Memorial Day weekend is upon us, and that means the summer blockbuster season is here. Kicking things off is Disney's "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time." Based on the long-running video game series, the film pulls most of its inspiration from the Ubisoft era of the franchise. Specifically, eagle-eyed fans will note elements from The Sands of Time, The Warrior Within and The Two Thrones, though the movie itself is based on an original script. As a movie, "The Sands of Time" doesn't redefine the art form, but it does provide an enjoyable ride, all while reminding us that a video game can make for a decent movie.
As the story goes, the king decided to adopt the young orphan Dastan after witnessing him display great courage and a pure heart. Now, many years later, Prince Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his brothers are tasked with invading a holy city under false pretenses. Framed for the murder of his adoptive father, Dastan must outwit both friend and foe in order to uncover the secret behind the Dagger of Time, and save himself and the world.
It's a fairly straightforward action plot, with an ever-so-slight bit of political commentary — the holy city invasion is based on a fabricated report of weapon production. If you're going into the film expecting a deep, introspective story, you're going to the wrong film. This is a movie targeted at teenage fans, and the plot merely serves as a vehicle to get the action moving. Once that happens, the film starts to shine.
Prince Dastan may be destined to be the master of time, but for much of the film, you would think the title should be Prince of Parkour. Many of the film's action sequences occur within cities and villages, with a heavy emphasis on running and jumping across rooftops, walls and stairwells. Swords are common, natural athleticism is shown off and swinging from ropes is a common occurrence. Quite frankly, it's a nice change from all the guns and explosions in action films these days. In many ways, it's a throwback to the swashbuckling tales of the original "Indiana Jones" films or Errol Flynn's adventures in cinema.
During these action sequences, the film is at its finest, showing off sharp choreography along with smart camera direction. There are a number of quick cuts, but each shot lingers long enough to reveal the action without feeling cramped or hurried. It is only when the movie turns to exposition that the shine starts to wear off somewhat.
Though the interactions between Prince Dastan and Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton) are amusing, if notably chaste (this is a PG-13 movie, after all), Dastan's conversations with everyone else do little more than provide the next destination for the story. Rather than flow naturally, events seem to happen merely because one of the characters declares that something must be done, so then they set out to do that thing. It's a sign of weak storytelling and the major hiccup that keeps "The Sands of Time" firmly in "average" territory.
Because this is a Disney film, it follows the standard Disney formula, which demands an amusing sidekick. We get that in the form of Sheik Amar (Alfred Molina), a fast talking con man with the requisite heart of gold. Molina's character is relatively superficial, but his portrayal isn't. Jumping headfirst into the character of Amar with exuberance, Molina manages to present a likeable oaf with more depth than the script would seem to indicate.
Visually, "The Sands of Time" is a treat, with some beautifully shot vistas on location in Morocco, striking desert sunsets and a detailed overview of the holy city of Alamut. The holy city may be entirely CGI, but that doesn't detract from its artistic beauty. The overhead shots provide a postcard-perfect view.
Ultimately, "The Sands of Time" is a solid offering that fails to reach its full potential simply because the producers decided to aim lower than they should have. By underestimating their audience and writing the script with simplicity in mind, the screenwriters ended up producing something that works as popcorn escapism but nothing more. Had they written for a more sophisticated audience, and simply assumed that the younger viewers would step up to the plate, they could have had a film that was more than just a shiny homage to the swashbuckling classics.
As it is, "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time" is the movie equivalent of cotton candy. It looks good and it's tasty going down, but it never really fills you up. Here's hoping that the next installment ends up being a main course rather than just an appetizer.
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