The arrival of a new live-action remake of a classic animated Disney movie, such as this month’s Cruella, will inevitably drum up discussion of prior examples of this cinematic trend. Such conversations will almost certainly involve talking about productions like the 2019 revamp of The Lion King or the divisive Beauty and the Beast remake or even David Lowery’s more underrated take on Pete’s Dragon. But one Disney movie that should be part of this conversation — if only as an example of how Disney should be approaching these big-budget live-action films — is 2010’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
Released in July 2010, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice uses the Fantasia segment of the same name as a springboard for a largely original story. It tells the story of Dave Stutler (Jay Baruchel), a nerdy twenty-year-old who finds himself caught in a war between two ancient magicians and former apprentices of Merlin, Balthazar Blake (Nicolas Cage) and Maxim Horvath (Alfred Molina). Though initially uncertain about stepping into this world of fantasy, Dave eventually agrees to be an apprentice to Balthazar so that he can learn magic and help save the world from the wicked Horvath.
In execution, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is not devoid of problems. In many ways, like many live-action Disney remakes, it’s also a film that’s trying to make the lightning of older movies strike twice. National Treasure director Jon Turteltaub reunites with Cage behind the camera, but he proves less skilled at handling fantasy action than he was at crafting compelling treasure hunting escapades. Meanwhile, the tone leaps all over the place, with generic kid-friendly digressions like a urinating bulldog getting placed alongside the kind of big action scenes you’d expect from any movie hailing from producer Jerry Bruckheimer. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice wants to be G-Force, Con Air and Highlander all at once. It’s hard to imagine any mixture of all three of those movies working out flawlessly.
And yet, there is an agreeable vibe to the whole production and how it tosses itself into its original mythology. In many respects, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice feels like the screenplay for a 1980s fantasy movie that’s been dusted off and slapped with a title meant to connect to a piece of old Disney lore. Though technically a live-action remake of an old Disney cartoon, it’s not the same version of that concept that is prevalent now. Titles like Beauty and the Beast bend over backward to slavishly recreate the past. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, meanwhile, bends the past to fit its storyline.
Even the one obligatory sequence in Sorcerer’s Apprentice where Dave recreates the original Fantasia cartoon by bringing cleaning equipment to life for his own gain (complete with the original music composed by Paul Dukas) can mostly stand on its own, and makes sure to throw in a handful of unique visual flourishes. Once again, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is more interested in using the past for original storytelling rather than exclusively tickling the nostalgia bone of moviegoers.
Granted, the film itself isn’t thoroughly original down to its bones. The hero/apprentice dynamic is a trope, and an eventual evil plot involving the spirit of Morgana Le Fey is similarly derivative. Worse, the treatment of women — which includes Dave’s love interest Beck (Teresa Palmer) — tends to be old-fashioned in the worst possible way. Just because The Sorcerer’s Apprentice doesn’t strictly adhere to Disney’s past doesn’t mean it isn’t painfully devoted to other forms of familiar storytelling, some of them overall harmful.
But there’s something to be said for trying something new even when the results are messy. Perhaps it’s easier to appreciate what The Sorcerer’s Apprentice does right as well as its inherent originality given the various movies Disney has delivered over the last decade. For years, Disney has hired filmmakers ranging from journeymen to outright auteurs only to have them recreate popular cartoons. Not only are these projects lacking in originality, but they also tend to zap the initial productions of all their best qualities. Vibrant hand-drawn animation is replaced by computer animation solely interested in rendering characters like Simba, Lumiere, and Dumbo as ultra-realistic CGI creations. To what end?
There is no personality in so many of these productions, just a rote devotion to the past under the guise of “realism.” Wondrous flights of fancy are anchored to reality through newly crafted explanations for why certain weird things are weird. Worst of all, few of these make any kind of substantial storytelling deviation from their predecessors. This is most notably seen in The Lion King, which far too often turns into a frame-by-frame recreation of the original 1994 film, only this time the lions are less expressive and the musical numbers are no fun.
Compare that to The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which has a plot that tends to suffer from introducing too much new stuff to the audience. The story is always throwing new things, like a big dragon or cars traveling through mirrors, at the audience. Overstuffed? Sure, but at least it’s not merely retreading the past. Another leg up The Sorcerer’s Apprentice has on movies like Dumbo is the presence of Nicolas Cage, who doesn’t go near peak gonzo in this Disney feature but is charismatic nonetheless.
This actor always brings a level of committed fun to any of his roles and that’s just as true of his work as Balthazar. Modern live-action Disney remakes feature big-name actors dutifully recreating vocal performances of classic cartoons. Cage in Apprentice, meanwhile, has the flexibility to follow his weirdo creative spirit. The result is a lead performance that’s got a lot more personality than, say, Dan Stevens in Beauty and the Beast.
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is not some woe begotten misunderstood masterpiece. In its own way, it’s also a Disney movie emulating past successes for the studio. But in the context of where Disney has taken live-action remakes in the last decade, it’s easier to appreciate a movie that’s swinging for the fences even when it misses the ball. Giving filmmakers a chance to deliver original fantasy gobbledygook with massive budgets will always be preferable to just entrusting a director to recreate a movie that already exists.
KEEP READING: Here Are All of Disney’s Upcoming Live-Action Remakes
“We decided that’s a pretty good cliffhanger.”
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