If you're cynical toward Hollywood blockbusters these days; if you think they're too much flash and not enough substance; that they're just gussied up parts of a vertically-integrated marketing strategy to make money off toys, games, and the faces of its young cast; that all the finely-rendered gloss their inflated budgets can deliver offers very little to film as an art form, then you will not be shocked in the least to learn that Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, the latest film from Disney and blockbuster producer Jerry Bruckheimer, is no different than what you're expecting. If, however, you do still enjoy contemporary blockbusters despite all of that, then a fairly fun time can indeed be had romping around the digital sand dunes of ancient Persia with Jake Gyllenhaal and Gemma Arterton.
Should your film tastes lay somewhere between the cynical and the "turn off your brain and grab some popcorn" camps, then you might even be pleasantly surprised by Prince of Persia. Director Mike Newell (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) has delivered a film with such a persistent state of glee on its face that should you stick with it long enough, you're bound to be infected by how much fun everyone on screen (and behind the camera) is clearly having. Prince of Persia is precisely the kind of film that's more enjoyable than it has any right to be.
You'll want to hate it. You'll want to spend the first thirty or so minutes groaning at the idea of Jake Gyllenhaal as both a Persian and a muscle bound parkour warrior named Dastan. You'll smile half-heartedly at the banter between Dastan and Tamina (Arterton), the princess of a holy city he conquers almost single-handedly at the offset of the film. You'll marvel at how telegraphed the plot is, wondering if the machinations that frame Dastan as the murderer of his adoptive father will ever offer up a few surprises when the ousted prince tries to prove his innocence (they will not). You'll sympathize with how bored Ben Kinglsey looks in his role as Dastan's uncle. You'll even be impressed by most of the spectacle involved, particularly when Dastan learns that the sacred dagger Tamina's lineage serves to protect can turn back the sands of time.
Then, around a third of the way into the film, something changes. The film stops being a bull you have to cling to and becomes a ride you actively want to enjoy. If the arrival of Alfred Molina as a tax-hating entrepreneur who runs a city whose entire economy revolves around gambling on ostrich races does not break your brain then you have successfully acclimated to how goofy and innocent Prince of Persia is. All of the elements that are initially a bit too high fructose corn syrup to digest do evolve into savory bits of sugary goodness. Then once you find yourself enjoying the flavor of Dastan and Tamina's love-hate relationship, you'll be able to enjoy almost anything Boaz Yankin, Doug Miro and Carlo Bernard's script can throw at the screen.
And they've sure got plenty to toss up there, too: a time-turning MacGuffin, ancient assassins who can control snakes, a chosen one with a save-the-world destiny (I swear it's not Mike Newell doing another Harry Potter film), and more ostriches than you'll see on the big screen all year contribute to the aloof proceedings. There's not a serious bone in this film's body. Any moment that is meant to carry emotional weight is quickly given a curtain call by a bit of impromptu desert swashbuckling.
As for said swashbuckling, that's actually the most disappointing element of Prince of Persia. For a film that is supposed to be a period epic, there's surprisingly little that is epic about it. The action sequences are not incomprehensible jumbles, but they're also not memorable. A lack of scope to the choreography forces the editing department to pop a few pills to keep up and in turn, unless Dastan is using the dagger of time, the action is visually lackluster. This is purely a hypothesis on my part, but the reason Disney opted not to jump on the 3D bandwagon and convert the film in post-production may simply have been because they realized all of the rapid cuts would look even worse in the third dimension.
It is a good thing, then, that Gyllenhaal, Arterton and Molina are all entertaining enough in their own right to prevent the film from drying up. Is it a worthy future franchise replacement for Bruckheimer and Disney's most noteworthy team-up, Pirates of the Caribbean? It depends. In another director's hands, all the action in Prince of Persia could have been truly spectacular, so one can hope a sequel would improve upon all the obvious weak spots in this film. However, as a first-time entry that bridges the gap from the Prince of Persia game world to the film world, it's not an excruciating way to spend two hours in a nice, climate-controlled theater this summer.
For another take on Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, see Joe Utichi's review