There isn’t anything fundamentally wrong with Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. As far as the grandeur of epic, action-adventure, fantasy films of the PG persuasion are concerned, entertainment giant Disney and “Mr. Blockbuster” super producer Jerry Bruckheimer (Pirates of the Caribbean franchise) deliver another cinematic smörgåsbord for the senses. Disney’s latest video game turned feature film action romp clearly understands its market and adheres strictly to the conventions of its genre through Bruckheimers’ visceral style and successful action movie manna. You might find faults of character and failures at emotional resonance from the surface treatment of the epic story, but rarely for long; what is important to keep in mind while watching Prince of Persia is the open invitation offered by the filmmakers to begin an adventure that doesn’t aways rely on the probable but is more than confident in its stead.
It is apparent from the beginning of the movie that you’re not going to find anything entirely new here; peril by sword and hoof, larger than life villains within a society ruled as much by a fractured class system as the ambitions of corrupt leaders. There is no reinvention of the fantasy playing field or over-indulgent titillation from the likes of Peter Jackson‘s WETA digital here either. Yet Prince is in very capable hands with Oscar-winning cinematographer John Seale, veteran director Mike Newell and the aforementioned producing guru, Jerry Bruckheimer in tow. The result is disjointed at times but admittedly polished, a sleek veneer of the flawless marriage of live action, CGI and green-screen landscape that lays the ground work for the straightforward plot — a rogue, fugitive prince and conquered princess join forces to stop a big, bad scary villain who threatens to destroy the world with a magical, time reversing dagger unless they stop him. All one has to do from that point forward is hang on.
The driving force of the film is an overwhelming sense of the comfortable, familiar theater experience delivered as only true Hollywood blockbuster films can. In a 1986 interview with Woody Allen, he commented on the importance of the experience of going to the theater and the impact everything from the vaulted ceiling to the carpet and chairs had on your interaction with the movie. Sometimes experience is all we have to surround us with when films let us down. But something happens when you’re afforded a chance, albeit a brief one, to erase the cares and concerns of your life for a couple of hours.
The landscapes in Prince of Persia are breathtaking and the action is rapid fire, though in all honesty suffers from ridiculous, often implausible physics more akin to video game universes than live action films. If you allow yourself to accept often clichéd adventure scenarios and thin but charismatic characters, lackluster dialog limited by our friends at the MPAA, the movie does envelope you in a kind of childlike enthusiasm. Sure, we’ve seen similar big screen, other-worldly or historically unfamiliar extravaganzas before, but none of that takes away from this movie, allowing instead a grand thrill ride that will guarantee even the most reluctant movie-going adolescent an adrenaline infused joy ride. There is also a well placed and subtle homage to its video game origins employed to much effect. Using sweeping panoramas and multi-camera perspectives of dizzying fight sequences through maze-like castles and lush, provocative landscapes, the modern game enthusiast will find a lot to appreciate. It is apparent the film wants to reach out and expand on the very popular, long running game of the same title created by Jordan Mechner with ties to Broderbund and Ubisoft in recent years.
If Prince of Persia is anything it is a farcical, fantasy spectacle in the purest sense, that while stumbles over culturally insensitive matters and superficial handling of historical inaccuracies, the film remains widely available if taken at face value. As a big-ticket film with a $200 million dollar budget and very notable actors (Jake Gyllenhaal, Alfred Molina, and Ben Kingsley) the goal was to create a mass marketable blockbuster with subtle and not so subtle hints at a possible film franchise. It goes without saying that Prince of Persia has inherent problems and as a result the filmmakers have seen a fair amount of critical coverage in the press. Many have pointed out the obvious oversimplification of an otherwise complex story between socially and spiritually divergent cultures. Others remind us that the film is based on a video game and as such hardly requires critical debate. Critics and audiences are perplexed as to how a story set in Persia could be made without any Iranian, Middle-Eastern or Muslim actors in the principle roles. Several sources, including the McClatchy-Tribune News Service, have reported independent filmmaker and blogger Jehanzeb Dar, who is an avid fan of the video game, as being hopeful that the film would be a “serious story that would dispel a lot of stereotypes and misconceptions.” I think Mr. Dar is naive to think a Hollywood fantasy film could make a serious effort of any kind, let alone the particulars of stereotypes and misconceptions. At a glance, Hollywood is in the business of telling stories, often fantasy adventure stories that are frequently imaginary and occasionally inspired by or based on, a true story, person or event. We must remind ourselves that Hollywood is in the business of making money. I can’t imagine anyone assuming a Disney movie, let alone a Jerry Bruckheimer movie has any desire or responsibility to engage in setting the record straight regarding the perceptions of American audiences. I understand his hope and the hope of others, and commend the desire to see responsible social and religious efforts made to address the repeated misrepresentation of certain cultures and ethnic groups in American films. Sadly, a fantasy adventure film is not the place to begin such a dialog.
Prince of Persia is not without further and perhaps more significant structural criticism. It often suffers from a tangled plot of disposable, common action scenarios where superficial characters are mish-mashed together as though equal parts of Bruckheimers’ and Disney’s last five films were added to a hat, stirred and bits and pieces were used as the basis for Prince of Persia. The coming of age story of a young Persian prince and princess is inviting but almost immediately feels calculated, stuck together like boy bands of the 80s and 90s by some producer who made a human ‘mashup’ and people gave him millions of dollars for the obvious. The major plot points in Prince are pushed together haphazardly for the sake of a narrative with inaccessible emotional rewards that never fully get worked out in a meaningful way. Sure, the good guys win and the bad guys lose but part of our interest and subsequent reward exists in the way we arrive at those conclusions. There is little on-screen chemistry between Datan (Gyllenhaal) and Tamina (Gemma Arterton) and at no time is it ever apparent that the subtle, often ridiculous sexual foreplay between them is every going anywhere near the bedroom. Coitus in a Disney movie is the equivalent of two people in various stages of distress, undress, and lust that is quickly satisfied with the lights out and a rapid dissolve or jump cut to the morning after.
But for all its missteps and see through storytelling, for every Disney-ization of the material, the film must be taken as it was intended – as pure, big-screen escapism. Prince is directed by veteran filmmaker Mike Newell who famously brought us a slew of television productions through the 1960s and 1970s. Most notably he directed Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Donnie Brasco (1997), and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire in 2005. Potter would prove the perfect training ground for Persia with the franchise earning an estimated $2.7 billion dollars to date.
What ultimately matters when the movie screen goes dark and the credits begin to roll, when many amble clumsily over half-eaten tubs of popcorn and finger seat backs with buttery nubs, when the first of hundreds and very often thousands of people scroll one by one across the screen — you might think for an instant about those involved in making a blockbuster like Prince of Persia — and it might dawn on you that none of those people up there intended to give you any more than an enjoyable, memorable cinematic experience.