“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” from Disney, has the same kind of all-ages appeal as ABC’s old “TGIF” Friday-night sitcom lineup. Parts of it are genuinely entertaining; it occasionally shows signs that it’s aware of how corny it is; and it’s agreeable enough that you don’t mind overlooking the generic plotting and weak writing. It’s just good enough to be considered “good enough.”
And it’s about wizards and sorcerers and magic spells and crap — right there in Disney’s wheelhouse! The dungeons-and-dragons prologue, set in Britain, 740 A.D., establishes that the great Merlin was betrayed by wizards named Morgana (Alice Krige) and Horvath (Alfred Molina), who were subsequently imprisoned in a set of nesting dolls, which I guess is where you put traitorous sorcerers. Faithful Balthazar (Nicolas Cage) is left to roam the Earth until he can find Merlin’s true successor, as this is the only person who can destroy Morgana and her followers permanently.
Then, in the year 2000, a 10-year-old boy named Dave (Jake Cherry) stumbles into Balthazar’s crazy emporium of mystical wonders, located in lower Manhattan (obviously). After some magic tests, Balthazar determines that he, Dave, is the long-awaited “prime Merlinian.” Dave is the Chosen One! Five seconds later, Chosen One Dave accidentally releases Horvath from the nesting-dolls prison, and now Horvath wants to spring his fellow villains, including Morgana, who wants to raise an undead army to destroy the world, et cetera. Gotta keep Horvath from getting the dolls, gotta keep him from releasing Morgana, et cetera. You know the drill.
Then, in 2010, Dave is played by Jay Baruchel, and he’s a nerdy physics student who thinks he imagined that crazy day a decade earlier — until Balthazar shows up again and says he needs his help. Apprenticeship occurs. Dave learns to harness his natural, God-given (Satan-given?) magical powers. He also tries to balance his new sorcery with wooing the girl of his dreams, Becky (Teresa Palmer).
This is ostensibly inspired by the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” segment of Disney’s “Fantasia,” in which Mickey Mouse brought a bunch of brooms and mops to life and then lost control of them. One scene here is an homage to that, and it’s kind of cute — though if you’ve never seen “Fantasia” (have the kids today seen “Fantasia”?) you’d wonder what it’s doing in the movie.
The title notwithstanding, this is essentially brand-new stuff, and there are glimmers of fun mythology shining through here and there. Just as Balthazar has been continuing Merlin’s work all this time, Morgana has her followers, too, including a Criss Angel-esque stage magician (Toby Kebbell) whom Horvath enlists to help fight the good guys. The idea of imprisoning wizards in nesting dolls — and that they can only be released in the reverse order in which they were captured — leads to amusing possibilities. Most of the magic-related stuff is imaginative and clever in the best old-fashioned Disney way, and the special effects are seamless.
Where the film lags is, well, just about everywhere else. It was originally written by Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal (“Mona Lisa Smile”; “Flicka”); then it was rewritten by Matt Lopez (“Race to Witch Mountain,” “Bedtime Stories”); then, at some point, it was rewritten again by Doug Miro and Carlo Bernard (“Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time”). Unsurprisingly, the finished screenplay bears the scars of this write-by-committee philosophy. Everything with Dave and Becky is rushed and forced. (“I could tell it was important to you,” he says of her college-radio show, which she never mentioned until five minutes earlier.) The magicians don’t want the Muggles to witness anything supernatural — so it’s a good thing all of Manhattan is deserted, apparently, when the huge climactic battle takes place in the middle of a public square. And wouldn’t you know it, even though it’s a movie about ancient magic and wizards and sorcery, somehow it still manages to have a car chase.
But I like that director Jon Turteltaub (the “National Treasure” movies) keeps a brisk pace and encourages Nicolas Cage and Alfred Molina to ham it up. The two of them, both wonderfully loopy, are in on the joke, well aware that they are playing thousand-year-old wizards in modern-day New York City and that this is, at its very core, deeply silly. “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” only has fun on its mind, and it pulls that off reasonably well.
B- (1 hr., 48 min.; )