Review: “Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas”

One has to feel for those involved in the traditionally animated feature film industry. Ten years ago the likes of “Aladdin” and “The Lion King” did so much business it seemed that toon features were the ultimate symbol of not only quality filmmaking but lots of moolah from the public.

Since “The Lion King” and Jeffrey Katzenberg’s defection from Disney however, the genre has been on a one way spiral downwards – “Pocohantas”, “Hercules”, “Anastasia”, “The Road to El Dorado”, “The Prince of Egypt”, “Spirit” etc. have all been greeted with mixed reaction at best by both the public and the critics whilst even the few success stories ala “Lilo & Stitch” lack that magic which was present not that long ago.

To add insult to injury the computer-animated feature industry is now sitting where the toons did back in the early 90’s as the king of the heap with for the most part a consistent track record of excellent films compared to the crap traditionally animated features that have been shovelled out (there’s always exceptions to the rule though, the awful “Final Fantasy” and the brilliant “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut” for example). As a result, fans have been eagerly awaiting a comeback vehicle that’ll push traditionally animated movies back into the spotlight.

“Sinbad” is not that movie, but the seeds are here that it could have been. A better film than similarly male-oriented adventure fantasies like “Titan A.E.” and “Atlantis”, this update of the old Arabian nights tales is short, sharp, fun and designed with a rather lustrous palette of intriguing design and colour. However it may have been due to production or money problems but there’s also some glaring faults which make this feel more like a work in progress rather than a completed feature.

From the rather hokey integration of CG monsters with traditional animation, to most glaringly a tacked on ending which feels like a good 20 minutes of footage has been yanked out of the film’s guts (how in the hell did the crew get back home just like that?). Voice talent is fine but not great, oddly it seems a lot of good looking actors were hired for parts which is perfunctory for a animated film where you never see them. Of those involved Catherine Zeta-Jones probably comes out the best and plays up her Zorro type personality of fun as the beautiful but adventure-seeking Marina.

The purr-fect Michelle Pfeiffer on the other hand whilst having a good voice makes Eris seem more like a whining goddess than a truly dangerous threat although her wispy movement trick is impressive. Pitt as Sinbad has that likeable rogue quality to his voice, but it just doesn’t fit the character and stays rather monotone in scenes where real voice work is required. Fiennes plays it utterly flat which entirely matches his poorly written character, but Haysbert has fun as the first mate.

From a design standpoint, a lot of this movie is quite beautiful. From the cityscapes of Syracuse and the constellation cartographic map inspired heavens, to the watery Sirens (what’s a Greek myth doing amidst the Arabian nights?) and the constantly shifting environment in Eris’ realm, the backgrounds and environments here are amongst some of the best work in an animated feature in an age.

Same can’t be said for the computer-generated monsters who from a design perspective are nice, but the 3D animated look does not work well within the 2D environment. In fact many sequences involving them such as the Roc ice chase to the creature boat attack at the start feel exactly like a video game sequence but without the interactivity. Its a great promo for the game tie-in sure, but in terms of story it feels somewhat silly.

I guess that’s why its a real shame that the beauty and majesty of these designs are let down by John Logan’s flat script with unengaging characters and a limp attempt at a story. Like the Summer blockbusters its going up against, this feels like the filmmakers came up with an idea for about three or four great action sequences and tried to assemble a story around them.

At a brisk 80-something minutes there’s little time for dawdling or fodder which keeps the pace moving quite fast, but also makes things such as the Sinbad/Marina romance seem forced and trite at best whilst a lot of the attempts at humour only work to a small degree including I kid you not, an in-joke about Brad Pitt’s ass.

Like all road movies its all about the journey there, the journey back normally gets a brief glimpse or some coverage once the task is done. Here though you have what is basically the ultimate anti-climax ending with one minute our heroes seemingly trapped in a mystical realm with no escape and then all of a sudden they are back where they started to try and save the day just in time. I’m not sure what in the hell happened here, but its really just sloppy filmmaking. Sadly that’s how “Sinbad” is going to be remembered, a film that almost was great.

Had they hired better writers and spent time working on a decent script, and had the designers spent a bit more time together fixing up that combination CG/hand-drawn integration problem, this could’ve worked. The potential of a fun adventure tale along Harryhausen lines is right here but instead we have something which has a definite spark trying to struggle out of a jumbled mess of a movie. Nice try Mr. Katzenberg, but not a winner this round.