Animated action-adventure movies have been appearing with greater frequency over the last few years, despite the conventional wisdom that they are a tough sell for U.S. audiences. Still, this wisdom may be correct, as not even a Disney-brand version has crossed the coveted $100 million mark. Usually set in space (Titan AE), the ocean (Atlantis: The Lost Empire), or possibly both (the misbegottenTreasure Planet), the movies have been more good than bad, although many of them wind up in the “nice try” category. Most efforts, even the better ones, are too timid to alienate the family audience, but too populated with adult characters to win over many kids.
Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, a high-seas compression of several myths and legends from DreamWorks, won’t change this. It opened over the long holiday weekend with a weak $10 million, and will likely be swallowed up this week by Disney’s live-action Pirates of the Caribbean.
Give the disappointment associated with movies like Treasure Planet, Sinbad may seem like a foolhardy project. But DreamWorks animation deserves credit for keeping it real with 2D animation, which is close to joining black-and-white photography on the list of most underappreciated movie formats. Indeed, the animation is quite good; the DreamWorks team is matched only by Disney when it comes to quality cel animation. The colors of Sinbad‘s islands, costumes, and skies are rich, and the characters move gracefully. Larger creatures and ships even involve some well-blended computer work. I think fondly of a sequence where Marina (voiced by Catherine Zeta-Jones), the only woman on Sinbad’s (Brad Pitt) ship, must navigate roiling waters inhabited by Sirens who have bewitched the rest of the crew. The excitement is almost entirely due to the fluidity and quickness of animation itself; this is a fun movie to look at.
Still, conventional wisdom rears its ugly head: audiences are no longer interested in looking at traditional animation, no matter the quality. It’s a hard point to argue when a movie as mediocre as Ice Age outgrosses the wonderful Lilo & Stitch. The apparently blind devotion to computer-animated family films is disturbing (if not yet as carved in stone as some analysts believe). Yet it’s also hard to get worked into a rousing defense of Sinbad. Apart from its visuals, it’s the blandest cartoon DreamWorks has released.
One problem may be the requisite celebrity voices. DreamWorks loves them, no matter how little they bring to the medium. Disney and Pixar, despite the occasional Tom Hanks or Robin Williams, have become more interested in smaller but distinctive actors, drawing excellent performances from John Goodman, Willem Dafoe, Emma Thompson, Ellen DeGeneres, and John Ratzenberger.
Dreamworks, wistfully recalling its big score on Shrek, chases stars. This worked on a film like The Road to El Dorado, which was enlivened by the energetic teamwork of Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh. Here, Pitt and Zeta-Jones are less than inspired. Odd, because both actors are at their live-action best doing comedy, but they cannot breathe any life into the listless sparring of their dialogue. Sinbad and Marina are also the least interesting characters to look at, and so the two leads have no chemistry, visual or aural. During the story’s awkward romantic interludes, children and their parents can squirm in boredom together, as a family.
Michelle Pfeiffer’s Eris, Goddess of Chaos, fares better. She swirls around like a playful ghost, and, recalling as she does her stint as Catwoman, a fun listen, too. But Sinbad‘s script, by John Logan (Gladiator, Star Trek: Nemesis) doesn’t show any interest in the flukiness of the gods and fate, or even much appetite for adventure. As Sinbad and his shipmates navigate from one challenge to another, it’s hard to feel involved. Sinbad himself seems kind of bored by his adventures; does he enjoy fighting, stealing, or even being noble?
For all of its freedom of movement, the film lacks real personality, and in parts, it’s oddly serious-minded. I appreciate the effort to offer a little more variation on what was, a few years ago, the standard animated movie plot: bland hero plus feisty girl plus wacky sidekick plus songs. But Sinbad only subtracts the songs (Sinbad — a pirate, remember — has an inexplicable pet dog, though it doesn’t speak) without adding anything to the dull hero-girl pairing.
I realize Disney and DreamWorks are in the business of producing family-oriented entertainment, not hard-edged anime (though it would be great to see another studio give that a try). But U.S. animation has untapped potential. Look at Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993), a terrific cartoon that both kids and adults can enjoy, more or less without compromise. Then again, that too died at the box office. Perhaps studios and audiences need to better trust each other: audiences in the possibility that an adult sensibility can thrive in 2-D animation, and studios in the possibility that audiences would be interested. Until then, a film like Sinbad can’t help but seem like a placeholder. It’s a chance for animators to show off their artistry, and, apparently, for studios to keep the characters and story muzzled.