“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” — Disney’s latest dabble in safe, sanitized fantasy adventure directed toward the PG crowd — has all the makings of something better. Indeed, the film’s surprisingly competent acting, direction and storyline do mostly make up for its breakneck pace, predictable payoff and cheesy, occasionally lazy dialogue. One might even go so far as to say it’s actually fun to watch, but maybe that’s just because any film in this genre lucky enough to follow M. Night Shyamalan’s disastrous “The Last Airbender” was bound to come away looking good.

“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”

At Quality 16 and Rave
Disney

The film’s two central characters come from two different worlds. One is Balthazar Blake (Nicolas Cage, “National Treasure”), a 1,300-year-old sorcerer who trained under Merlin, way back when. The other is Dave, a well-meaning, smart-yet-stupid dork whom Jay Baruchel (“She’s Out of My League”) was born to play. The two meet by chance in modern-day New York City, and, wouldn’t you know it, the world gets saved.

Not clear enough? Well you see, Merlin had three apprentices back in the day. They did magic, fought evil — the works. Then, one apprentice, Horvath (Alfred Molina, “Spider-Man 2”), went all dark-side, joined up with the evil sorceress Morgana and killed Merlin. Balthazar captured the bad guys in a Russian doll (seriously) and added layers to the doll by vanquishing evil sorcerers through the centuries. All this time he waited to find the one person who could wear Merlin’s ring, be generally awesome and kill all the nasty sorcerers trapped in his doll. Dave is the guy.

As he trains under Balthazar to save the world, Dave also fights to be normal and win over a chick — you know, the usual teen thing. This aspect of the film, which could easily have been a soppy disaster, actually works fairly well — thanks to self-conscious directing that tests but never breaches the boundary of melodrama, and to Baruchel’s predictable-yet-sincere average-Joe shtick. While he can hardly be called a gifted actor, Baruchel is perfect for a role calling for an everyday guy who constantly looks scared and awkward. This he manages to do with an impressive amount of charm.

Cage and Molina — two talented actors who can truly shine in the right role — bring a certain grace to the proceedings that the film doesn’t appear to deserve, but certainly benefits from. Cage especially fits, given that his much-maligned restless energy is perfect for a fantasy film that needs both solemnity and candor. Indeed, there’s no other actor anywhere who can play a character quite like Cage does. While that’s usually a veiled criticism, it must be conceded here that Cage’s Balthazar is pleasantly infectious, perhaps even captivating.

And what about the magic? Well, there’s plenty of plasma and fireballs being shot around, though most of the action is contained and comprehensible. Special effects-driven action may dominate the screen, but that’s really all secondary to a decent story and likable characters. “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” has a passable amount of all three, making it better than most of the popcorn fare that summer 2010 has offered so far.

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