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Dissecting the Disney fantasy formula

Danger, traps, the double cross, good vs. evil, heroes and villains, fighting and prevailing against all odds; searching for unknown treasure and sailing to far away lands are all marks of great adventures that have flickered onto projection screens since the dawn of cinema. Going to the movies is a longtime means of escapism popular in America and around the world and adventure is the genre that captures the desires of film fans to drift away to a place beyond their imaginations.  Walt Disney Pictures has always been prolific in this movie category, producing the most famous theme park as a family vacation destination and branding tool for its feature films and products.

The iconic studio that brought us Fantasia, Cinderella, Armageddon, and Pirates of the Caribbean has a new hopeful in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. The newest entry, produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, stars Nicolas Cage, Alfred Molina, and Jay Baruchel with direction from Jon Turteltaub. The big budget fantasy follows a typical Hollywood formula with a cast of cliché characters, plot queues, and the inevitable ending anyone can predict.

Keeping to genre, Disney pits good verses evil and throws in the love triangle for good measure. In The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Balthazar Blake (Nicolas Cage) is the titular sorcerer, a thousand or so years old and living in contemporary New York. He has an age old nemesis in Maxim Horvath (Alfred Molina), a decidedly evil villain bent on taking the state of New York under his control. Balthazar, ever the good guy, must stop the madman and in the process cause innumerable destruction to the historic city.

The formula isn’t new; we’ve seen this story a thousand times and often from Disney and Jerry Bruckheimer to boot. Recent video game adaptation Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time pitted the aggressively innocent former orphan turned prince Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal) against unabashedly coldhearted Nizam (Ben Kingsley). In family adventures rarely does the formula deviate to well rounded characters; you are either a very good guy or a very bad one.

In a previous Bruckheimer and Cage combination National Treasure, Cage played Ben, a character so ethical he could not accept a ten percent fee for the bounty of treasure he discovered; he accepted a mere one percent instead. Compare that to his former friend turned boundlessly greedy enemy Sean (Ian Howe) who steals his clues and leaves him stranded. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice contains other character clichés of course, including the staple fish out of water.

In this case it is Jay Baruchel as Dave Stutler, a nerdy college student turned reluctant hero. Dave is roped into the plot after Horvath joins forces with illusionist Drake Stone (Tony Kebbell).  Blake decides he must become a duo as well to prevail in the fight so he takes an untrained kid and gives him a speed lesson in magic before throwing him in harms way. None of this makes sense when thought about for too long, but that is the beauty of adventure.

Another typical subplot evident abundantly in the trailers is “getting the girl.”  Inevitably female characters are pretty, in peril, and perfectly useless in fanciful films.  In Pirates of the Caribbean, Keira Knightly actually had a pretty sizable role. However, the prim actress stayed true to modern type, playing a sassy mouthed nuisance to offset male characters enamored with her.  Prince of Persia gave this role to Gemma Arterton, who played the defiant leader Tamina. She sporadically found herself and her kingdom in need of a hero, the subject of an unoriginal plot moving device. 

"Apprentice" has two female characters.  Little seen in marketing is the source of the feud between Balthazar and Horvath, Sorceress Veronica played by beautifulItalian actress Monica Belucci.  But it is Becky, played by Teresa Palmer, who will likely be captured by the villain and stand in need of saving by the climax of the film. The too-hot-for-a-geek blonde is seen in trailers sidled adoringly to the apprentice.

But the biggest draw in adventure cinema is the larger-than-life action. The movie preview shows plenty of shenanigans involving energy balls, car chases, and ravenous destruction in public places. New York is a typical locale, as seen in climactic scenes in many apocalyptic films and adventures including former reboots Godzilla and King Kong. "Apprentice's" most attractive aspect lies largely in its effects sequences rather than the formulaic story.    

Walt Disney continues its onslaught of adventure, fantasy, and escapism with Tron: Legacy and The Chronicles of Narnia: the Voyage of the Dawn Treader this holiday season. Until then, movie goers must contend with a wiry haired Nicolas Cage, a bronze bull, silver dragon, and villain composed of hissing beetles in theatres this Wednesday, July 14, 2010. 


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