DreamWorks' Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas pulls into port only a week before Walt Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, the theme-park-ride-inspired, Jerry Bruckheimer-produced spectacle with a screenplay co-written by the very men responsible for last year's Disney-made animated flop Treasure Planet, a deep-space swashbuckler adapted from the Robert Louis Stevenson novel set in deep seas.
And this Sinbad's precursors are not so much the beguiling, stop-motion Ray Harryhausen productions, dating back to The 7th Voyage of Sinbad in 1958, but the Indiana Jones and James Bond franchises, from which the cartoon swipes its escape routes through treacherous waters and down icy mountainsides. Pirates have nothing on screenwriters and movie-studio executives when it comes to plundering; beware buccaneers driving Porsche Cayennes. One expects to see DreamWorks boss Jeffrey Katzenberg, formerly of Disney and still bloodlusting for vengeance, sporting an eyepatch and hoisting the Jolly Roger on Entertainment Tonight. Ahoy vey.
Were it not for the high-priced talent, heard but not seen -- "Michelle Pfeiffer's in a cartoon, and Carnie Wilson's in Playboy. Reverse that," said an aggrieved Howard Stern -- Sinbad could well have been dry-docked on video shelves. With its now-familiar blend of traditional 2-D animated characters and shimmering 3-D computer-rendered backgrounds, it doesn't leave much of an impression. It's not till near film's end that the animation enraptures, during a desert sequence out of the Simpsons episode in which Homer gets high on chili, and it doesn't help that characters in films like these all look the same now: angular and bland and oddly free of lips. It's as though one artist, or one computer, draws all of these movies.
Children will be entertained by some of Sinbad, with its occasional bursts of action followed by loooooong sequences of exposition ("Enough talking," growls Pfeiffer's evil goddess at one point), but little ones are enamored of any moving image projected at length on a huge screen in a dark room that provides frigid-air refuge in summer. Better still, if they can rush out of the theater and persuade their parents to purchase a Happy Meal action figure -- in which case, they're not so much finding Nemo or watching Nemo, say, as buying Nemo with a burger and fries and a chocolate shake. Word has it that kids at test screenings were far more interested in Sinbad's slobbering dog, Spike, than in the pirate himself, who's voiced by Brad Pitt with volume control still set at Ocean's Eleven. DreamWorks, alas, was forced to add several scenes of the marketable mutt, who will be stuffed and sold en masse.
Animated films tank only when parents sense that there's nothing of interest for them; it's amazing that studios haven't yet thought of offering shuttle buses to and from day-care centers, in order to eliminate the middlemom. Sinbad, yet another tale of the storybook pirate fending off monsters while on a quest for a Lost and Mythic Something or Other, tries desperately to play to parents. Wait till Junior asks, "Mommy, what's a brothel?" after one character holds up a bra dripping with diamonds, which she surmises was pilfered from a whorehouse. The movie, a bigger hodgepodge of samples and stolen riffs than any Puff Daddy production, would even fancy itself as a made-over African Queen: Sinbad and Marina (Catherine Zeta-Jones), sailing through rough waters, hate and flirt in equal measure, till at last theirs becomes an undeniable love. (Their banter, punctuated by the sound of slamming doors, is more Rock Hudson-Doris Day.)
Speaking of queens, not since The Road to El Dorado has a studio cartoon played so willfully, unabashedly gay: Sinbad's sent on his quest in order to save the life of his old friend Prince Proteus, whom the too-touchy Sinbad says he met during a sword fight -- and one presumes it wasn't at David Geffen's house. There's copious attention given to the hard, dangerously pointy nipples of Kale, a barrel- and bare-chested first mate voiced by 24's Dennis Haysbert; and there's even a relatively long, loving shot of Sinbad's partially revealed ass cheek. At least the movie doesn't skimp on accurate portrayals of long voyages at sea in close quarters, where men were men and women.
All Sinbad has going for it is Pfeiffer's Eris, the self-proclaimed Goddess of Discord, who resembles the wicked women of old Disney -- the queen from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs crossed with Maleficent of Sleeping Beauty. Eris appears as a form of fragile malevolence that can become giant-sized or turn into a trail of lingering smoke (from one of Cruella de Vil's cigarettes, perhaps); she's a teasing seductress trolling a land of eunuchs, a character trying to keep herself entertained, since no one else can amuse her. Eris, who lives in a land the entrance to which resembles an enormous vagina, and who's voiced by Pfeiffer as though it's last call and she's a little too lonely, enlivens an otherwise moribund and moralizing tale. It strives to teach children about sacrifice and loyalty, but never seems so engaged as when throwing harmless roadblocks in Sinbad's way. You come to wish for Eris to triumph -- or at least get her own three-picture deal at Disney.
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