Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Why Wasn't Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time the Next Pirates of the Caribbean?

In Laman's Terms is a weekly editorial column where Douglas Laman rambles on about certain topics or ideas that have been on his mind lately. Sometimes he's got serious subjects to discuss, other times he's just got some silly stuff to shoot the breeze about. Either way, you know he's gonna talk about something In Laman's Terms!

Ten years ago tomorrow, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time was released in theaters all around the world. Armed with a $150 million budget, Prince of Persia was clearly being modeled after Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Both were Walt Disney Studios productions made with producer Jerry Bruckheimer, both were based on source material that doesn't usually spawn good film adaptations (theme park rides & video games). Heck, Disney even gave Prince of Perisa the late May release date Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End broke box office records in.

Prince of Persia, it turns out, was no Pirates. Grossing a disastrous $90 million domestically, Prince took in just $336 million worldwide on a $150 million budget. Though a better performer than subsequent mega-Disney bombs like John Carter and The Lone Ranger, this was still a disappointing turn that ensured Disney wouldn't be bankrolling further adventures of Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal).

But why exactly did Prince of Persia fail to replicate the Pirates of the Caribbean thunder? Prince of Persia was bad, but were there other reasons this Pirates imitator couldn't go the distance either at the box office or with audiences. Who else wants to break them down in an in-depth fashion? In the process, we'll all probably put more thought into Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time than any of the people involved in making it! Hey-o!

The Story & Characters

Part of what makes The Curse of the Black Pearl such fun to watch is that the three principal characters are all underdogs. Will Turner, for example, is just the apprentice to a local blacksmith. How could he ever earn the romantic affection of a governess like Elizabeth Swan, let alone face off against hordes of pirates? Meanwhile, Jack Sparrow's entire presence in Black Pearl is predicated on him being seen as a drunken buffoon only to actually be a far craftier soul. Elizabeth Swan comes from a more privileged background than Will or Jack. However, she's still got to face the uphill climb of reasserting her own perspective in the face of societal perceptions that, as a woman, her only job is to marry a powerful man.

Prince of Persia wants to be the next Pirates so badly, but it clearly missed this crucial underdog element that defined the protagonists of Pirates. I mean, the title alone makes it clear that the lead character is a dude from a royal background. Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal) may have grown up as a street urchin but those days are long behind him once Prince of Persia begins. He's now one of the most powerful men in all of Persia. Dastan is not introduced as a regular person viewers can connect with but rather a guy who lays siege to any cities that even have whispers of carrying weapons that could destroy Persia. He's neither an underdog figure you could root for nor a wish-fulfillment fantasy character you want to be. He's mostly just boring while scenes of him laying waste to the city of Alamut make one wonder why he isn't the villain of the piece.

Female lead Tamina (Gemma Arterton) has no real personality to offer beyond fulfilling dual roles as an expository device and a love interest. Prince of Persia is already sinking based on its two boring lead characters and a similar sense of tedium plagues the supporting cast. Black Pearl wasn't just populated by underdogs. It was also home to a swarm of enjoyable backup players. A man with no tongue but a chatty parrot, Gibbs, Barbossa, Pintel & Ragetti, there are all kinds of amusing members of the cast beyond the central figures. Over in Prince of Persia, though, few in the supporting cast really leave an impression. 

Alfred Molina has moments of comedic inspiration as Sheik Amar but when even Ben Kingsley is phoning it in during a villain role, you know a movie is struggling to deliver distinct characters. Audiences can't survive on spectacle alone. We need characters we can connect to, whose adventures, romances, and triumphs we can get swept up in. Ten years later, does anyone even remember Prince Garsiv of Persia? Is there a moment from Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time that stands out as memorably fun? The answer to such questions is "no" and much of that comes down to the forgettable nature of the characters.

Lack of Subversion

Pirates of the Caribbean helped break a massive dry spell for pirate movies. Previously, the likes of Cutthroat Island and Treasure Planet had become such massive box office bombs that it seemed like pirate films were automatic box office poison. But then The Curse of the Black Pearl managed to do something extraordinary. On the one hand, it managed to rejuvenate this subgenre by bringing plenty of new elements to the table. Jack Sparrow was unlike any other pirate in movie history while the central premise of pirates wanting to return, not find, gold was a stroke of subversive genius. But Black Pearl also made no bones about being a pirate adventure. It reveled in "Yo-ho-ho!"'s, rum, pirate flags and every other staple of pirates in pop culture. 

