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'Sinbad,' Blown Off Course
DreamWorks Tale Is More Hollywood Than Arabia

Sinbad (voice of Brad Pitt) and Proteus (Joseph Fiennes) on generic seas. (Dreamworks Via AP)

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By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 2, 2003; Page C01

If you were under the misimpression that Sinbad was a character in "1001 Arabian Nights," the new DreamWorks variation on that old story will set you straight. According to the gospel of SpielbergKatzenberg, the heroic sailor is a character conceived in 101 Hollywood nights at Spago.

"Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas," in fact, has nothing whatsoever to do with Arabic culture or any culture. The story has been cut loose from its historical moorings and transpires in a world that never was, as overseen by gods who never were, in lands that never existed, hard by seas that were never wet.

Chalk it up to a spirit of planetary ecumenism. And, of course, the businessman's practical grasp of market realities. But I, for one, will mourn the passing of the old tribalisms; I liked the exciting specificity of a divided world. It was nice when the Japanese had samurai, the English knights, the Arabians harems and the Greeks goddesses. This new mulch of place and thing may be safer but it sure is duller -- and maybe it's not even safer.

So the New Sinbad -- voiced, however improbably, by the very Yankee Doodle-dandy Brad Pitt -- plies a sea that encompasses a Fiji and a Syracuse but not an Alexandria. He is haunted by a god not called Allah or Buddha or God but, improbably, Eris. Eris? Yeah, and she's voiced by Michelle Pfeiffer -- you know, of the Valley Pfeiffers.

Eris is the Goddess of Chaos. Why would there be a Goddess of Chaos? I have no idea. She just likes to mess people up. Remember the fast, beautiful bad girl in high school? Eris is her, all grown up to be a goddess. So, just because it's her nature, she decides to diddle with the humans under her domain. She's like a kid dropping firecrackers on an anthill.

Her plot is to steal something called the Book of Peace, some sort of hazily defined religious gimcrack that keeps the cosmos on an even keel. What religion was that again? Anyway, first she bribes Sinbad to steal it, and when he fails, she steals it herself. Through plot manipulations left over from an Errol Flynn movie, he is forced to go recover it in the Land of Chaos, or his friend Proteus (Joseph Fiennes), the prince of Syracuse and Sinbad's boyhood friend, will get a neck tuck courtesy of a headsman's scimitar. Ew.

So off sails Sinbad to the edge of the world, with his colorful crew and the stowaway Marina (voiced by Catherine Zeta-Jones in a throaty vibrato), Proteus's fiancee, and on to the land of Chaos. Epic quest? Ordeals? Myths-R-Us? Joseph Campbell, call your agent.

Yes, it's ridiculous, but on its own terms, "Sinbad" works pretty well. The DreamWorks animation unit is staffed by ex-video game pros (like co-director Patrick Gilmore), and they know how to tell a tale in images and to keep the thing moving along. The same studio honed its craft on "Shrek," so there's a tradition here. The action sequences have a video-game immediacy to them, particularly the sword fights, of which there are many.

As a technical accomplishment, the film does one thing brilliantly and another thing not so brilliantly. The brilliant thing is its combination of hard and soft cartoon forms; in other words, the traditionally cel-animated characters are set to play in a computer-animated world of forms and shapes, with spectacular success. The integration is superb.

On the other hand, the DreamWorks pencil-pushers are at their worst in articulating the mouths of the characters as they speak. The lips move primitively up and down as if the speaker is saying "Urk, urk, urk, urk," yet out comes "But Proteus will die by nightfall if we don't find the properly primed wind to propel our purple sails toward the topless towers of Syracuse." Then there's another problem, which may be only in my head. I have an ear for voices, so when I hear Brad Pitt, my mind produces an image of Brad Pitt, but that's not Brad Pitt up there, it's some kind of Howard Keel wannabe from "Kismet" look-alike. That disconnect -- it's particularly the case with the Sinbad and Eris characters -- keeps interfering with the illusion on-screen.

Finally, a comment about audience. Much as I enjoyed its daffy energy, I have to wonder: Whom is this movie aimed at? It seems to make more sense as a show reel for the animators than a crowd-pleaser for the masses. It's certainly not hard-edged enough for the teenage audience that will flock to "Terminator 3" this weekend, but it's possibly too vigorous and dark for the very young audience. Moreover, it doesn't have much in the way of an engaging musical score of hummable tunes. It seems like a movie carefully engineered for an audience of exactly nobody.

Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas (85 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG and is probably too intense for very young children.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company

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