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The Unsung Magic of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Disney has cranked out loads of great films through the decades, many critically acclaimed not to mention gushed over by the general public, and deservedly so in most cases. However, while many of their films receive unending praise, once in a while it seems there is a gem or two overlooked or dismissed amid the clamor. One such jewel which comes to my mind is The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice may be one of the most underrated Disney films out there, a fact I have a hard time wrapping my mind around. It has a lot to offer, and yet whenever I hear quality Disney films being discussed, this one never comes up. In fact, I know some Disney fans who never even heard of it until I mentioned it. How is that even possible for a modern movie with the name Disney attached to it?? Sorcerer’s Apprentice deserves to be remembered.

Just about every kid goes through that “awkward stage.” You know the one I’m talking about, right? For some, it’s when their childhood haircut no longer compliments the shape of their face. For others it may be that first pair of glasses, or it may be braces. And then your voice starts changing and the pitch of every word you speak is carefully measured in an effort to avoid cracking your voice. Either that, or you just wake up one morning to the realization that you’ve gone from a graceful tenor to a deep-throated bass practically overnight. For Dave, any of the above would be a cakewalk compared to what he goes through. His awkward stage is initiated by roughly five minutes of chaos inside an antique shop after a strange man presents him with a ring and declares that he is going to be a powerful sorcerer.

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After witnessing a magical skirmish, the poor boy is left babbling like a nuthouse inmate. When the wreckage and the “crazy wizard guys” disappear, it is clear that Dave is the event’s only witness. As a result of his inexplicable hysterics he is condemned to endure a decade’s worth of mortifying infamy as the laughingstock of the tri state area.

After years of ridicule, it seems Dave might be on the cusp of a normal life (as normal as life can get when you’re basically a young genius who enjoys science projects in a closed off section of a subway). However, much to his horror, his past decides to pay him a visit – the crazy wizard guys are back to shake things up. What ensues is a thrilling and comical chain of events filled with magic, adventure, and deprecating humor.

The magic in this film goes beyond the supernatural power of its focal characters. What makes Sorcerer’s Apprentice so much fun isn’t merely wizard’s dueling and exciting chases through the city. While they yield their own form of drama and humor, those elements are just a couple facets that make up the whole. To me, one of the key factors that really breathes life into the story would be the combined performances of Nicholas Cage as Balthazar Blake and Jay Baruchel as Dave.

Before seeing The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, I was skeptical, and the casting of Nicholas Cage as a sorcerer had a lot to do with that. I just couldn’t see it. On top of that, Cage is just one of those actors that seems to me like he’s either hot or cold. In some roles he’s compelling, while in others he’s about as inspiring as a warm, flat Pepsi. This is one of the former cases in which he nails it, and it’s a pleasant surprise. Cage’s Balthazar is avuncular, stern, if a bit eccentric, and his no-nonsense approach as he attempts to train Dave in the magical arts is very believable. His gruff composure is the perfect counterpart for the ball of nervous energy and sarcasm that is Dave. The chemistry between Cage and Baruchel seems to come naturally, and the contrast in their characters’ personalities make for some very entertaining moments and exchanges. Baruchel (also known as the voice of Hiccup from How to Train Your Dragon) is a riot in his portrayal of Dave, who is desperate to just be normal and is hilariously incredulous as he tries to come to grips with the fact that his childhood nightmare was not just his imagination, and that he is the world’s only hope in the event that the evil sorceress Morgana Lefay emerges from her centuries long imprisonment.

It’s up to Dave and Balthazar to thwart the treacherous Horvath in his efforts to aid Morgana in her heinous plot to overrun the earth with an army of the dead. Alfred Molina is grave and merciless as Horvath. The slow wit and cavalier attitude of his own would-be minion, Drake Stone (Toby Kebbell), as well as the bumbling of Balthazar’s apprentice bring still more amusement when exposed to Horvath’s polished brand of villainy.

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The clashes, schemes, shenanigans, and standoffs are mingled with memorable one-liners, but in addition to vocal comedy, there’s physical comedy. This is where Jay Baruchel takes the cake. Dave’s clumsiness, flailing, and gesticulating fit seamlessly with his sheepish personality, and Baruchel’s body language and facial expressions enhance his comedic timing. The slapstick humor is on full display when, in a rare moment of overconfidence, Dave decides to use his newfound talents to do some fast-track cleaning. This ultimately backfires, resulting in a live action homage to Fantasia’s most famous scene, which is executed with satisfying hilarity.

While I’ve said that the magic is only part of what makes Sorcerer’s Apprentice so enjoyable, it is nonetheless significant, and I’d be remiss if I ignored it. The cool thing about the magic in the film is that it is very closely intertwined with science. What makes Balthazar an effective teacher is the way he plays to Dave’s strengths, using his impressive knowledge of physics to show him that magic is just a powerful manipulation of matter and energy, and that his understanding of what makes everything tick can help him cross the threshold between ordinary and extraordinary. This revelation will save Dave’s hide later, and he discovers that he is not as helpless or useless as he thinks he is.

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One of the best aspects of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is the way it breaks superficial barriers. This can be seen when Dave gets reacquainted with Becky, his childhood crush. Looking at Becky (who is gracefully portrayed by Teresa Palmer), it’s not a stretch to assume that she could have just about any guy she wants, and being one of Dave’s former schoolmates, she is well aware of his embarrassing past. That, combined with Dave’s very apparent social awkwardness, might lead you to assume that Becky will turn her nose up at him, causing Dave to wade through one of those cliche subplots in which he spends half the film trying to convince her that he’s worth a shot. That’s not what happens at all. Becky is refreshingly open minded, not allowing Dave’s clumsiness or awkwardness to keep her from seeing the good, unique man in front of her, and doesn’t try to avoid his humble attempts to spend time with her. All Dave really has to do is take a deep breath . . . and just be himself. What a concept. But when Dave’s endeavor to juggle his love life with his world-saving responsibilities goes awry (in rather amusing fashion, albeit), he’s convinced that he’s made a fool of himself and ruined his chances with Becky. This is when she really shows her worth, surprising Dave and proving to him that she is not that kind of girl.

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Including Becky, Dave has people in his life who believe in him more than he believes in himself. When you know folks like that, being the underdog doesn’t have to be so scary. You just might find that those little things about yourself that make you “weird” are actually what make you special to somebody else. So stop putting so much pressure on yourself!

As much as I love this movie, it’s not perfect. While the prospect of facing Morgana creates an atmosphere of foreboding, the much anticipated mono y mono falls a little short of the buildup. Though it’s still a captivating scene and Dave’s improvisational genius is fun to watch, Morgana herself isn’t quite the frightfully intimidating presence one might expect. And since she has very minimal screen time until then, for all intents and purposes it’s safe to say that Horvath is the main antagonist. That’s not a bad thing, though, as he provides a convincing rival for Balthazar with his combination of suave and cold-hearted ruthlessness.

All in all, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is rollicking good fun that doesn’t get the recognition it deserves. This is a film fit for family viewing, full of action, wit, and charm. Forget whatever you may have heard the critics say about this one – beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Haven’t seen it yet? Give it a chance – every Disney fan needs to watch this at least once.

Rating: 8/10

Andrew Walton

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