My son and I attended a screening of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" at a schmantzy new multiplex, and heading out to the car afterward he observed that the only thing louder than the film was the supersonic hand dryer in the restroom.
He enjoyed both for what I surmise was the same reason: blasting functionality. This latest Disney live-action feature, based a tiny little bit on the "Sorcerer's Apprentice" segment in "Fantasia" and on Goethe's poem before that, isn't bad as these things go. It's more diverting than the "National Treasure" movies, which, like this one, were produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, directed with aggressive impersonality by Jon Turteltaub and starred Nicolas Cage.
In "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," Cage swans around as Balthazar, one of Merlin's protégés, a good sorcerer who can live forever and is presently trying to protect modern-day New York City and environs from the ravages of bad sorcerers, played by Alfred Molina and Alice Krige. At one point he warns his physics-geek apprentice, played by Jay Baruchel, that if he's not careful, Molina's character will turn him into "a pig who looooves physics," and on the word "love," Cage slips briefly into the character voice he gave the mole-rat in "G-Force." Oscars are not won for such imperceptibly strange line readings. But perhaps they should be.
The prologue, which is chaotic enough to serve as an illustration on how not to do one of these prologues, is set in AD 740, setting up the conflict between Balthazar and his nemesis, Horvath (Molina), who allies his dark forces with the Merlin-killer Morgana (Krige). Flash-forward to 2000, where a 10-year-old boy encounters Balthazar while on a school field trip. Ten years later, young Dave is now conducting massive electricity and lightning experiments in his unauthorized abandoned-subway-turnaround laboratory as part of his New York University education. Once Balthazar presses him into apprenticeship, Dave keeps his magic life a secret from the girl on whom he's been crushing since pre-adolescence, played by Australian-born Teresa Palmer.
The many-hands script -- last one in was Matt Lopez of "Bedtime Stories" -- exists largely to show Cage and Baruchel and Molina shooting fire-jets and blue balls of compressed energy at each other's heads. The CGI is relentless and what you might call reverse-magical: The more we're hit with stuff, the less wondrous it becomes. The action sequences involve Chinatown street-parade dragons coming to life, the eagle on the Chrysler building doing the same and one spell and counter-spell and apocalyptic threat after another. My favorite thing in the film is the "Hungarian mirror routine" (I paraphrase), which means people and even cars can fly in and out of mirrors, on the other side of which is Opposite World. Not a new idea, that looking-glass, topsy-turvy notion, but a cinematically viable one.
That its implementation comes amid a routine car chase is frustrating but, given the Bruckheimer circumstances, inevitable.