wicked sorcerers, and searches for ‘the Merlinian’, an awesome natural sorcerer who will save the universe when Morgan resurrects (her evil followers are called Morganians, which I can believe since it’s what the loathesome old boys of my Grammar School call themselves). In 2000, young Dave (Jake Cherry) wanders into the Arcana Cabana, a New York magic shop, and accidentally frees Horvath, who is then imprisoned in a different artefact with Balthazar for ten years. Grown-up Dave (Baruchel) has had extensive therapy to convince him this was all a hallucination and shows an instinctive understanding of particle physics which turns out to be a symptom of magical ability – he has convinced NYU to let him carry out Tesla coil experiments in a cool underground lair, too. Dave runs into the girl he has been carrying a torch for (Teresa Palmer) but has to become the sorcerer’s apprentice when Horvath and Balthazar show up again.
It’s formula, connect-the-dots stuff, as our hero gains confidence enough to prevail in the final battle, zapping Morgana after her resurrection ritual. But it has neat ideas – Cage flying about on one of the steel eagles from the Empire State Building, a Chinese festival dragon turning into a real one (the joke is sold by a shot from inside as the performers find themselves in a dragon’s stomach), a lot of inventive zapping, various evil sorcerers showing up as the doll loses layers (and, frankly, who wouldn’t want Alice Krige resurrected?), a funny bit from Toby Kebbell as the evil sorcerer’s inept apprentice (a celebrity magician), a chase with morphing cars. Cage lets Baruchel carry the film, but is fun as the older sorcerer … and Molina is given more to play with as a Baron Mordo type than in the more-hyped Prince of Persia: The Pile of Crap. Directed by Jon Turteltaub, who does better action-adventure here than in the National Treasure films. This has been a relative box-office failure, which often gives a license for excessive bashing: while it’s formulaic and family-friendly, it’s also well-paced, likeable, has consistent characters, smart lines (talking to his DJ about her show, the hero says ‘I’ve never heard of any of those bands you played, which is a good indication that they must be cool’) is pleasantly convinced that all forms of knowledge are a good thing (whether in music, magic, myth, history or physics) and delivers a satisfying conclusion, which puts it ahead of (just to sample films which came out at about the same time) Clash of the Titans, Percy Jackson and the Lighting Thief, the last few Harry Potter outings, Cirque du Freak and The Last Airbender.