Discovering an unforeseen talent for magic, science geek Dave Stutler (Baruchel) is unwittingly apprenticed to an ancient sorcerer in the midst of battling his great rival across the streets of modern-day Manhattan.
Jay Baruchel, a spaced-out compound of Justin Long and Christian Slater, is physics nut Dave Stutler, traumatised by a childhood encounter with a duet of squabbling sorcerers in a backstreet antiques emporium. There was a good wizard (Nicolas Cage’s Balthazar Blake — Kurt Cobain in a fisherman’s hat) and a dastardly one (the excellent Alfred Molina’s Maxim Horvath — Oscar Wilde with spell-packing walking cane). Ten years after being sealed in an ornate vase — ceramic entrapment is a theme; the film’s chief MacGuffin is a Matryoshka doll layered with nasty magicians, at the centre of which lies un-Hogwarty Monica Bellucci — the pair are unleashed again, and Dave must get his fuzzy head around his destiny as greatest-sorcerer-of-all-time and animate some mops to clean up a disused Subway hall. A requisite re-run of Fantasia’s glorious musical number to a remix of Paul Dukas’ celebrated symphonic poem is well meant but half-hearted.
Turteltaub’s modus operandi is wan me-too versions of pop formula. Now it’s neo-Pirates with a touch of Tolkien. Goethe’s ethics notwithstanding, the basic concept is a winner — Gandalf fights Saruman on Madison. Less sarky than Enchanted, it grooves on Hobbits, Potter and Jedi; American Pie with spells. The CG magic certainly pops and crackles, and offers New York as a fantasy-realm as dragons spit flames in Chinatown and a Chrysler Building eagle takes flight. A neat parallel is made between Dave as a science student and his nascent talents in spell casting — each a matter of channelling molecular vibrations.
Both plot and setting have an energetic, gimcrack feel — throw enough junk, see what rattles loudest. With Baruchel’s likable lanky-neurosis, Dave confronts no end of mystical doodads, expandable grimoires, shapeshifting cars and enchanted rings, as well as sucking up ‘with great power…’ sermons from his dour mentor (if anything, it’s more superhero-origin than quest-movie). Palatable clichés are delivered at a catchable height: the childhood sweetheart out of his league, the wisecracking flatmate, the familiar streetwise bleats of a modern kid fathoming screwy fantasy. No matter Baruchel’s efforts to squeeze some sass between sunbursts of CG — the script remains chirpy rather than funny. A blundering prologue of medieval yadda-yadda-yadda gets all the mages in line and forecasts some global evil to be forestalled before troubling Jerry’s budget.
The big let-down is Cage. Of all the moments for the Bad Lieutenant to unleash the wobbly hands and swimming eyeballs, a thousand year-old sorcerer in a bad hat was screaming for it. This is a CG-vamped panto harkening after a franchise, so why the moody weirdo routine? Johnny Depp won the day because he got the joke — that he was the joke. Cage, a potion or two from Leaving Las Magus, just puts emphasis on ALL the wrong WORDS. That’s not magic.
Despite Cage in a snit, it’s a likable if functional summer-show.
Reviewed by Ian Nathan