Sorcerers in the City: Disney Saves “New York”

07/14/2010 1:29 PM |

The Sorcerers Apprentice

Hey, it’s Blockbluster, our seasonal feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart recite incantations to find out during which sort of movies regular people all over the country are eating popcorn. This week they drop out of their sorcery apprenticeship after seeing Jon Turteltaub’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

Well, Henry, this must be the worst film we’ve seen so far this summer. I know it’s close between The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Grown Ups, but at least that pandered to olds for whom it’s already much too late. This Disney dud seduces away our most invaluable resource for the future (children, not magic) with sweetened visions of carefree campus life, white male privilege and muddled metaphors. The magical myth put to verse by Goethe and to music in Fantasia gets epically expanded by a team of six screenwriters into a millennia-long and vaguely vampiric feud between two classes of magicians: Morganian and Merlinian. But exactly what these two warring factions—followers of the original magician Merlin and a defecting cell led by evil Morgana, all introduced during the especially intolerable opening show-and-tell—might represent aside from good and evil remains unclear.

The Morganians want to free their leader from her Russian nesting doll prison in order to pursue world domination, while devout Merlinian Balthazar (Nicolas Cage) and his messianic apprentice Dave (Jay Baruchel) must stop them and keep people safely ignorant of the existence of magic. Their dark powers hardly seem worth all the fussing and fighting.

If nothing else (which seems likely), magician must be code for queer, right Henry? The magicians all dress pretty fabulously, from Balthazar’s Goth get-up to Horvath (Alfred Molina, working with less still than in Prince of Persia) donning a parade of dandy suits and celebrity magician Drake Stone’s (Toby Kebbell) outright Bowie-esque glam. One of the conditions for Dave’s apprenticeship is that he must wear a pair of pointy “old [gay] man shoes” just like Balthazar’s.

And even before all the telltale fashion tips reveal the slight of hand, Henry, do you remember the creepy antique shop scene during which Balthazar determines that Dave is indeed the prophesied Last Merlinian? He calls over then-ten-year-old Dave and tells him to touch his dragon, and if the dragon “responds” it means he’s the one. That’s some inappropriate sorcerer-apprentice touching! Granted, there are perfunctory female love interests/distractions to dispel strong hints of homosocial attraction—Teresa Palmer, pretty and forgettable, and a criminally underused Monica Bellucci as Balthazar’s lover who fused herself with Morgana to stop her. They remain comically marginal to the man-boy training dynamic between Balthazar and Dave in the latter’s phallic symbol-filled love dungeon.

Honestly though Henry, it feels a little like pulling teeth, trying to peg an allegory on Apprentice, since it seems so clumsily to resist any sustained, serious interpretation. As with innumerable narratives about outcast groups fighting for control of some super powerful force while struggling to determine whether they should help or enslave regular humans (see every vampire or superhero story in existence), Balthazar and Horvath see sorcerers as, respectively, the safe-guarders and rightful rulers of human society.

Given all the quasi religious and mystical imagery of big ancient books, incantations, rituals, superstition, symbolism and old men forcing younger men to do things they don’t want to do, not to mention the very Christian grand narrative about the savior’s resurrection (Dave, supposedly, is Merlin reincarnate), maybe a religious reading makes most sense. But so little about Apprentice works—Nic Cage at his most tongue-in-cheek, like imitating a NYPD lackey; its homage to the far-superior Fantasia segment; that car chase through Midtown—that any creative interpretation seems doomed to short circuit. What did you make of all the egregious product placements and the fact that the movie’s two coolest magic tricks brought to life sculptures symbolizing America’s fetishism of capitalist enterprise? Are sorcerers in fact crooked corporate execs cooking the books to make magical profit margins?

Well, Ben, the good and bad guys were all definitely a class apart: Dave studied at NYU, Drake lived in the Bryant Park Hotel, and during a car chase no one even paused when it was suggested to “take the tunnel”. Oh yeah? Using whose EZ Pass? But you kind of had to laugh when magic brought Arturo di Modica’s Charging Bull to rampaging life. Wall Street literally run amok, trying to gouge our heroes? Now that’s something every member of the family can relate to! Right, Disney? Ben, I think your struggle to tease an allegory out of this movie underlines its biggest problem: it’s soulless, by-committee filmmaking, cynically guaranteed to have something to appeal to every demographic. The movie’s not saying anything because it’s been scrubbed-free in advance of any kind of ideas that could potentially lose the studio a dollar.

And yet, to show you what kind of a company Disney is, no one there could even spot the unconscious cultural misogyny that pervades the movie? Magic-as-queer makes sense, Ben, because of how much this movie doesn’t like women, no matter how cute Teresa Palmer might be. You know, Nicolas Cage loves that one women, but she’s also evil, because she’s some kind of lesbian, I think, who became one with the Bad Girl. Oh yeah, and the film’s major baddie, who inspires a cult-following among otherwise good men (as women often do with their “magic,” or sexuality), also happens to be a woman. And the evilest objects in the movie are a series of dolls, our culture’s most basic signifier of femininity.

