By any other name, The Sorcerer's Apprentice might qualify as a decent Saturday matinee lark. Since it carries the title of a signature animated short that Walt Disney himself considered among his best works, the expectations are higher.
Or perhaps lower, since Disney's corporate descendants stripped away everything from Mickey Mouse's showstopping turn in Fantasia except the dancing brooms and mops — which don't seem as magical when they're CGI-grimy. The electrical sockets wincing at rising water are a clever enough update, but the floating spray cleaner that thinks it is Mace is a bit much, don't you think?
And instead of Mickey — one of Hollywood's most beloved characters — we get Jay Baruchel, who is one of the industry's most annoying. Baruchel is twitchy to distraction, with a nasal voice making clawed blackboards sound better. He plays Dave Stutler, a physics geek with Merlin's blood running through his veins. It's a wonder that nosebleeds haven't drained that.
Thing is, The Sorcerer's Apprentice is more fun in the first reel when Dave is 10 years old and played by Jake Cherry. That's when the material is in its kiddie-flick element, when the cheesy special effects and pseudo-epic backstory feel more comfortable. Dave is a cute kid with a crush on a classmate that leads him away from a field trip and into the wonder emporium of disheveled wizard Balthazar Blake (Nicolas Cage).
Balthazar recognizes Dave as yet another movie "chosen one" with the key to — all together now — saving the world from destruction at the hands of evil forces. Just once, I'd like to see a chosen one who can simply kick back and enjoy that status.
Dave doesn't have time for that. Like all curious kids, he messes up, releasing a cockroach stampede that morphs into sinister Maxim Horvath (Alfred Molina, good as ever as a bad guy). Maxim seeks a Russian nesting doll containing the spirits of other wicked sorcerers he'll unleash unless the Prime Merlinian — that's Dave — can stop him.
Jump ahead 10 years, and Dave hasn't gotten over the nervous breakdown his childhood brush with the occult caused. Baruchel fakes tinkering with Tesla coils in an underground lab, and blathers about a girl (Teresa Palmer) who's out of his league. Balthazar has his hands full getting this nerd primed for world salvation.
Baruchel aside, The Sorcerer's Apprentice contains a few minor delights. One is Cage's surprisingly low-key approach to a role that he could be expected to play over the top. Cage probably realized Baruchel would do enough of that for everyone involved. And director Jon Turteltaub manages one spectacular set piece in Chinatown when a celebratory paper dragon comes to life.
The rest of the special effects seem strangely dated, with fireballs and lightning bolts that wouldn't be out of place in an old Ghostbusters flick. There's even a bit of nostalgic charm in that. Then Turteltaub breaks out the dancing brooms and we remember Disney's misguided money grab that got us here.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.