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Sinbad the spoiler DreamWorks serves up another drab 'toon

07/04/03

SHAWN LEVY

When a cocky trio of Hollywood big shots teamed up to form the DreamWorks studio a decade ago, it was reckoned that Steven Spielberg would oversee the live-action features, David Geffen would create a music-industry presence and Jeffrey Katzenberg would sire an animation division to rival the one he created at Disney.

DreamWorks has done a lot of fine work in the intervening time, but Katzenberg's animation division hasn't been the source of much of it. The two best animated films from the studio -- "Shrek" and "Chicken Run" -- were by and large the work of outside companies, Pacific Data Images and Aardman Animations, respectively. The studio's in-house animated features -- "Prince of Egypt," "The Road to El Dorado" and "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron" -- have been woeful, not even up to the fallen standards of the current Disney in-house product.

"Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas," DreamWorks' latest full-length animated film, does little to reverse the studio's dismal record. Derivative, flat and uninspired, the film attempts to bring the mythical hero of the "Arabian Nights" and all those wonderful Ray Harryhausen stop-action movies into the realm of animation without adding much to his legend, his aura or his stature. The film has a few fresh images, there's the relative novelty of superstar actors doing voice work, and you come to admire the spunk of the heroine. But by and large it's a yawner and a puzzler: How on Earth can the man who green-lighted "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin" and "The Lion King" not see how lifeless this is?

The film begins with a burst of action as Sinbad (voiced by Brad Pitt) leads his crew in an assault on a ship that's carrying the priceless Book of Peace to Syracuse, where it is to be installed in a tower so as to ensure peace and prosperity for the world. But the ship he has targeted is captained by Proteus (Joseph Fiennes), his boyhood friend, making the rascally bandit think twice about stealing the treasure. And someone else -- no less than the capricious goddess of chaos, Eris (Michelle Pfeiffer) -- wants the book, too, to wreak havoc among humans.

Sinbad's loyalty to Proteus persuades him to let Syracuse have the book, but Eris soon steals it and frames Sinbad for the theft. The city elders want to execute Sinbad for the crime, but Proteus offers to put his own neck on the line and give Sinbad a chance to fetch the book from Eris' realm, Tartarus. One catch: To see that Sinbad returns, Proteus' fiancee, the plucky Marina (Catherine Zeta-Jones), will come along for the journey.

As two-dimensional animation, "Sinbad" is passably attractive, reaching a visual height when it arrives in the surreal Tartarus. There's some spunky verbal play between Sinbad and Marina, a classic couple-who-quarrel-because-really-they're-in-love. But the story is dull and linear, the cliche-ridden music insists on emotions that the writing and images can't convey, and the film feels rote and uninspired. Like other DreamWorks animated features, it feels much more like work than a dream.

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