And then there’s Palmer, Dave’s love interest. He likes science, which she doesn’t really get, cos she’s a girl. But she likes music, because it’s pretty, or something, which is girly. And you might think, good for her! Except the movie itself hates music. Not only does she play, like, the worst shit ever on her radio show, but when it comes time for the big Fantasia moment, the filmmakers forgo Paul Dukas’ legendary score for some kind of awful remix that incorporates some of Dukas’ themes but makes it, like, I don’t know, more friendly for Disney Radio, or something? Ben, why would you bother making The Sorcerer’s Apprentice if you don’t even like “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”? More to the point: who watches Fantasia and comes up with this? Who responds to such an outpouring of imagination with such mundanity?

Henry, for all its coded queerness and movie magic misogyny (you forgot to mention that Horvath resurrects that suspected witch girl from Salem for about one scene before killing her), there was one moment near the end of Apprentice that I found quite amazing and radically out of place for a Disney movie: when Nic Cage absorbs the evil Morgana, briefly becoming, for all intents and purposes, a transsexual hermaphrodite. Unlike all previous soul absorptions in the film, which had involved female-on-female spirit containment (hot!), this bisexual melding of souls seemed pretty ballsy (ha!), even if it only lasted a minute and resulted in (spoiler alert) Balthazar’s death. I guess that’s what you get in Disneyland, Henry, for trying to be more or other than male or female.

And forget about being anything other than white, because the film’s two lame gestures towards diversity are only less offensive than its pervasive misogyny because they’re so cursory. Firstly, Dave’s token black friend (Omar Benson Miller) literally dials in the majority of his lines and seems intended as the college slacker in contrast to our nerdy, over-achieving (and unbelievably annoying, right?) protag. Worse still is the colorful detour through Chinatown, where, as far as Disney knows, it’s Chinese New Year every fucking day—possibly because at Disney theme parks, it’s kind of New Year’s Eve every day. There’s a dragon, an acupuncturist, fireworks, and a kindly old Chinese-American woman whom Balthazar kicks the shit out of before we realize that’s Horvath in disguise. (It must be written into Cage’s contract at this point that in every film he has to hurt someone significantly weaker than he, like here, here, here and here.)

But speaking of the invisibility of difference in Apprentice, and since you mentioned the Wall Street bull being brought to life (which, yeah, was kind of great), we should probably address how the film’s almost-apocalypse (“The Rising”) takes place a few blocks from Ground Zero, where a ludicrous debate currently rages over a proposed mosque near the World Trade Center site. In light of the film’s amalgamation of milquetoast religious rhetoric, recurring imagery of inappropriate dragon-touching between elders and youths, and the centuries-old struggle between good and evil magic, could we maybe re-cast Merlinians and Morganians as Christians and Muslims? Is the Rising what Disney thinks will happen if a mosque opens near Ground Zero? How does this religious/real estate driven interpretation dovetail with the film’s largely inaccurate New York City geography?

Ben, once The Rising started and Morgana created a “Hell Circle” over Lower Manhattan, I jotted in my notes: “haven’t they been through enough down there?” Not that you’d know it from this movie, though, which opens briefly in the year 2000 and yet features not a single glimpse of the Towers! Oh, those old things? You could hardly notice them while they were around.

I mean, really, this is like New York, I Love You-level inauthenticity. Like, how they took a bus to the Statue of Liberty at the beginning, and then 10-year-old Dave walked a few steps into Tribeca? Down an alley first, of course, because New York is so full of alleyways. There was the train that passes through, but doesn’t stop at, the Marcy Ave. J/M/Z station (it’s an M express?), and the food stand called “The Corner Deli” that looked like some Las Vegas fantasy of what a deli looks like (a diner crossed with a hot dog stand?). Oh, and there’s Dave calling soda “pop”. No native New Yorker says “pop”! Worst of all was when, as soon as Dave and his blond love-interest walk into a subway station, a big black man pulls a knife on them. Hey, Ben, did you know that the director was born in New York City? Aye yi yi!

But I guess we should be happy to see movies set in New York again. Do you think it’s an Obama thing? That, with a black Democrat in the White House, Disney thinks the country’s obviously in a New York state of mind? You know, because New York is where blacks and liberals come from. Oh, and gays! Now it makes sense, Ben! Hey, does this mean that New York is back as America’s capital of destruction? After that terrible year of playing second fiddle to San Francisco?

Come to think of it, there was an authentic New York detail or two to be found here. Nicolas Cage spends most of the movie as though sleepwalking through a paycheck, but his most inspired moment is when he uses magic to disguise himself as a NYPD grunt, sputtering thick New York inflections past his mustachioed lips. He suggests that Chinese New Year revelers were drunk on sake, and when Dave corrects him, Cage replies, “I was in character!” You know, because cops are ignorant and racist? But my favorite moment, probably in the whole movie, was when they go to Cage’s cool antique store in the present day, ten years since they’ve last visited, and find it’s no longer there. What’s there instead? A cell phone store. At least they got something right, Ben.

One Comment

  • Henry, while I completely agree that the film’s senses of direction and distance are totally touristy (like when Becky follows Dave on foot all the way from Washington Square up to the top of the Chrysler Building, sans security check), Tribeca *is* full of alleyways, and this one where Balthazar’s antiques shop exteriors were shot (Franklin Street at Franklin Place, the nexus of the universe) is *almost* walking distance from the Liberty Island ferry launch:…