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Friday, Aug. 13, 2010
'The Sorcerer's Apprentice'/'How to Train Your Dragon'
Dragons soar while wizards bore, as studios seek the Potter penny
There's a bit in "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," Disney's shameless attempt to siphon off some of that "Harry Potter" cash flow, where a wizard played by Nicholas Cage is lecturing his young protege on how to conjure magic. The trick to sorcery, says Cage, is to tap all one's mental faculties; most people, he explains, "use only 10 percent of their brains."
That's the most candid admission I've ever heard in a Hollywood flick regarding what the filmmakers think of their audience. "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" is nothing if not a movie for people who use only 10 percent of their brains, and that is probably 9 percent more than you need. Indeed, the ideal audience here would be people who are flatlining on an electroencephalogram.
"The Sorcerer's Apprentice," like so many other Hollywood productions these days, is a fragment of an idea stretched out to two hours. After turning a Disney theme park ride into a cinematic franchise with "Pirates of the Caribbean," producer Jerry Bruckheimer — God's modern one-man plague on a sinful planet — takes a beloved and artfully orchestrated Mickey Mouse cartoon from the animated classic "Fantasia" and — presto! — turns it into another loud, generic, SFX-driven fantasy extravaganza.
Alarm bells should be going off when one notices the screenplay is by Mark Rosenthal and Lawrence Konner, the beautiful minds who gave us the dreadful 2001 remake of "Planet of the Apes," not to mention the 1993 big-screen revival of "The Beverly Hillbillies." Director Jon Turteltaub, who was once fairly amusing with the Jamaican bobsled-team flick "Cool Runnings" (1993), has since turned into a hand-puppet for Bruckheimer in the "National Treasure" franchise, executing his producer's trademark style while displaying about as much originality as a Chicken McNugget.
The story here is your typical fanboy gobbledygook about some ancient battle between good and evil — in this case, borrowing from the myths of King Arthur with a war between the Merlinians and Morganians — and a "chosen one" (gag) who turns out to be a modern American teenager. Doing his best Shia LaBeouf/Tobey Maguire geek-boy imitation as the lead is Jay Baruchel (the obsessed Led Zeppelin fan from "Almost Famous"), while opposite him is Teresa Palmer, occupying the Megan Fox role of the trophy girlfriend who geek-boy gets once he learns to believe in himself and trust his powers and all that crap.
Nicholas Cage, who's been so awful so frequently lately, plays sorcerer Balthazar Blake as a near direct copy of Gary Oldman's Sirius Black from the "Harry Potter" series, right down to his flowing mane of hair and black-leather Goth-wizard look. Only the ever-reliable Alfred Molina ("An Education") and Toby Kebbell — doing a sendup of illusionist Criss Angel — manage to inject some flair (and camp) into the proceedings as the nefarious dark-side mages. B aruchel fares better in Disney rival DreamWorks' latest animated feature, "How To Train Your Dragon," which has him voicing the lead character Hiccup, a skinny, klutzy Viking teen who lives in a village subject to dragon raids. His macho father, Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler resurrecting his Spartan growl), is rather unimpressed by his wimpy son, so Hiccup resolves to win his father's respect by killing a dragon.
Unlike every other movie these days, Hiccup doesn't have any super powers, nor is he a "chosen one"; he just uses his wits to make a cannonlike weapon, and then — after downing a dragon with it — he's man enough to realize he doesn't want to finish off his defenseless prey. This act of kindness wins him an unlikely friend for life: a giant black flying reptile that Hiccup calls Toothless. Of course, this friendship is not something that the other Vikings will understand or tolerate.
DreamWorks tones down its usual indulgence in pop-culture gags (a la "Shrek") in favor of creating a more timeless, character-driven tale of a boy and his pet, albeit one who breathes fire. The scene where Hiccup has to decide whether or not to kill Toothless is quite moving, and should have all but the most jaded viewers hooked. In this scene, and many others, the animators have done a remarkable job with Toothless, who becomes a truly expressive character despite having no dialogue. Also worth noting is their masterful use of 3-D, which truly impresses in the many flying sequences; no mere add-on, this is 3-D that was designed to have an impact and add to the story.
Children's movies love to hammer home the moral lessons, and "How To Train Your Dragon" is no exception, but it does offer some useful ones: taking responsibility for one's actions, questioning age-old prejudices imparted by one's elders, and recognizing that bravery doesn't always involve killing things. Codirectors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders — who previously made "Lilo & Stitch" over at Disney — have a light touch, though, and keep the film popping along with plenty of sight gags and fantastic dragon-riding segments, while younger viewers will find Toothless irresistibly cute, or so I've been told at least a dozen times. This is easily the best children's fare out there this summer.