With " Prince of Persia," producer Jerry Bruckheimer must be hoping that he can once again bring back a lost world of movie fantasy. Will it do for Arabian Nights adventures what "Pirates of the Caribbean" did for pirate movies? It's based on a video game, not a theme-park ride, but it follows the same formula: Boil down a genre's main ingredients and mix them with a newfangled star, in this case Jake Gyllenhaal, not Johnny Depp.
Arabian Nights movies have always been filled with scrappy gutter waifs, scheming royal advisers, heroic or ignoble princes and princesses, daft or deadly monarchs, and otherworldly demons, as well as concepts like "the Sands of Time." So is the plot of "Prince of Persia."
But old-time producers rooted the best Arabian Nights movies in a quality no amount of money or mere ingenuity can buy: the zest of exuberant actors. Performers such as Douglas Fairbanks and Sabu relished the humor and physicality of over-the-top exploits. They had swashbuckling soul.
Even if Gyllenhaal has trained hard to look and act the title role of "Prince of Persia," he may not have the right performing attitude to put across the glee of a gravity- (and logic-) defying adventure. What counts for movies like these is not just the time a star spends bulking up at the gym (and, in this case, studying that fleet athletic art called parkour). It's the spirit of outlandish adventure.
That's the spirit Fairbanks defines in "The Thief of Bagdad" (1924, available on a beautifully tinted DVD from Kino). He overflows euphoria. He's different from the action heroes we usually see today. He's got the body of an acrobat, not a bodybuilder: It's as taut, agile and graceful as it is powerful. His wedgelike torso probably served as the model for the first comic book superheroes. And as the star of an Arabian Nights extravaganza, he gets to be faster than a speeding street mob, more powerful than a Mongol army, able to leap tall castles with a single bound. Fairbanks wrote the script (pseudonymously) and, as the producer, hired director Raoul Walsh and art director William Cameron Menzies. But Fairbanks the actor is his most astonishing creation.
As a thief who lives by the seat of his harem pants, Fairbanks displays the atavistic instincts of a dog (able to sniff out dinner cooking and then steal it) and the reflexes of a master gymnast (descending a collapsing magic rope). His romantic impudence spurs him to court a princess and abandon his life of petty crime. Even more than the movie's special-effects and design wizards, Fairbanks wins our applause — and laughter — whether he's fending off monsters or racing over the backs of worshippers bowed in prayer. Fairbanks' seductively outrageous movie — co-starring Snitz Edwards as his droll sidekick, sinuous Julanne Johnston as the princess, So-Jin as the creepy Mongol villain and Anna May Wong as the princess' beautiful, treacherous Mongol slave — is an adolescent daydream come true.
The other great Arabian Nights movie — another "Thief of Bagdad," this one from 1940 (and available on a first-class Criterion DVD) — appeals directly to early childhood yearnings. It's one of the four or five best kids' films ever made. The teenage Sabu embodies the title character as the right-hand urchin of a prince ( John Justin) dethroned by a Wagnerian vizier-wizard named Jaffar (Conrad Veidt) who threatens to wed the prince's true love (June Duprez). Sabu, not Justin, acts out the splashiest derring-do — mastering a genie played with gusto by Rex Ingram and wresting the All-Seeing Eye from the Goddess of Night, who lives on the Roof of the World.
Caught in the Goddess' castle between a fearsome spider and a couple of octopuses, Sabu rouses children's worst fears of the sky above and the sea below, only to vanquish those fears lustily. Unlike watered-down family adventures, this "Thief of Bagdad" indulges kids' revenge fantasies. But the film's more idyllic conceits are just as striking as its action. This is an Arabian Nights spectacle that takes place mostly during the Arabian Days, under a sun that shimmers on palace turrets and turns brown-skinned men to bronze. (Alexander Korda produced it; a whole court of directing royalty, including Michael Powell and the ubiquitous William Cameron Menzies, enriched it with their visions.) "The Thief of Bagdad" creates a child's-eye view of a golden age — and thus captures how children feel when they first discover the real world and think it's magical.
There's a straight line from this "Thief of Bagdad" to Disney's uproarious cartoon "Aladdin" (1992). Robin Williams' Genie is the character who provides the cartoon with its extravagant physicality. The animators give the Genie a big, malleable mug and a protean shape — improbably top-heavy, with a bulging torso trailing down into wisps. The combination of outsize, eclectic drawings and Williams' ebullience imbues the film with a febrile emotional ambience.
In John Musker and Ron Clements' animated feature (written by "Pirates of the Caribbean" scribes Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio), Aladdin is another restless street urchin who is also, according to prophecy, the diamond in the rough destined to enter the Cave of Wonders and take possession of the Enchanted Lamp. A towering vizier-wizard named, again, Jafar (though with just one "f"), vies with Aladdin for the hand of the Sultan's daughter. (Aladdin has a light-fingered monkey sidekick called Abu, also the name of Sabu's thief.)
In the 1940 "Thief of Bagdad," the Sultan swaps his daughter for a flying horse because he loves gimmicks and toys; he even wishes his subjects were toys, so they would do whatever he wanted. "Aladdin," too, features a toy-loving Sultan. Like the Sabu "Thief of Bagdad," it indulges our childlike love of gadgets while warning us against getting lost in playland.
In light of this tradition, it's woefully ironic that the dagger shifting the sands of time in "Prince of Persia" operates a bit like the joystick in a vintage video-arcade game.