A pinch of movie magic makes this fantasy action movie a summer movie popcorn pleasure for kids and their families. The story goes back to an 18th century poem by Goethe that inspired a symphony by Paul Dukas a century later. But is best remembered as an animated chapter from Disney’s “Fantasia,” with Mickey Mouse in his most famous role, enchanting a broom to carry buckets of water and watching in dismay as things get very, very out of hand.
It is tempting to make the comparison to the hubristic overkill of stunts and special effects that is producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s trademark. But as Mae West once (or many times) said, “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful,” and if this movie doesn’t quite make it to wonderful, it is still a lot of fun, in part because even the most over-the-top effects can’t compete with the most special effects of all — a story that never loses its sense of fun and performances that keep it all grounded.
The very engaging Jay Baruchel plays Dave, an NYU physics nerd still traumatized by a childhood experience when he got separated from the group on a school field trip and had a scary encounter in a curio shop that seemed like it was magic. Humiliated in front of his class, he switched schools and never found out what Becky, the girl he liked, replied to his note asking whether she wanted to be his friend or his girlfriend.
Ten years later, he sees Becky (Teresa Palmer) again. Just as a more conventional kind of magic seems possible with her, he has a second encounter with sorcerer Balthazar (Nicolas Cage) and his nemesis, Horvath (Alfred Molina). Back in 740 AD, Merlin had three apprentices. Balthazar and Horvath both fell in love with Veronica (Monica Bellucci). When she chose Balthazar, Horvath swore his allegiance to evil Morgana (Alice Krige) and they tried to raise an army and destroy pretty much everything. For centuries, Balthazar has kept Veronica, Horvath, Morgana, and a couple of wizards who tried to free them sealed inside some Matryoshka nesting dolls as he sought The One who could defeat them for good.
That of course would be Dave.
And of course this is all just an excuse for some cool fight scenes. A Chinatown paper dragon turns real and a gargoyle flies. And there is a charming shout-out to Mickey and the buckets as Dave tries to clean up his underground research space before Becky arrives. It gets out of hand. Some things never change.
There are some nice humorous touches including sly jokes about “Star Wars” and Depeche Mode and pointy old man shoes. Cage is very good at meaningful thrusting of his arms as though he is conducting a universal orchestra and Baruchel is good at looking abashed but game. I liked the way they put science and magic on a complementary continuum. And the relationship between Dave and Becky is sweet.
The movie is more science than magic, more formula than inspiration. But there is something to be said for the formula: top talent in production design, stunts, and effects, capable pacing, and characters to root for. It’s harder than you’d think to stay out of the way of the audience’s fun; this movie makes it easy to sit back and enjoy.