The mythic tradition of the wizard’s duel goes back at least to The Arabian Nights, and it’s cropped up in the modern era everywhere from Disney’s Sword In The Stone to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. It’s a compelling idea: two combatants limited only by their wits and imagination, reshaping reality for the sole purpose of smacking each other down. Disney’s new live-action adventure The Sorcerer’s Apprentice handles that dynamic reasonably well, as ancient enemies Nicolas Cage and Alfred Molina casually throw vast whacks of magic at each other; both seem well-nigh invulnerable, so cleverness counts more than force in their long-running war, and they treat each other more like old chess opponents than like hated enemies. While both actors have been hammier and more hilarious, and neither one overdoes things enough to be notable, they at least seem to be having loads of flailing fun as they conjure up CGI scenery to chew on. And when Apprentice limits itself to their battle, it’s generally fitful dumb fun.
Unfortunately, their contest of wills largely serves as backdrop to a standard-issue hero’s-quest/Chosen One narrative of the type that was old when Merlin was a kid, but has been rolling into theaters with staggering frequency since Harry Potter hit it big. The squeaky-voiced Jay Baruchel (She’s Out Of My League) stars as the college student destined to save Cage from another millennium of fighting Molina and trying to rescue his magical girlfriend (Monica Bellucci) by destroying evil super-sorceress Morgana (Alice Krige). Naturally, since virtually all such stories go this way, Baruchel doesn’t want the honor; he just wants to live a normal life, which in his case involves geeking out over Tesla coils and awkwardly pursuing Teresa Palmer, the One That Got Away in fourth grade. (Note to filmmakers: Real people move on. A college student still stalking the girl he liked when he was 9 is creepy, not sweet.)
A bunch of sturm und drang follows, all of it feeling strangely like 1985’s Young Sherlock Holmes, another film about name-checking familiar fictional characters and eagerly hopping from one amiably overblown, often clunky special-effects setpiece to the next. Apprentice’s story and execution are all squeaky-clean, larger than life, and without impact, though the sequence that recapitulates Goethe’s poem “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” (also the inspiration for the Fantasia segment featuring Mickey Mouse) is tonally off, embarrassingly clumsy, and completely unnecessary to the plot. Then again, since nothing here could actually be considered necessary, it doesn’t stand out much.