Meanwhile, Prince of Persia belongs to the sword and sandals genre. Whereas Pirates was the first live-action blockbuster in decades to really lend boatloads of money and spectacle to the world of pirate movies, sword and sandals movies have had actually been quite popular prior to Prince of Persia. The Mummy in 1999 and especially the subsequent years' Gladiator brought the genre roaring back to life in the modern era. Since then, tons of other sword and sandals blockbusters tried their best to replicate the Mummy/Gladiator formula. This not only lent less of an event status to Prince of Persia in 2010 but it also meant that it didn't have something to prove.

Pirates had to be subversive to be the first successful entry in the Pirates subgenre in decades. Prince of Persia, meanwhile, relied on a more tired narrative as it planned to ride on the coattails of the success of recent sword and sandal movies. Director Mike Newell didn't plan to reinvent the wheel with Prince of Persia and that led to a problem. For one thing, just from a marketing standpoint alone, the film wasn't all that distinctive. How could Prince of Persia stand out from the glut of Gladiator knock-off's that had emerged in the last ten years? Worst of all, though, it meant that the movie itself was utterly forgettable. Pirates of the Caribbean was a breath of fresh air whereas Prince of Persia was as stale as could.

It Didn't Fit the Disney Brand

We've looked at the artistic reasons why Prince of Persia fell short. Now let's look at a key marketing reason for its box office demise, one that actually reflects a lot about the kind of Disney movies that usually find the most success.

Most movie studios aren't adherent to one type of movie. Certain parts of their past may be (the '30s saw Universal being known for horror,  the '50s saw Columbia being famous for noirs), but not usually the whole studio. Disney, meanwhile, is known for family films and especially ones that utilize brand names associated with Disney. Even when they expand outside of that field a bit to PG-13 blockbusters kids can see, it's usually with brand names like Marvel and Star Wars they've bought outright. In 2020, it's rare to see a theatrical Disney release based on material the studio doesn't outright own.

That wasn't the case as late as 10 years ago. In fact, in 2010, it was still common for Disney to crib intellectual property from other studios. For example, Disney partnered up with Walden Media for the first two film adaptations of The Chronicles of Narnia. Narnia may not have been something Disney owned but its family-friendly nature made it a perfect fit for the Disney moniker. On a conceptual level, Prince of Persia, meanwhile, was based on a 2003 video game that didn't have much in the way of family appeal.

Whereas Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl compensated for its darker nature by being based on a property from the Disney family, Prince of Persia always seemed like an odd fit for Walt Disney Pictures. It didn't have a familiar name audience could trust nor was it an original title that had the kind of family-friendly appeal people associated with the Disney name. If Prince of Persia had its own compelling distinct identity, then this whole point would be moot. But being a generic Pirates/Mummy knock-off only compounded problems Prince of Persia had with fitting into the Disney family. Sticking a Disney logo on intense trailers for a PG-13 action movie just made the whole affair seem even more puzzling. Why was this being released by Disney beyond the Mouse Hourse and producer Jerry Bruckheimer wanting another taste of the Pirates of the Caribbean gold?

Writing about how Prince of Persia doesn't really fit into the rigidly-enforced "Disney identity" did give me an amusing vision of what would have happened if Prince of Persia had actually been a box office hit. Would Disneyland have started trotting out parades with some buff guy dressed up as Dastan flipping a sword around on a float right after the Frozen float? Maybe that's in that alternate timeline NASA just found...

In Conclusion...

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time was probably always a doomed project. That's not to say a film adaptation of this video game would inherently be bad. Rather, a film adaptation made under the pretense of trying to make the Pirates of the Caribbean lighting strike twice was always going to go poorly. The Curse of the Black Pearl was such an accidental fluke that was enhanced by spur-of-the-moment creative decisions as well as bold story details that subverted pirate movie norms. Meanwhile, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is rigidly going through the motions as it tries to replicate the aesthetic of the Pirates movies and generic sword-and-sandal adventure movies. 

How could Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time ever obtain the free-spirited inventiveness of The Curse of the Black Pearl when it's so busy following in the footsteps of older movies? In the process, $150 million and a prospective franchise went down the drain. If Prince of Persia really wanted to take a cue from the original Pirates movie, it should have allowed its creators to do the bold, the unexpected. Adhering to a formula will only result in formulaic films like Prince of Persia, not the kind of creative gems that spawn hackneyed knock-off's.

Before we all forget Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time for all of time, let's all remember this actual billboard for the movie, which featured its release date in such a massive size that it dwarfed both its title and lead actors. Who needs Jake Gyllenhaal when you've got "MAY 28"?

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