Well, it's better than The Last Airbender. A time-spanning epic about a kid with superpowers who must overcome bad wizards from ancient times and all places, Jerry Bruckheimer's production of The Sorcerer's Apprentice has a surface sheen and hurtling pace woefully lacking in Airbender. And whereas viewers of the recent M. Night Shyambles hoping to see their favorite A-listers slumming had to make do with The Daily Show's resident Islamic correspondent, Aasif Mandvi, in a serious role that was impossible to take seriously, Apprentice has Nicolas Cage in subdued-nutsy mode and all-purpose overactor Alfred Molina in full hissable majesty.
The main story takes a while to get going, since Bruckheimer's quintet of credited screenwriters (plus more rewriters, probably, than Despicable Me's Gru has minions) starts the action with two long prefatory scenes. The first takes place 1,500 years ago, in the days of King Arthur, when the evil witch Morgana (Alice Krige) casts a spell on lovely Veronica (Monica Bellucci) and two young wizards: Balthazar the good (Cage) and Horvath the snooty (Molina). Flash-forward to New York City a decade ago, where Dave (Jake Cherry, who played Ben Stiller's son in the two Night at the Museum movies), a nerdy but adorable 10-year-old, is led into the Arcana Cabana, an old curiosity shop run by Balthazar. The ageless magus detects a certain star quality in Dave: the boy may actually be "the prime Merlinian," which apparently means something. Summoning a portentous voice and a straight face, Cage proclaims, "I am Balthazar Blake, sorcerer of the 777th degree, and you are my apprentice." Cue a fight between Balthazar and Horvath. Cut, finally, to the present ...
... where Dave (Jay Baruchel), now 20, is a physics major at NYU and the occupant of a gargantuan underground laboratory that most Manhattanites would pay millions for. Here he performs experiments with Tesla coils; here he will become Balthazar's apprentice (Cage has the same mentoring function in this film as he did in the much more daring and entertaining Kick-Ass) and realize his destiny to, you know, save the world from Morgana and Horvath's evil. Why, you might ask, are these forces are never harnessed to find Osama bin Laden or regulate the banks? Because it's a movie.
I have another question, posed out of befuddlement, not hostility: Why is Jay Baruchel in show business? The 28-year-old Canadian rose from subsidiary slacker in Knocked Up to the male lead in She's Out of My League and the voice of the boy hero in How to Train Your Dragon. Yet if he has big-screen charm or a gift for inhabiting characters or delivering lines, I'm missing it. In Apprentice, his Dave is so outplayed by Cherry's 10-year-old version that I kept wishing for flashbacks. There are plenty of other young actors (paging Anton Yelchin) who'd give life, zest and watchability to the roles Baruchel gets. Is there an industry rule that he has to be constantly employed, the way every Republican Administration from Nixon's to George W. Bush's felt compelled to keep hiring Donald Rumsfeld? Hollywood, please get back to me on this.
Set (and partially shot) in New York City, Apprentice makes lavish if uninspired use of such local monuments as a Chrysler Building Art Deco eagle and the Wall Street bull. Director Jon Turteltaub, who led Cage through his National Treasure exertions, also stages a scene that reprises the Mickey Mouse "Sorcerer's Apprentice" sequence (music by Paul Dukas) from Walt Disney's Fantasia though this movie has about as much to do with that 1940 classic as Bruckheimer's Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy did with the Disneyland Pirates ride. And despite the wizards' ability to fly, there's a car chase mandatory for virtually all Bruckheimer films in which Horvath instantly transforms Balthazar's Mercedes into a Pinto.
Plasma balls fly, Tesla coils sparkle; the whole movie lights up like the ornaments on a plastic Christmas tree. Cage, whose mopey weirdness retains its fascination, earns another paycheck to help defray his multitude of tax liens. Does that make this a good movie? Not really. But on a hot summer day, a family trip to the movies can be either a time-filler or a time-waster. Apprentice honorably fits the second category in recreational value, somewhere between an afternoon on a San Diego beach and one at a Detroit public swimming pool. Either way, before you know it, it's evening.