I'm not a Jerry Bruckheimer apologist, but I do believe that there's a place for popcorn movies. In fact, cinema would be an emptier place without those just-for-fun action films that are the distant offspring of old-time matinee serials.
Forget, for a moment, that "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time" also derives from a popular series of video games, because fans will be just as demanding of a film version as book-lovers are with adaptations. Let's just look at this as a film--or rather, a popcorn movie-because with Disney onboard, its audience is far broader than gamers.
Clearly, Bruckheimer and director Mike Newell ("Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire") intended "Prince of Persia" to be another blockbuster franchise along the lines of "Pirates of the Caribbean," but the level of special effects and writing will make it appeal more to a younger audience rather than the full family. Don't get me wrong, it's still a good family movie. But as my wife and I watched with our two children, the law of diminishing returns seemed to take effect. My eight-year-old daughter gave it 4 stars out of four, my 12-year-old son gave it 3 1/2, my wife thought it deserved 3 stars given that it accomplished what it set out to do, and I thought it was a clear 2 1/2 (or 6 out of 10 on the DVD Town scale).
Adults will notice things like inconsistent backgrounding and photography. Sometimes it will remind you of video games, with a point-of-view gamer angle and a quick-sweeping look at doors from which our hero has to choose; other times it feels like standard adventure. Sometimes the stunts look deliberately crafted to look like video game action, while others they just seem to be standard adventure stunts of varying quality.
Anachronisms also intrude. Anyone who's ever looked at statues from the old civilizations or watched enough classic films will be jarred a bit by the bangs that Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton) sports. And though Jake Gyllenhaal does a fair job as Prince Dastan, he just doesn't have a look that makes him believable as an ancient character, and he smiles a bit too much. Stand him in a scene where he's alongside his evil Uncle Nizam (Ben Kingsley) and brother Tus (Richard Coyle) or put him alongside the chameleon-like Alfred Molina, who plays a sheik who runs ostrich races and a gambling empire, and he looks nowhere near 2300 years old. None of it is helped by lines that feel way too contemporary, most of it banter between Dastan and Tamina. We go from "Looking for this? Oops" or Dastan walking off pumping his fist to a standard historical adventure shot with solemn, traditional epic music and more historically generic dialogue. There are also moments when the horns blown by heralds seem to play exactly the same tune as in "Ben-Hur," though Rome and Ancient Persia weren't exactly on the same musical page. But the biggest anachronistic scene comes during "Prince of Persia's" version of the Princess Leia at Jobba's hangout. When Tamina ends up serving drinks at the ostrich races holding a round tray and wearing an outfit that looks straight out of Vegas or "Showgirls," you have to wonder what costume designer Penny Rose was thinking--unless the anachronisms were just deliberate good fun, as they were in "A Knight's Tale."
What's more, the writing just isn't as crisp as it is in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" films, nor are the effects as special. One minute CGI snakes are looking real as anything that wriggled in a Harry Potter film, and the next you're reminded that they're using wires for the stunts, it's so obvious--and not always fluid, especially in a scene where the Prince uses camel humps for stepping stones. Then there's a tremendously silly scene at a school for "Hassassins" that breaks the mood of the whole, and sometimes the extras milling around in the background look as purposeless as ducks in the tight frame of a shooting gallery.
Still, for family entertainment "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time"" works just fine, and kids won't care one iota that Princess Tamina has bangs, Prince Dastan looks like one of the characters on "Lost," or that Bruckheimer couldn't resist sneaking in fireball explosions set off by boiling oil that's been torched . . . with the Prince walking toward the camera, fireball behind him, in a classic Bruckheimer shot. All kids care about is the action and the ambivalent romantic relationship between the prince and princess, and there's enough here to keep them happy.
"Prince of Persia" begins with a flashback in which a feisty street urchin is adopted by the king, and like the biblical Moses this prince, "whose blood wasn't noble, but whose spirit was," becomes his father's favorite. The plot is set in motion when Prince Tus, leading a military mission for his father, takes the advice of his uncle over the urgings of his brother and attacks the holy city of Alamut. There they capture the Princess Tamina and bring her back to the Persian capitol, where Dastan presents his father with a cloak that his brother had handed him. But foul deed! The Prince soon becomes a fugitive, and, escaping with Tamina, has an episodic journey that leads him (and us) through battles and close-calls, all of which make the pair trust or distrust, and love or hate each other.
Disney fans will recognize a number of "homages," including scenes that come straight out of "Aladdin" and "The Lion King" or else remind you of the ostrich race in "Swiss Family Robinson." There are other borrowings as well. Like "Click," every time a button is pushed the holder of the remote (in this case, dagger) gets to mess with time, though it's probably fairer to say that the dagger comes closer to the Omega 13 device in "GalaxyQuest" that allows the user to go back in time for 13 seconds to fix whatever disaster has befallen. In the case of "Prince of Persia" it's a full minute that the dagger provides. Outcomes of wars can be changed, and who knows what else.
"Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time" comes to 1080p via an AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a 50GB disc, and Blu-ray is the way to go. Purists will like that there's just a hint of grain, but enthusiasts who prefer their surfaces slick will enjoy the wonderful 3-dimensionality and fantastic level of detail. Though there's no evidence of tampering and no artifacts that I noticed, a few scenes have a bit too much grain and my copy stopped play for a few moments at roughly the 38-minute mark before starting up again of its own accord, and those two things keep it from being perfect in my book. But "Prince of Persia" is a colorful movie that's really well suited for high definition. Presented in 2.40:1, it's a beautiful film to watch.
The featured audio is an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 (48kHz/24-bit) that's every bit as remarkable as the video. Blades sing, the bass sandstorms shake the room, and dialogue remains pure and distinct and very discernible despite a robust soundtrack and a dynamic action sound field. Additional audio options are an English 2.0 DVS and French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks, with subtitles in English SDH, French, and Spanish.
"Prince of Persia" comes in a full combo pack with DVD and Digital Copy included. But considering that the film seems geared for families and children--it's rated PG-13 for "intense sequences of violence and action" but is pretty clean in the language and sex department--and considering that this originated from a video game, it's surprising no game is included. I guess they figure what's the point? But the point is, not all families have the games. Other than a single deleted scene and seven Disney trailers, the only bonus feature is "CineExplore: The Sands of Time," a mode of watching which gives viewers the chance to click on icons to access 116 minutes of featurettes. The features themselves are fascinating enough, but there's no option to just watch the features, and no menu, which is very un-Disneylike; you have to watch the film all over again and click every time you see an icon. Personally, that's not my idea of a fun time. It's a "game" I'd rather not play.
"Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time" is a better film than most critics would have you believe. I expected a muddled mess with tacky production values after hearing the word-of-mouth bashing it took. While "Prince of Persia" is no "Pirates of the Caribbean," it's also nothing Bruckheimer or Disney need to feel ashamed of. My kids love it. "Prince of Persia" is still solid family entertainment, and somewhere in the Kingdom of the Mouse I'll bet there's already a new thrill ride in development.