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Watered-down 'Sinbad' seems lost at sea

Wednesday, July 02, 2003

BY STEPHEN WHITTY
Star-Ledger Staff

Two days into July and it's already been a long, wet summer.

If you stayed at home alone last month, you might have been tempted to build an ark. Go to the movies now with your kids, and you have the choice of the aquatic "Finding Nemo" or the shipwrecked "Rugrats Go Wild" (while next week brings the equally sodden "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.")

First, however, comes today's "Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas," this year's summer cartoon from DreamWorks. Based lightly on some ancient myths (and heavily on some vague memories of Ray Harryhausen's old, Baby Boomer adventures), it's Hollywood's latest watery amusement park.

And it's all at sea.

The first problem is, quite basically, its story. No one goes to a Sinbad movie expecting a faithful retelling of "The Arabian Nights"; at least, no one should. But this movie is a mishmash of myths, mixing figures from Greco-Roman legend with corny, anachronistic jokes about sushi and a plot pitting Sinbad against "the Goddess of Chaos."

Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks -- and screenwriter John Logan, who wrote "Gladiator" -- try to keep things inclusive by giving Sinbad a multi-ethnic crew. No harm there. Yet, oddly, they rob Sinbad himself of any ethnicity -- if it weren't for the stray scimitar or occasional veil in the background, you wouldn't even know there were any Arabs on screen at all.

It's an odd and very short- sighted mistake. Certainly Disney, where DreamWorks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg once toiled, has had its problems with ethnic sensitivity in cartoons; when they released "Aladdin," Arab-American groups protested its image of repressive regimes and even got the studio to change some lyrics.

If that protest was political correctness run amok, however, "Sinbad" demonstrates an almost presumptive hypersensitivity. Afraid to offend anybody, the filmmakers strip this Baghdad sailor of any characteristics whatsoever, turning him into a bland Everyman whose most exotic trait is a fondness for pickles and hard-boiled eggs (he's even voiced by that gorgeous vanilla sundae, Brad Pitt).

The wish to avoid stereotyping is fine, but in their eagerness not to offend, the filmmakers end up replacing insult with injury. Sinbad is one of literature's few universally known Arab heroes -- and in this movie, he might as well be a con man from Missouri. Once again, presented with an intriguing window onto another culture, Hollywood slams it shut.

The movie has some pretty drawings -- typical of modern animation, there's more life in the backgrounds than the characters -- and a few good, if slightly familiar, monsters. There's a tentacled sea creature who would be right at home at "It Came From Beneath the Sea." A giant crustacean who looks as if he just escaped from the "Mysterious Island" skitters by snappishly.

Unfortunately, as in Harryhausen's old movies -- which also casually mixed their myths -- the monsters have a lot more personality than the men and women. Few of the flesh-and-blood characters ever come to life here. Some of that may be due to their bland, square- jawed outlines; much of it can be blamed on the actors.

That's because cartoons like this don't need marquee stars; they need actors who can give rich, resonant vocal performances. "Sinbad," though, quite oddly, seems to have been cast for looks, not sound. And however lovely they are, Pitt and Michelle Pfeiffer (who dubs the villain) don't have particularly distinctive voices.

Catherine Zeta-Jones does a little better as Sinbad's love interest (that British stage training always tells -- Joseph Fiennes reads his lines well, too, as one of Sinbad's oldest friends). But there isn't a role here that couldn't have been better handled by any of a dozen far-less-famous voice artists in Hollywood.

"Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas" isn't painful. I never quite understood what the "Book of Peace" was that everyone was after, but at least the movie moved quickly, clocking in at just under an hour-and-a-half. The children at the sneak preview I attended laughed loudly when Sinbad's dog ripped out the seat of his pantaloons, seemed thrilled by the appearance of a giant man-eating bird, and applauded politely when the film was over.

I was with them on the last response, at least. But I don't think it was for the same reasons.

Rating note: The film contains cartoon violence, and an animated rear end.

"SINBAD: LEGEND OF THE SEVEN SEAS" (PG; 88 min.) TWO STARS HERE.

Less a new Sinbad movie than a tribute to old Ray Harryhausen flicks, this animated fantasy combines the Arabian adventurer with Greco-Roman myths and a couple of nasty monsters. Too bad the filmmakers never really animate the plot -- and are so worried about political correctness that they turn Sinbad into a bland cardboard hero. The film contains cartoon violence. (7/02/03) - S.W.

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