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Word of Mouth: Disney tries to pull a hit out of its bag of tricks

When star Nicolas Cage, producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Jon Turteltaub collaborate on movies about secret societies hidden in plain sight, the results have been remarkable: Their first two “National Treasure” movies grossed more than $800 million combined around the world, and Disney is developing another sequel that could start filming early next year.

But before the triumvirate commits to a third “National Treasure” film, they face the challenge of launching “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” a family-friendly adventure tale about a centuries-old magicians battle in modern-day Manhattan. While several PG-rated movies have performed exceptionally well this summer ( “The Karate Kid,” “Shrek Forever After” and, in its first week, “Despicable Me”), the $150-million “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” opens opposite director Christopher Nolan’s “Inception,” which premieres Friday and so far is generating much stronger audience interest and critical notices.

In an attempt to improve the prospects for “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” which arrived in theaters on Wednesday, Disney, in an unusual move, revamped the film’s marketing campaign just days before its release, including switching the film’s tag line in some advertisements from “It’s the coolest job ever” to “There’s no such thing as no such thing.”

The studio also bumped the movie’s release date from Friday to Wednesday to get ahead of “Inception,” which should win the weekend by a wide margin. In fact, “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” will struggle to top “Despicable Me” for second place on the charts. It’s the first Disney sales campaign overseen by M.T. Carney, who joined the studio in April following a career as a brand marketer with no background in movie promotions.

Bruckheimer, whose first summer release, “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time,” did only moderate business domestically (grossing $89 million in North America, but more than $236 million overseas), says that though he’s usually nervous about his films — “I always expect the worst and hope for the best” — he concedes the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” marketing effort hasn’t unfolded perfectly. “We weren’t getting much traction with what was out there,” he says.

Cage didn’t have that kind of problem when he and a few colleagues hatched and pitched the idea for the film.

The actor, who says he loves “research into ancient English mythology,” was working on 2007’s “Next” (in which he played a Las Vegas magician who can see the future) when he told producer Todd Garner that he wanted to play a conjurer rooted in a historical myth. “And Todd said, ‘Let’s do “Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” ’ " Cage says. “And I said, ‘That’s exactly it.’ ”

The character taken from a Goethe poem makes an appearance in Disney’s “Fantasia,” but the narrative that Cage and the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” creative team (the story and screenplay are credited to Lawrence Konner, Mark Rosenthal, Matt Lopez, Doug Miro and Carlo Bernard) put together shares little with 1940’s animated classic, outside of a sequence of dancing brooms and mops.

In the movie, Cage plays Balthazar, a time-traveling student of Merlin charged with guarding an urn that should not be opened under any circumstances, for what (and who) it will unleash. Ten-year-old Dave accidentally helps break the magical container’s seal, and when the boy grows up into a college-age geek (played by “She’s Out of My League’s” Jay Baruchel), Balthazar must train Dave to fulfill his destiny as an apprentice. Balthazar and Dave then join forces to fight against the dark forces led by Horvath (" Spider-Man 2’s’” Alfred Molina). Even outside Wall Street’s complex derivatives, in other words, sorcery is alive and well in Manhattan.

Cage, who has a young son, says he learned from the “National Treasure” experience that family films could yield a different kind of reward. “I saw the effect it would have when I would meet with younger people out in public,” Cage says. “And one of the better ways I could apply myself as an actor was to make family films.”

Furthermore, he felt there weren’t enough movies that parents could see with their kids, a ritual he felt was in jeopardy. “I know what it means to try to find things to do with your kids. It’s hard,” Cage says. “There are only so many times you can go to Magic Mountain or go out and get ice cream.”

As Bruckheimer and Turteltaub joined the project, the script went through a number of drafts, including an early switch to change Dave’s being a 10-year-old throughout the film to his growing up into a young adult. “I think that really made it much easier to broaden the story into a full movie,” says Turteltaub. “And by being an adult, he gives the adult audience a pair of eyes to see the movie through. It’s a movie about fulfilling your potential — when you get in the way of your own ability, you don’t end up with much.”

Disney has stumbled trying to turn some of its brands into movies (though “Pirates of the Caribbean” is a global smash and a fourth Bruckheimer-produced entry is in production, “The Country Bears” and “The Haunted Mansion” fizzled), and it’s unclear how much benefit a character played by Mickey Mouse from a 70-year-old movie can generate.

“I was shocked how few people remembered the cartoon,” Turteltaub says of the reactions he received when he explained to friends what he was working on. “We would have been better off if people did understand the character a little better. Maybe I overestimated how relevant ‘Fantasia’ was to people. And that’s become a little bit of a blessing and a curse.”

It’s a curse because it diminishes the film’s built-in awareness, he says, but a blessing in that it gave him freedom to craft a story that was not beholden to the tone of the animated movie. “We want to say that you can create magic with intelligence,” Turteltaub says. “It’s not a coincidence that he’s smart and he’s able to do all this magic.”

Bruckheimer is confident “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” offers an effective alternative to the PG-13-rated “Inception.” “It’s a family film — it’s for everybody,” he says. “It’s no different from ‘National Treasure.’ With Jon directing, it’s got a lot more humor than you would expect. And there are some big action set pieces in it.”

Turteltaub cautions that people should not overestimate his weekend rival. “ ‘Inception,’ ” he says, “is not a hit yet.”

john.horn@latimes.com


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