July 14 2010 12:00 AM

Nicolas Cage takes up Mickey’s mantle


It took producer Jerry Bruckheimer almost 20 years to cash in on the “Indiana Jones” series with his “National Treasure” franchise. He must be picking up the pace: “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” arrives a mere nine years after the first “Harry Potter” film hit theaters. (Maybe his answer to the “Twilight” saga will make it to cinemas by 2015?)

For Potter fanatics who are eagerly anticipating the Nov. 19 opening of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, Part One,” “Apprentice” is a moderately entertaining way to pass the time. It’s a typical Bruckheimer extravaganza, jam-packed with showy special effects, digital stereo thunder and a storyline that’s barely more complicated than the “Fantasia” segment from which it takes its title.

In “Fantasia,” Mickey Mouse plays an ambitious workhorse who slaves away in the dank cellar of a no-nonsense wizard. Commanded to fill an enormous cauldron with water, Mickey borrows his boss’ magic hat and brings a broom to life to do his chore instead. While Mickey naps, the broom works overtime, flooding the basement and creating soggy chaos.

The situation is referenced midway through this live-action “Apprentice,” in which geeky New Yorker Dave Butler (Jay Baruchel of “She’s Out of My League”) is mentored in magic by Balthazar (Nicolas Cage), a conjurer/warrior who’s been around since the days of Merlin. Dave is supposedly the Prime Merlinian, the sorcerer who will save civilization from the forces of darkness, led by Merlin’s murderer, Morgana (Alice Krige). Like Harry’s arch-nemesis, Voldemort, Morgana needs help to return from limbo; enter Alfred Molina as Maxim Horvath, Balthazar’s ancient enemy, who’s now on the prowl in Manhattan.

Bruckheimer and director Jon Turteltaub (who oversaw both the “National Treasure” films) obviously see “Apprentice” as the launch of a potential series — if you stay through the end credits, there’s a last-minute twist that sets the stage for a sequel — and perhaps they will get their wish. After all, the “Potter” pictures are just about to run their course and there always seems to be an audience that’s hungry for hocus pocus.

The movie does a nice enough job of playing up the chemistry between the eternally gawky Dave and the unflappable Balthazar, although Cage’s followers may be disappointed to find this is one of the evereccentric actor’s less flamboyant turns; it says something about Cage’s methods that he’s far less freaky as a 1,000-year-old magic man than he was as a contemporary cop in director Werner Herzog’s instant cult film, “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.” Aside from a few wacky linereadings, Cage leaves most of the wackiness to the ingratiating Baruchel, whose squeaky-screechy voice and off-kilter body language are reminiscent of the young Jerry Lewis.

“Apprentice” should also be easier for young viewers to sit through than the recent “Potter” pictures since the violence is almost entirely bloodless and the scares are routinely cushioned with comedy: When Dave is stalked by snarling wolves or chased through Chinatown by a hungry dragon, both incidents have funny punch lines. If “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” doesn’t leave you with the thrill of a trip back to Hogwarts, it’s an enjoyably lightweight summertime diversion.

For reviews see Cole Smithey’s Movie Week at www.lansingcitypulse.com/movies