A passably entertaining animated entry from DreamWorks that’s closer to “The Road to El Dorado” than to “Shrek,” “Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas” tries too strenuously to contemporize ancient settings and characters for the sake of connecting with modern kids. Spiked with action that’s mostly enacted by a spirited pair of characters appealing to both boys and girls, pic mixes elements of Greek and Roman odysseys, pirate antics and the classic Arabian Night tales suggested by the title character — with femme empowerment and scary-monster seasoning included for good measure. The new trappings notwithstanding, there’s a prevailing old-school feel to this traditional adventure saga, so there’s a chance it could go the way of Disney’s “Treasure Planet,” although it’s more likely distrib will find a way to push it to the midrange level of last summer’s in-betweener, “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron.”
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Hodge-podge impression extends beyond the combo of story elements to nearly every other important aspect of the film. Visually, it’s a mix of 2-D drawn animation for the characters and backgrounds with infinitely sharper, more realistic 3-D computer animation for Sinbad’s ship and many of the creatures and effects. Time frame is treated in completely cavalier fashion. The main land setting is ancient Syracuse, while the relationships of the characters to the gods is much like that in Greek myths. But all Sinbad and his pirates really want to do is hightail it out of the Mediterranean for the dancing girls of Fiji.
None of this will bother the intended audience, although younger kids may have trouble grasping the grownup issues of honor and trust involved in Prince Proteus’ decision to put his own neck on the line for his faith in Sinbad, and latter’s change of heart about what he should do on his old friend’s behalf.
Penned by “Gladiator” co-writer John Logan, script has the basic form of a more chaste version of the King Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot story, with a young prince’s feisty intended bride-to-be bolting from the royal nest to gallivant around with the errant great warrior of the realm. Format provides a good narrative hook, but more relevant here is that it serves as a way for a female to share in the major action, which she does with high, if completely anachronistic, style.
Lording it over the characters is Eris (voiced by Michelle Pfeiffer), the goddess of discord, who can slither from sphere to sphere, change shape, send in monsters, create natural disasters and pretty much play humans like so many pawns. Eris is hot to lay her hands on the Book of Peace, which Proteus (Joseph Fiennes), prince of Syracuse, is transporting home. When, after an initial shipboard skirmish, Sinbad (Brad Pitt) doesn’t make off with the hallowed book as intended, Eris, who derives her greatest fun from watching chaos rule the world, nabs it but makes it look like Sinbad has stolen the tome, leading the elders of Syracuse to condemn the fun-loving troublemaker to death.
But Proteus doesn’t believe Sinbad is to blame and insists upon exercising his right to replace his childhood pal on the executioner’s block. Upshot is that Sinbad has 10 days to recover the book or Proteus will perish under the blade.
As he sets sail from Syracuse, which resembles a stunning seaside Shangri-La, Sinbad has no intention of searching for the book or returning at all. But an alluring shipboard stowaway, Marina (Catherine Zeta-Jones), Proteus’ dynamic fiancee, quickly changes his mind, and the twosome, along with Sinbad’s lively crew, which most prominently includes the muscular Kale (Dennis Haysbert) and the more diminutive Rat (Adriano Giannini), change course toward Eris’ home in the forbidding land of Tartarus.
In concocting obstacles for the crew to surmount during its urgent journey, Logan, directors Tim Johnson (co-director of “Antz”) and Patrick Gilmore (an interactive-game veteran) and their animation team have come up with some nifty creatures. There are nicely designed slithery sirens; an island that eventually reveals itself as a giant fish; and, most spectacular of all, a fearsome snowbird that resembles a Concorde with talons as it repeatedly swoops at Sinbad and Marina.
Despite Marina’s fearlessly game approach to life and her success in overcoming adversity, Sinbad persists in being condescending to her, as if she were a pitiable creature needing to be rescued at every turn. She won’t take his attitude, of course, and so vinegary are their exchanges that at times they seem to be enacting a junior edition of “The Taming of the Shrew.” In the long haul, Marina gets the better of all this, and despite the fact that her leotard sash and Capri pants wardrobe makes her look like a sprightly Broadway dancer of the ’50s, the stowaway, courtesy of an engagingly energetic vocal performance by Zeta-Jones, comes off as very good company indeed.
What with the overriding concerns about loyalty, trust, doing the right thing and good prevailing over evil, the dialogue, especially Sinbad’s, is simply too often inane and Yank-modern colloquial. “Stand by for sushi,” Sinbad exclaims before making an aquatic kill, and many subsequent comments would sound more fitting coming from the mouths of the Spy Kids or Agent Cody Banks than from figures of antiquity, however updated and reconfigured. Surrounded by the Britishness of Zeta-Jones and Fiennes, and the sultry/frisky voicings by Pfeiffer, whose suggestions of a lonely woman with longings for the irrepressible Sinbad add a mature dimension to her goddess role, Pitt’s all-American intonations accentuate this.
Music by DreamWorks regular Harry Gregson-Williams is vigorously supportive.
In its animated work, DreamWorks has repeatedly flip-flopped between the hip and the square. This time out, it’s as if the company tried to apply a hip approach to a square subject, with unresolved results.