Jay Baruchel is Hollywood’s affable geek du jour having plied his unique trade recently in the animated blockbuster How to Train Your Dragon and the considerably less successful rom-com She’s Out of My League. His gangly frame twitchy visage and nasal drone make him perfect for movies in which awkward self-effacing underdogs triumph against enormous odds to achieve great feats like saving a Viking tribe from certain destruction or getting laid by a really really hot blonde chick.
Movies like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice a live-action CGI-fest directed by Jon Turteltaub (the National Treasure films) and inspired by a famous sequence from Fantasia Walt Disney’s groundbreaking collection of animated shorts. Fantasia debuted in 1940 long before Disney subleased its animation work to Pixar and "Fantasia" became more commonly known as a popular name among exotic dancers. My how things have changed.
Baruchel plays Dave a hapless NYU physics nerd unwittingly cast into the middle of a centuries-long good-versus-evil battle between powerful sorcerers who wield an infinite array of supernatural powers. Representing the good guys is Balthazar (Nicolas Cage) a wide-eyed eccentric whose all-black goth-pimp ensemble draws nary a suspicious glance on the eclectic streets of Manhattan. Dave it turns out is no ordinary college student but the Prime Merliner which sounds like an underwater number divisible by only one and itself but in actuality is a sort of wizard messiah destined to rid the world from the likes of the sinister Horvath (Alfred Molina) and his imprisoned overlord Morgana (Alice Krige). That is if he can take time off from his bumbling courtship of a pretty co-ed (Teresa Palmer) to actually learn the tricks of the sorcerer’s trade.
“Disposable” and “formulaic” are terms commonly applied to both of Turteltaub’s National Treasure collaborations with Cage but I submit that those films are at least fun if ultimately forgettable. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is far less fun and far more forgettable its formula followed so perfunctorily that it ultimately comes off as an elaborate exercise in corporate cynicism one unlikely to inspire the string of sequels it so transparently hopes to conjure. Which is a shame because the film shows intermittent signs of promise and Cage despite his distracting perm is oddly charming as a sort of desperate weirdo.
It may sound familiar and indeed is a remake of the Korean hit Changhwa Hongryon but The Uninvited still manages to be a truly frightening experience with a 100 percent certified shocker of an ending. It all starts when Anna (Emily Browning) home from a stint in a psycho ward begins investigating her mother’s unexpected death. Adding to her woes is her clueless father’s (David Strathairn) engagement to a not-so-nice nurse (Elizabeth Banks) who arouses the suspicions of both Anna and her sister Alex (Arielle Kebbel) – and all hell breaks loose. Young Australian Browning (Lemony Snicket) has just the right creep factor to make her troubled Anna properly perplexing and intriguing to watch. We’re with her all the way as she becomes haunted by her mother’s ghost -- and that’s crucial to a roller-coaster ride like this one. Banks’ seemingly evil nurse turned soon-to-be stepmother is perfectly pitched even if the cards are clearly stacked against her.Usually a fine actor Strathairn could do this one dimensional role in his sleep – and he does. English directing duo the Guard Brothers make a promising feature debut by keeping the slowly developing events plausible and measured in order to really pack a wallop in the final reel. Clues from the well-crafted if comfortably familiar screenplay are dropped at opportune moments but the movie keeps its share of surprising turns all under its hat until the big reveal.
Based on books by Besson (yes he writes books too) we meet Arthur (Freddie Highmore) a 10-year-old kid living on his grandparents’ farm. But there’s trouble: Arthur’s grandfather has mysteriously disappeared and now a real estate developer wants the land Arthur’s grandma (Mia Farrow) doesn’t have enough money to keep. Maybe the solution lies in his grandpa's treasure which is hidden somewhere on the "other side" in the land of the Minimoys. Who are the Minimoys you ask? Why they are creatures that live in Arthur’s backyard just a tenth of an inch tall--that’s who. The only hope is for Arthur to enter into this miniature world become a little pointy-earred wild-haired Minimoy find the treasure in the forbidden city and save the day. For this adventurous boy that’s no problem. Arthur and the Invisibles doesn’t lack star power that’s for sure. Along with sweet-faced high-spirited Highmore (taking a step down from Finding Neverland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in my opinion) and Farrow (who looks a little Minimoy-ish herself) we have the voices of: Madonna as the plucky Minimoy warrior princess; Jimmy Fallon as her younger klutzy brother; Robert De Niro as their father the king; Harvey Keitel as a kindly wizard; Snoop Dogg as a weird-looking miniature denizen who runs a dance club; and David Bowie as the evil ruler of the forbidden city. That’s some eclectic lineup--too bad they couldn’t all click. Poor Madonna--even her animated voice-over efforts can’t make the grade. We all know how creative French filmmaker Luc Besson can be. His offbeat sensibilities can be seen in his tense crime dramas La Femme Nikita and The Professional as well as his wildly imaginative sci-fi cult favorite The Fifth Element. But he’s been taking a break from making his own films producing and apparently writing children’s books instead. Arthur and the Invisibles is his first directorial effort since the 1999 movie The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc and while it definitely taps into Besson’s fanciful notions--which is probably even more evident in the novels--it doesn’t necessarily translate as well to the big screen. Invisibles’ animation is lush and there’s a lot to look at but it’s almost too busy while the tepid yet convoluted story drones on. Invisibles is definitely not adult-friendly.