One would think that Hollywood studios making conventional animated movies would have learned by now that juvenile adventure plots will no longer cut the mustard. One after another pictures along those lines have failed–from “Titan A.E.” to “Atlantis: The Lost Continent” and “The Road to El Dorado.” Those, of course, were mediocre pictures to begin with, but even a superior one like “Treasure Planet” tanked. Now DreamWorks offers an updated version of the old Sinbad saga, which has served as the basis for innumerable live-action movies, Saturday-morning serials and TV series. The makers use the most refined visual techniques in telling their story–the big action sequences are quite beautifully rendered, with swirling seas and sweeping sands, a couple of impressive monsters for the hero to fight, and some imaginative touches to color the realms of the sorceress-villain Eris and the captivating sirens. (The character animation is far less impressive.) A strong element of female empowerment has also been added to the plot (here the girl saves the guy, rather than the reverse, at some points), while the script is peppered with contemporary bits–anachronistic verbal quips and even a glimpse of the hero’s naked buttocks–to make it more palatable to today’s audiences. And big stars have been enlisted to voice the major roles. Despite all the effort, however, “Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas” never catches fire; the picture boasts a plethora of battles and breath-taking escapes, but it seems curiously tame, and though it’s been given some modern touches, it remains oddly old-fashioned. The hero’s boat makes it back to port after a multitude of near-disasters, but the movie sinks.
When “Sinbad” opens, we find the title hero (voiced by Brad Pitt) preparing to attack a ship carrying a great treasure–the magical “Book of Peace” being transported to Syracuse to secure tranquillity within the league the city heads. After Sinbad boards the vessel, however, he finds the cargo protected by his old childhood pal Prince Proteus (Joseph Fiennes), and before the two can do battle over the artifact, they must join forces to defeat a monster sent against them by the goddess of chaos, Eris (Michelle Pfeiffer). Though everyone makes it back to Syracuse, Eris frames Sinbad for her theft of the book, and the faithful Proteus puts his life on the line to give his friend an opportunity to retrieve it. The prince’s betrothed, Marina (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a very liberated lady, stows away on the voyage to keep Sinbad’s eye on the prize, and ends up both rescuing the sailors on several occasions and being rescued by them on others. To save Proteus, Sinbad will have to outgrow his boyishly selfish ways and gain a sense of responsibility. Conversely Proteus will have to decide whether an arranged marriage should stand in the way of the attraction that grows between Sinbad and Marina during their dangerous voyage.
This might all sound like pretty heavy going, but it’s played in lighthearted fashion. Sinbad is a charming, devil-may-care sort, of the old Errol Flynn-Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckling school, and he engages in lots of high-flying derring-do, as well as tiresomely cute verbal sparring with Marina. His crew includes plenty of comic relief figures, including a pesky, drooling dog called Spike. Eris is–though I hesitate to say this in describing a picture co-produced by Jeffrey Katzenberg–a Disneyesque villainess, slinky and seductive, Marina’s the now-obligatory feisty girl who proves to be no mere damsel in distress, and Proteus is the sturdy, understanding alternative to the dashing hero. (Just think of him as the Ashley Wilkes character, while Sinbad is Rhett Butler.) The problem is that all these elements–story and characterization both–have a familiar, formulaic feel, and the picture’s spin on the old material never shows the spark of inspiration that could make the result magical (as Disney’s “Aladdin” did). Even the voice work, despite the name cast employed, never rises above the ordinary. It’s very doubtful whether it will have any particular appeal for kids, who’ll find it predictable and mostly tedious.
One can admire the labor and artistry that have gone into “Sinbad.” But though visually pretty, it’s bland, and though filled with action, it’s curiously enervated. One leaves the movie with a sense of nostalgia for the old Ray Harryhausen Sinbad flicks–“The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad,” in particular. They had a sense of childish enchantment that this new effort doesn’t manage to recapture.