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More Dr. Strange than Mickey Mouse

I really wish I could’ve, I wanted to like The Sorcerer's Apprentice more, but the movie tries way too hard, hitting you over the head with its fantasy premise instead of slowly drawing you in.

I’ve been waiting longer than you’ve been alive for a big-budget, live-action Dr. Strange movie.

My vigil began the psychedelic night a college chum pulled a carton overflowing with 1960’s-era Marvel Comics ‘Strange Tales’ out from under his bed; in them, continuing from issue to issue was the saga of Doc’s dimension-spanning search for a cosmic being known as “Eternity” who would hopefully give Doc the power to defeat his arch-enemy Dormammu. (Eventually he located Eternity – who turned him down cold, but fortunately Doc won out in the end.) Like Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, I instantly became a fan of “Steve Ditko chiaroscuro,” (as Tom Wolfe described the artist’s style in  The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test), gazing at the geometrically precise magical energy shields and weapons Doc and his enemies wielded against one another. What that would look like in live-action, with those magic spells made real via computer animation!

A 1970’s TV movie was a respectable effort (save The Incredible Hulk, far better than the other Marvel TV adaptations of the period); a more recent direct-to-video animated feature tried hard but the missed the mark, especially in its coulda-been spellcasting and dimensional travels. In an age when every third-tier Marvel and DC hero is getting their own movie (I mean, Jonah Hex? They’ve even done The Punisher – twice, for God’s sake) why isn’t Doc getting the call?

Oh well; in the meantime I’ll have to settle for The Venture Bros.’ flamboyant Doctor Byron Orpheus… or Nicolas Cage in the new Disney film The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, tongue-in-cheeking it up as Balthazar Blake, a thousand-year old wizard hiding out in a dusty New York City antiques emporium.

The movie begins with a lot of narration, an awful lot, setting up a Merlin-based backstory and Blake’s centuries-long quest for “the prime Merlinian” to take up the battle against the magical bad guys, led by former Spider-man villain Alfred Molina. (First time around I thought he said “prime meridian,” which is lying right there in England at zero degrees longitude; what’s to find?)

Guess what? It turns out the adolescent who wanders into Blake’s spooky ‘Arcana Cabana’ is said Merlinian, but it takes him 10 years to grow into gawky, nasal-voiced Jay Baruchel. Baruchel’s Dave Stutler’s essentially the same character he voiced in How to Train Your Dragon – an earnest, intelligent fellow who doesn’t quite believe in himself and whose talents have drawn him into a supernatural predicament – only this time around it’s magic he has to learn to control, not a flying dragon.

I really wish I could’ve, I wanted to like Apprentice more, but the movie tries way too hard, hitting you over the head with its fantasy premise instead of slowly drawing you in. It’s obvious Cage is having fun as Blake (although it turns out his ‘just a little’ gesture that cracked me up in the trailer when Dave wonders if he’s crazy was already used by Futurama’s Professor Farnsworth) and Baruchel’s unique voice and just-below average guy looks make him an interesting and appealing contrast to the usual Michael Cera/Shia LaBoeuf earnest young protagonist. In the meantime however, I’ll have to settle for those plasma energy spheres the principals hurl at each other or the weakening energy shield Dave conjures up to protect him from a sorcerous attack as my pseudo-Ditko fix. (It’s not just magical spells hurtling through the air either; there’s plenty of toss-the-stuntmen-around physical action too.)

Of course you couldn’t have a Disney film called The Sorcerer’s Apprentice without recreating Mickey Mouse’s Fantasia battle with an army of brooms. The movie delivers, complete with Dukas’ famous melody and Blake’s timely arrival saving the day, just as the wizard Yensid (yes, that was his name) did for Mickey.

The movie milks its New York City locale for all it’s worth. My alma mater NYU gets an enormous amount of onscreen time (did they kick in some production money?); even the school’s radio station – 89.1 FM – is prominently featured. Dave even lives in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, currently the city’s hipster heaven. (A chase scene climaxes in the neighborhood’s Marcy Avenue subway station, a moment guaranteed to get quite a few laughs from local audiences.)

It’s also the most-effects driven movie ever set in New York, topping even Men In Black: a Chrysler Building eagle and the Wall Street bull statue both come to perfect CGI life, a Chinese New Year dragon turns into a real one and shape-shifting cars race through a mirror-image Times Square.

Which brings a thought to mind: have CGI effects officially plateaued? How can imaginary creatures be depicted with any more realism, any more seamlessly composited with their surroundings than they do now – where do today’s pixelmeisters go from here? (Hint: how about a Doctor Strange movie?)

Joe Strike's picture

Joe Strike has written about animation for numerous publications. He is the author of Furry Nation: The True Story of America's Most Misunderstood Subculture.