So, the people who cashed-in on the Dan Brown phenomenon with the National Treasure films (2004 and 2007) have been rather slower in capitalising on the Harry Potter cult.  Maybe Disney waited, intending this film to fill the void left by the completion of Warner’s film franchise, little realising that the final parts of Potter would be so long in coming.

Nonetheless, better late than never I always say (especially in relation to this blog, ahem), here they finally are.

Films don’t come much more mainstream than those produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and, as such, there are few surprises to be found here, but he does the familiar and expected with far more panache than any big-time producer out there.  Accordingly, this movie whips up a lot of very pacy, creative, visually ambitious ways to spark new life in an old, familiar tale.

Just in its first act, we have remote-control sword-fighting, a steel Chrysler Building eagle flying through the streets and a Chinese paper dragon brought to full fire-breathing life.  Hell, the pre-title sequence takes the form of those “previously on”s that you get on TV shows and contains enough neat ideas and conflicts to fill a film by itself.

To place it on the Bruckheimer scale, it has more personality and conviction than Prince of Persia but hasn’t quite struck the mother-lode like Pirates of the Caribbean (2003).

So, there was obviously a lot of hard work put into making every scene, every dialogue exchange, special.  And that helps make the effects special.  Seriously.  When you have good on-screen chemistry between good actors doing good work, it helps lift the whole project.  Bruckheimer’s protégé, Michael Bay, has never learned this lesson hence why his Transformers films, for example, insult every sense except the visual and rely entirely on the quality of their effects to overcome the bland plotting and cardboard characterisation.

Besides, Jay Baruchel, who plays the titular Apprentice, has so much more charm, wit and personality than Shia LaBeouf has ever yet demonstrated.

So, basically, Balthazar (Nicolas Cage in uncharacteristically humane mode) is one of three Apprentices of the great Merlin who, for reasons too irrelevant to bother with here, have fallen out.  Their disagreement has been on-hold for over a thousand years then Balthazar stumbles upon young Dave Stutler and realises that he is the true heir to Merlin’s powers.

Rather inconveniently (for Cage, but thankfully for us) this also brings about the reawakening of Maxim Horvath (another Apprentice of Merlin, who has turned to evil), played by Alfred Molina who, as always, gives far more than he is asked for.  He is absolutely delicious, striking the perfect balance between Cage’s earnest good-guy, Baruchel’s wry quick-learner and Toby Kebbell’s delightfully dim evil Apprentice, Drake Stone.

It’s only a shame that Molina’s character is literally thrown away in the film’s closing moments – although there is a hint that he may return if they get the green-light for a sequel.  I hope they do and I hope he does, too!

As with the National Treasure films, the combination of old school-friends Cage and Turtletaub with the lavish touch of Bruckheimer, has produced an entertaining if undemanding film which, largely because it doesn’t rely on gimmick du année - 3D, has enough heart, soul and imagination to be truly deserving of a sequel.

Don’t worry too much about the plot which doesn’t quite make sense, or the re-staging of the classic Mickey Mouse sequence which, to be honest, is shoe-horned in rather unconvincingly, for there is much else to enjoy in this imaginative, energetic, feel-good spectacle:  A car-chase with ever-changing cars, some wonderful nonsense with a mirror-universe, a quick-sand carpet, a nod to Molina’s Hollywood debut (Raiders – 1981) and another to the ur-text of these Hero’s Journey movies: Star Wars (1977) plus, of course, musical Tesla-coils.  Every home should have some.

Dir: Jon Turtletaub
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Jay Baruchel, Alfred Molina
Dur: 111 mins
Cert: PG

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