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Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas   C-

DreamWorks Pictures

Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: PG
Directors: Patrick Gilmore, Tim Johnson
Writer: John Logan
Cast: Brad Pitt, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Joseph Fiennes, Michelle Pfeiffer, Dennis Haysbert.

Review by Rob Vaux

In a few days, Walt Disney Pictures will release Pirates of the Caribbean, a swashbuckling adventure in the same spirit as DreamWorks' new Sinbad. Given the rivalry between the two companies, it's hard to believe that the timing is a coincidence. They've been going at it like cats and dogs ever since Disney exec Jeffrey Katzenberg jumped ship to help form DreamWorks. Unfortunately, his efforts on Sinbad can't match those of his former employers. Pirates of the Caribbean is precisely the sort of cotton-candy fun that summer was made for. Sinbad, on the other hand, is what we politely refer to as a Babysitter Movie; that is, if you throw it in the VCR, you can be reasonably assured that the kids will pay attention to it instead of getting into the kitchen knives. Other than that, it offers nothing that any of a hundred other animated movies haven't done better.

The central problem lies in the film's homogenized nature. Directors Tim Johnson and Patrick Gilmore don't ever stray far from the stereotypes (both technical and thematic) that have come to define recent animation. The adventures of Sinbad and his crew have enthralled filmmakers since the Douglas Fairbanks days; here, the filmmakers have simply crammed him into the pertinent formula. They give him a quest involving great danger, recovering a magic book from the evil goddess Eris (voiced by Michelle Pfeiffer); a feisty heroine sidekick (voiced by Catherine Zeta-Jones) out to prove she can do things just as well as a man; a group of quasi-humorous sidekicks topped by a drooly dog that will probably look great on a Burger King glass; and a set of important life lessons to learn (and teach the kids), as well as wink-wink nudge-nudge jokes to tell (and keep the adults from growing too bored).

Sinbad himself is voiced by Brad Pitt, who might otherwise be a perfect fit for such a character. The only trouble is, there isn't much of a character with which to work. Bland and obtuse, he appears to have started out as a lovable rogue in the Han Solo vein. But his creators have invested him with little real distinctiveness. His heroics are awfully forced, and he appears whiny and sulky in scenes that are presumably intended to convey his independent spirit. It doesn't help that Johnson and Gilmore downplay his Arabian Nights roots by transferring him to a Mediterranean setting and surrounding him with elements of Greek mythology (such as watery sirens, cities like Thebes and Syracuse, and Eris herself). There's nothing inherently wrong with the decision, save that it further dilutes his personality to the point of nonexistence. They could have called this film Odysseus or Jason and not changed a single thing besides the name.

The style of animation, too, has problems. The directors have chosen to combine computer-generated images (used for the ships, landscapes, and monsters) with traditional hand-drawn techniques (used for the characters). The two never mesh well, resulting in a look that's technically proficient but creatively jumbled. The various action scenes, trundled out with clockwork regularity, are basically watchable, but lack the flair for fun that they really need and the constant tension between classic art and CGI distracts us from the story. The characters' simply drawn visages drain them of personality, leaving generic-looking figures in their wake. The one bright spot is Eris, who slinks around the screen like sentient octopus ink. Pfeiffer broke out her Catwoman voice special for the occasion, and Sinbad perks up demonstrably whenever the Goddess of Discord appears. She's the only element you won't forget five minutes after leaving the theater.

DreamWorks Animation has become an industry force in a very short time, and has some brilliant feathers in its cap. Sinbad feels more like a stopgap than an actual production: something to make a little money while they finish their next real picture. Considering the voice talents involved, we should expect better than by-the-numbers filler. If there were nothing else out there, it might be easier to forgive. But Finding Nemo is still playing all over the country and Pirates of the Caribbean will be along shortly. Either of them will give you what you're looking for better than Sinbad. In the ongoing battle between Disney and DreamWorks, score this round to the mouse.

Review published 07.07.2003.

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