Animation Station: Hand-Drawn Dreamworks Part 4

Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas (2003)

I’ve made the claim that Dreamworks’s four hand-drawn animated films didn’t have a formula and I’ll stand by that, but it can be argued that they came in pairs. The Prince of Egypt and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron are both serious dramas about people (or horses) wanting to be free which follow their protagonists from infancy to maturity and leadership. The Road to El Dorado and Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas are both comedy/adventures about criminals seeking treasure in unexplored regions. Of the four, I feel like Sinbad is the least well known. If you were to ask people of my generation about these movies, I feel like a large number of them would remember seeing commercials for Prince of Egypt, El Dorado and Spirit and have some idea what they’re about even if they haven’t watched them. Mentioning Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas will probably draw more blank stares. That’s kind of a shame since despite it leaning more into adventure than comedy, I find John Logan’s script for Sinbad to be much funnier than that of Road to El Dorado and it’s the only Dreamworks hand-drawn animated movie besides The Prince of Egypt to have a really strong story.

It begins with Sinbad the pirate (voiced by Brad Pitt) about to steal the Book of Peace, a mystical artifact (and blatant MacGuffin), for ransom. It turns out to be guarded by Prince Proteus of Syracuse (Joseph Fiennes)-who just happens to have been Sinbad’s best friend from childhood. But then a sea monster attacks Proteus’s ship in the first of the great action scenes that are the movie’s bread and butter. Sinbad proves instrumental in defeating the creature and ends up as Proteus’s guest at a royal banquet. That night the Book is stolen by Eris (Michelle Pfieffer), the goddess of discord[1]You may remember her for setting the Trojan War into motion. and Sinbad is blamed for the theft. He’s about to be executed when Proteus claims “the right of substitution.” Sinbad has ten days to retrieve the Book from Tartarus, Eris’s realm. If he doesn’t return by then, Proteus will die in his place.

You may have noticed that that summary has nothing to do with The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor from One Thousand and One Nights. Two of the monsters that Sinbad encounters in the movie come from there but the rest come from Greek mythology and the basic premise owes more to the Legend of Damon and Pythias. Which isn’t to say the movie is very accurate to Greek mythology either.[2]For one thing, Tartarus wasn’t Eris’s realm. While Syracuse and the other cities that get namedropped are real, the government of “the twelve cities” is fictional and the clothing and architecture we see don’t really scream Arabian or Greek.

I like that about the movie.

Whatever artistic license they take, The Prince of Egypt, The Road to El Dorado and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron all try to create the illusion of a real historical culture. There’s something weirdly refreshing about the relaxed approach to worldbuilding of Sinbad: Legend of the Seas.

You may remember that I found The Road to El Dorado‘s leads to be very unlikeable. Well, Sinbad is even more of a jerk-but I don’t mind since the movie knows he’s a jerk unlike in The Road to El Dorado where we’re supposed to just accept the main characters’ vices and immoral actions as part of the material. And Sinbad has much more interesting ideas about how to redeem its antihero. It also helps that there’s an entirely noble character, Proteus, whose life depends on Sinbad’s success, so however much we dislike him, we’re still rooting for him to succeed.

Proteus’s fiancée, Marina (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who accompanies Sinbad on his journey, is a very generic leading lady for this kind of movie and her Han-and-Leia-esque relationship with Sinbad isn’t anything unique either. But once we grant that, I’d still rank her as the best female love interest in Dreamworks’s hand-drawn animated films[3]For those interested, the mare from Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron would be at the bottom of my ranking. and Sinbad’s crew as the most fun supporting cast.

Eris is definitely the most memorable character. Michelle Pfieffer has a rare gift for creating an atmosphere with just her voice, one which was mostly thrown away on her character in The Prince of Egypt. Her vocal performance is the best in this movie which is no faint praise as the whole cast is excellent. The flowing, misty way she’s animated is also great, much more memorable than how the Greek gods were depicted in Disney’s Hercules.

There are no songs in this movie, and I applaud that. It’s not that I have anything against the musical format per se. I began this blog with a three-part series celebrating a musical film and removing the songs from The Prince of Egypt would be a huge loss to it. But the songs in The Road to El Dorado and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron were more of a nuisance than anything and I don’t think American animated films should feel like they have to include musical numbers just because it’s tradition, especially when you seem to be trying to go after a target audience other than Disney’s as Dreamworks seemed to be doing. The soundtrack by Harry Gregson-Williams is very effective.

The middle section of the story is basically a series of action scenes, one after another. I don’t mean that as a criticism; it’s exactly what I expect of a story about a fantastical voyage like this. They’re all exhilarating to watch and great fun. The movie does a lot of things in them with which you could only get away in a cartoon. Actually, all the action scenes in Dreamworks’s hand-drawn movies do that but this might just be their tour de force in that area. Surprisingly though, the climax is not an action scene and it’s a risk that pays off.

The movie admittedly suffers, to an unusual extent for Dreamworks, from computer animated elements not blending in with the hand-drawn stuff. Once you get past that, the visuals are great.

The movie does write itself into a bit of a corner with the love triangle. Granted that he improves by the end, but Sinbad is still clearly Proteus’s moral inferior and the prospect of him getting the man’s fiancée in the end is not pleasant. The idea that Marina would just abandon her duties as an ambassadress to run off with a pirate is also pretty ridiculous. On the other hand, the main body of the film is about developing a relationship between Marina and Sinbad, not Proteus, so there’s no way for them not end up together without ending on a downbeat note. There may have been no perfectly satisfying way to resolve that part of the story but the rest of the movie is satisfying enough to make it forgivable.

Concluding Thoughts

Even the more financially successful of Dreamworks’s hand-drawn animated weren’t the hits they’d hoped them to be, and the low box office returns of Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas were the nail in the coffin for this kind of animation at the studio. That’s pretty sad since The Prince of Egypt is a great movie, Sinbad at least a very good one, and as for The Road to El Dorado and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, well, I don’t believe they’re that good myself, but I can understand why there are people out there who love them. They’re both more interesting, if not strictly speaking better, than the many anonymous computer-animated comedies about talking animals Dreamworks released in the 2000s.[4]I don’t mean you, Kung Fu Panda. Never you. And whatever the quality of any of these movies as overall viewing experiences, the hand-drawn animation in them is beautiful, aside from some minor quibbles. I can’t help but wonder what other films like this, good and bad, they might have made.

References

References
1 You may remember her for setting the Trojan War into motion.
2 For one thing, Tartarus wasn’t Eris’s realm.
3 For those interested, the mare from Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron would be at the bottom of my ranking.
4 I don’t mean you, Kung Fu Panda. Never you.
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