Disney’s loyal ‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ comes to life

The horrific face staring up at Nicolas Cage is lined in satanic red, scowling angrily, and its eyes are empty and white, though truthfully, they’ve gone a little yellow with time.

“This one looks really scary,” the actor says, placing his hands on the long conference table and leaning over the small square of drawing paper, now more than 70 years old. “That one didn’t quite make the cut.”

The star of the new live-action version of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is looking over a table filled with original concept and animation drawings from the classic animated short of the same name, laid out for display in a conference room in Disney’s Animation Research Library.

In 1940’s Fantasia, the animated musical’s simple centerpiece was The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, with Mickey Mouse borrowing his master’s magical hat and causing havoc with brooms and water pails. Over seven decades, it has continued to resonate with generation after generation.

Cage admired it so much that he began pursuing a project to remake it as a live-action feature with himself as the stern master wizard and skinny, nervous Jay Baruchel (She’s Out of My League) as the overwhelmed protégé.

The actor is joined at the library by his two collaborators — director Jon Turteltaub and producer Jerry Bruckheimer— who helped him expand that eight-minute short into the family adventure that opens Wednesday.

In this version, Cage is a centuries-old wizard, a onetime student of Merlin, who lives in modern-day New York and recruits the geeky young physics student with latent otherworldly powers to help him defeat a collection of evil rivals who have escaped from their prison of mystical nesting dolls.

“I’m looking at that one over there, Jerry,” Cage says, pointing to another concept drawing with the sorcerer’s arms raised and his hands angled down, as if he’s silencing an orchestra. “Remember our first conversation on the telephone? I was in Hungary, we were talking about using bracelets.”

The bracelets would be slammed together by his character to emit magic. “I said, ‘No, no, I need to work with my hands.’ It looks like he’s conducting right there,” Cage says.

These drawings, along with countless others from throughout the company’s animation history, are housed in a nondescript but heavily secured building in an industrial section of Glendale, about a 15-minute drive from the studio.

Inside are several temperature-controlled vaults full of drawings, reference models (such as a full-scale Pinocchiomarionette used by Walt Disney and his artists to create that film), and about 75 drawings and paintings by Salvador Dali, which the surrealist created as part of a romance called Destino, which Disney began in 1946 then abandoned, only to be finished in 2003, when it received an Oscar nomination for animated short. (“That’s the holy grail today, if we can find that,” Cage says, coaxing the staff into a later tour.)

Inside the vault

The library is the keeper of Disney’s animation legacy, used mainly by the studio’s current artists studying the work of their forebears. Outsiders are allowed by invitation only.

Luckily, the doors opened because it’s all in the family. Disney is releasing the live-action Apprentice, and the trio of Cage, Turteltaub and Bruckheimer have more than earned their keep with the studio’s National Treasure films.

Though they’ve been developing their movie for years, this is the first time any of the men has been up close and personal with anything but the finished animated short. Cage seems awestruck by the art, Turteltaub is gregarious and chatty with the white-gloved library staff, and Bruckheimer, despite his explosive filmography, is laid-back and soft-spoken, observing from the sidelines.

The new movie includes a scene that pays homage to the animated original, with Baruchel feeling lazy and conjuring magical brooms and mops to help him clean the sorcerer’s lair — with predictably watery results. But otherwise, it scatters its tips-of-the-hat in small ways throughout the expanded story.

“This ended up in our movie,” Turteltaub says, pointing to a drawing of the sorcerer conjuring a mist of colors in the shape of a butterfly. “There’s an evil sorcerer in the movie named Sun Lok who forms out of butterflies in these colors.” Turteltaub shrugs. “It’s all that little stuff … no one will ever know, no one will ever care.”

The library’s creative director, Lella Smith, tells him: “All those Disney fans are going to know.”

Among the other changes: Cage’s sorcerer is named Balthazar, not Yensid, as in the original (which is Disney spelled backward, and a little too obvious an in-joke to be repeated throughout the movie). And there’s no pointed blue hat with stars and moons on it, though that has become the symbol of Disney Animation, with a giant one resting atop their headquarters a few miles away in Burbank.

“We talked a lot about it and tried different versions of the hat,” Cage says. “Some of them looked pretty good. But predominantly, it’s more of a rock ‘n’ roll look.”

Turteltaub adds, “The hat is in the movie, but you’re going to have to wait until all the credits are over to see it.”

The new Sorcerer’s Apprentice is PG, fairly tame by most action-adventure standards, but Cage says kid-friendliness was by design. “I had been interested in the Arthurian myths, and as I started to make more movies with Jon and wanting to make movies that appealed to families, I thought that was a great way to entertain audiences without resorting to gratuitous violence.”

So magical pulses fly in battle instead of bullets. Bruckheimer says he pushed for a lighthearted comedic feel: “Everybody wants to laugh, especially in economic times like this. You try to take audiences away from their pain.”

Plus, the magical battles lend themselves to big visual-effects set pieces: A dragon in a Chinatown parade comes to life; Cage’s sorcerer flies around on a steel eagle brought to life from the corners of the Chrysler Building; and the villain Maxim Horvath (played by Alfred Molina) materializes out of thousands of insects. “There’s a lot more you can do in a mystical magical arena,” Bruckheimer says. “Since you have such great visual effects available to you now, it’s almost flawless. They can do anything. All you have to do is write the check.”

Cage and Turteltaub’s history goes back far beyond the National Treasure movies. They were students together at Beverly Hills High and performed in the theater group. Turteltaub had the lead in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, while Cage was relegated to the role of “constable.” (“There’s a difference between being a good actor and being a good ‘high school actor,’ ” Turteltaub says.)

When Cage’s own son was in a production of Inherit the Wind, being staged in the same school theater, he brought Turteltaub with him and pitched the idea of remaking Sorcerer’s Apprentice. “We’re standing on the exact same steps where we had hung out and done plays when we were losers,” Turteltaub says. “You dream about one day being successful in show business. And there we were.”

Cage says, “It was very strange because we were reliving our past and talking about the future.”

During the library tour, Cage tells Smith, the library’s director: “There’s a sense of choosing material that goes above and beyond simple storytelling but seems to tap into some sort of zeitgeist, like Tolkien did with The Lord of the Rings, or the Arthur grail cycles, or the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which we know came from Goethe. Was it something Walt Disney was looking for, to have those long-lasting, weighty, classic stories to offer to families?”

She tells him it was more likely about the music.

The French composer Paul Dukas was directly influenced by Goethe’s poem, but Disney was probably more influenced by Dukas’ jaunty march, which memorably provided the soundtrack to the animated short. “It was about finding wonderful music,” Smith says.

Mickey and music

But there may have been another reason the story appealed to Disney, she adds: “We do know Walt very much wanted to include Mickey Mouse (in Fantasia). He thought Mickey Mouse was losing popularity after Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

The heart of every version of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is a coming-of-age story — about an inexperienced kid exploring his power, finding himself in over his head and learning to accept some help and guidance. The sorcerer and his apprentice are not pals — the original was tough on Mickey, as Cage is tough on Baruchel.

“You really don’t know what his attitude is until almost the final shot,” says library researcher Fox Carney, who presented some of the animation art. “The sorcerer gives (Mickey) that little swat with the broom, and he’s got that little smile. They don’t reveal that until the end.”

Cage smiles and nods, something he doesn’t do a lot of in the movie. “And then you know he’s not such a bad guy,” he says.


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