In 2003, after more than a decade of producing films for Disney’s adult imprints Touchstone, Hollywood, and Buena Vista Pictures, Jerry Bruckheimer made Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl for the family-oriented flagship, Walt Disney Pictures. It was a turning point for both Bruckheimer, who was best known for sleek, wham-bam R-rated action movies, and G/PG-haven Disney, which, for the first time, took on PG-13s for all three installments of the Pirates trilogy. Needless to say, it paid off. Bruckheimer followed those three international blockbusters with two lucrative National Treasure movies (a third is on the way), and, this week, starts a third series with Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. These would seem to have little in common with Bruckheimer’s ’80s or ’90s hits like Flashdance or Bad Boys, but he has remained a master of crossover contraptions, and with these series, he’s proven to be Disney’s ideal steward for the 21st century. Here’s why:
Producer as Auteur
The name above the title says it all. Although many of cinema’s greatest craftsmen have worked for the studio, Walt’s vision—actual, marketed, and spiritually inherited—has always outranked individual expression, and credit always goes to the brand. Robert Stevenson directed more than a dozen Disney films, from Old Yeller to Mary Poppins, but only the most die-hard auteur could peg his name to those titles. And though Bruckheimer has collaborated with high-profile iconoclasts like Michael Bay, Tony Scott, and Joel Schumacher, the producer’s magic-hour bombast was always primary. Everyone knows what a “Bruckheimer film” is. Under the Disney-Bruckheimer command, Pirates director Gore Verbinski or Persia chameleon Mike Newell are more like highly accomplished field generals than artists realizing a personal project.
Everything for Everyone
Unlike kid-friendly, adult-repellent studio fare like Underdog, or the Shaggy Dog and Herbie films of an earlier era, Bruckheimer’s Disney films are “four quadrant pictures,” meaning they’re designed to please both children and adults, men and women. But Bruckheimer doesn’t just cover these bases—he blankets the whole field. He starts with a simple, durable, universally compelling classical structure—all three series are quest narratives with a subtext of romance—from which he can tentacle out to micro-demographics like maritime history buffs, armchair code breakers, and rum lovers. Most crucially, his casts are deliberately scattershot, bundling together heartthrobs (Orlando Bloom, Jake Gyllenhaal), It girls (Keira Knightley), Oscar winners (Nicolas Cage, Ben Kingsley), slumming interlopers (Johnny Depp, Diane Kruger), and stage-trained hams (Bill Nighy, Alfred Molina), calculating that even a well-cast bit player can broaden a film’s appeal. The finished products reflect this 52-pick-up mentality, shifting around violently in tone and quality, but Bruckheimer trades coherence for the economic benefits of being everything to everyone.
Erasing the Real
In 1996, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard wrote of Disney Co.: “It is not only interested in erasing the real by turning it into a three-dimensional virtual image with no depth, but it also seeks to erase time by synchronizing all the periods, all the cultures, in a single traveling motion, by juxtaposing them in a single scenario.” His description sounds a lot like this year’s model, Prince of Persia, which indeed synchronizes ancient history, mythology, modern sensibilities, high-tech computer wizardry, an Eastern setting, and a Western cast into one über action/romance/comedy/adventure/epic. We’re not really meant to buy Jake Gyllenhaal as a Persian, but are instead asked to imagine a Persian prince as a British-accented, GNC-toned, facially groomed American actor. Rooted in “Wonderful World of Disney” exotic travelogues, Disneyland’s safari ride, and Epcot Center’s one-stop world tour, Prince of Persia brings foreign lands right to you, and they look and sound much like home.
Thy Magic Kingdom Come
After making a blockbuster trilogy from an in-house amusement park ride (Pirates of the Caribbean) and casting various American landmarks as movie sets for National Treasure, Bruckheimer’s latest colonizes as much culture as it can carry. Yet for a movie that’s based on a video game (Jordan Mechner’s Prince of Persia) and samples everything from Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars, and Flash Gordon to Arabian Nights and Excalibur, Disney remains the alpha, omega, and everything in between. “A strange thing happened,” Mechner wrote in his journal in 1985, four years before completing the original game and 25 years before Bruckheimer’s full-circle fruition. “I started getting images in my head of the characters: the Sultan. The Princess. The Boy. I saw the scenes in my mind as if it were a Disney movie.”