SINBAD: LEGEND OF THE SEVEN SEAS
Our rating:
(PG: violence)
Starring: Voices of Brad Pitt, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Michelle Pfeiffer, Joseph Fiennes, Dennis Haysbert.
Directors: Tim Johnson and Patrick Gilmore.
Running time: 1 hr. 26 min.
Playing: Wide release.
In a nutshell: Sometimes striking but more often strained comedy/action cartoon in which the "Arabian Nights" mariner somehow winds up in a Greek adventure.

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7/3/2003

Some plunder, not much thunder


By Bob Strauss
Film Critic


In the, um, grand tradition of "Treasure Planet,' "Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas' sets tall, animated ships a'sail on a voyage to nowhere particularly engaging.

This DreamWorks baby messes with the "Arabian Nights' source material in a way that may have seemed cool at the planning stage but may leave grown-ups or older kids familiar with the Sinbad stories wondering what they were thinking.

The Greek context in this screen version won't be winning us any new friends in Baghdad or its vicinity, either. ("Gladiator' scripter John Logan gets credit for that.) Nevertheless, a few of Scheherazade's noteworthy inventions -- a ravenous flying Roc, the island that turns out to be a very large sea creature -- are captivatingly visualized here. And Sinbad himself maintains his rakish, mercenary fundamentals.

Still, "Sinbad' is oceans away from "Aladdin's' masterful mix of Middle Eastern authenticity and contemporary Western entertainment values. It tries to make the voyage, though. Oh, how strenuously it tries.

As the roving privateer, Brad Pitt provides his best "Dude!' voice, which unfortunately isn't made for anachronistic one-liners such as "Stand by for sushi!' He and his crew are out to steal some mystical tome called the Book of Peace and sell it to the highest bidder. Trouble is, his best buddy, Proteus, Prince of Syracuse (Joseph Fiennes), is in charge of seeing the powerful publication rightly installed in, well, Syracuse.

But there's a bigger problem than Sinbad's torn loyalty between his desire to retire comfortably in Fiji (yes, it's an odd reference for ancient times, especially in a film that actually shows the world to be flat) and the only decent, brotherly impulse he's ever known. It seems chaos goddess Eris wants the book for her own mischievous purposes. When, disguised as Sinbad, the shape-shifting witch makes off with the tome, Proteus bets his own life that the real Sinbad will sail to Eris' edge-of-the-world lair and bring it back.

Just to make sure that bad boy doesn't head for the tropics instead, Proteus' feisty fiancee, Marina, stows on board. Once discovered, she and the skipper trade elementary, hate-you-'cause-I'm-afraid-I-love-you barbs. But Marina proves herself a valued mate when, cruising through a stretch of shipwrecking sirens, a woman's perspective at the helm makes all the difference.

Marina is voiced by Catherine Zeta-Jones, and like most of the vocal talent here, even her usually sharp delivery sounds blunted and generic. The only actor who rises to the high-water level of wit and emotion reached earlier this year on the soundtracks of "Finding Nemo' is Michelle Pfeiffer, who infuses wicked Catwoman glee into every one of Eris' nefarious lies.

Similarly, Eris proves to be "Sinbad's' finest visual element as she smoothly changes size, position, proportions and other aspects of her open relationship to the space-time continuum. Except for some of the monsters, a few ship shots, by-now overseen Maxfield Parrish-style backgrounds and the occasional flock of flying fish, there is little else in the movie that comes close to being expertly animated.

The action scenes tend to have a herky-jerky quality that Disney seemed to lick way back around the time of "Sleeping Beauty.' Faces are too angular and their expressions consequently puppetlike. And when sequences morph between the predominant hand-drawn and computer graphics, the textural differences are pronounced and annoyingly distracting.

Co-director Tim Johnson served similar duty on the witty "Antz.' Partner Patrick Gilmore comes from a video game background. Neither appears to have an inspired feel for traditional animation. But then, "Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas' could have had a more inspiring story -- like, maybe, one of the seven original "Voyages.'

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Bob Strauss, (818) 713-3670 and bob.strauss@dailynews.com