by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
This year, DreamWorks Animation celebrates its 20th anniversary. To mark the occasion, Callum Petch is going through their entire animated canon, one film a week for the next 30 weeks, and giving them a full on retrospective treatment. Prior entries can be found here, should you desire.
Budget: $60 million
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 45%
Have you noticed anything about the nature of DreamWorks releases yet? I mean, do you notice how each of their films seem geared towards a specific audience with little overlap? Maybe this requires further explanation. Look at the filmography for Pixar. With the exception of the Cars series, which are blatantly aimed near-exclusively at kids, notice how they don’t actually create films for a specific audience. They go general, try and make films that can appeal to everyone near-equally. They don’t go “And this one is the kids’ film, and that one is the award bait film, and that one is the one more aimed at adults…” and so on. Pixar films mostly just aim for a wide-as-possible audience and then people get what they want out of it. DreamWorks Animation, however, and at least in regards to the films featured up to this point, do work on a more-focussed mind-set. Like, Shrek was the kids’ film, The Prince Of Egypt was the Oscar bait, Antz was the one aimed at an older audience… See what I’m getting at?
Remember back when I talked about Chicken Run and I posited the theory that this intention was to create an animation company where a whole bunch of different types of films encompassing all different age ranges, genres and animation styles could congregate under one house name that represents quality? It’s one that rings true the more I think of it and one day, if I ever get the chance, I’d like to put it to Jeffrey Katzenberg and see how far on or off-base I am with it. So, in this cycle of DreamWorks films, if Shrek is the one aimed more at kids and Spirit: Stallion Of The Cimarron was the Oscar bait, then that makes Sinbad: Legend Of The Seven Seas the one aimed at an older audience. More specifically, it feels like DreamWorks going back and addressing some unfinished business that The Road To El Dorado had created.
You’ll recall that The Road To El Dorado was a silly, lightweight buddy-comedy adventure throwback that is far better than its critical and financial reputation suggest. But those reputations were what people remembered El Dorado to be at the time (it would take a while for it to become the cult classic that it deserved to be) and one gets the feeling that DreamWorks felt that they had something to prove, that they needed to demonstrate that they could crack this genre and this kind of movie. Hence Sinbad, a film that apparently has pretty much nothing to do with the Sinbad mythos excepting the character name, a Roc, the island that’s actually an angler fish, and that boats are involved; including the fact that Sinbad himself is no longer Arab (a move that was taken to task at the time of its release by certain publications). It’s cut very much from the same cloth as El Dorado, being a fast-paced genre-blending adventure throwback. The Wikipedia page even uses the word “swashbuckling” in the opening description without a hint of self-awareness! It’s got charming actors and actresses swapping witty dialogue at all-times, the protagonists of both start off as anti-heroes and slowly make their way towards becoming true heroes, there’s a love-triangle (sure, you keep telling yourself that Tulio and Miguel aren’t in love with one another in El Dorado, I’m sure you’ll believe your own delusions eventually), it tries to blend traditional animation with CGI enhancements…
…and, much like El Dorado, nobody ended up biting. It is currently the third worst reviewed film in DreamWorks Animation’s history, only ahead of Shrek The Third and Shark Tale (which is two weeks away, so brace yourself accordingly if you’re watching along), it has the smallest profit of any of their films ($80 million gross against a $60 million budget) and is also the biggest loser in the company’s history, racking up a loss of $125 million. It, combined with the failure of El Dorado and the underperformance of Spirit, sent DreamWorks running from traditional animation as fast as humanly possible, was a key factor in the sale of DreamWorks the studio to Paramount, ending the company’s independent nature, and was the very last nail in the coffin for traditionally-animated films in the West, a topic we spent the majority of last-week talking about. You can put El Dorado down as a failure, if you wish, but that film’s D.O.A. status (at the time) didn’t push the company to the brink of ruin. I’d say that Sinbad holds a very ignominious position in the company’s history that is unlikely to be matched nowadays, financial-wise, but, well, I’m assuming you read all of my entry on Joseph: King Of Dreams.
So, how come? Why did nobody bite? Well, as per usual, we can blame marketing. You have watched the embedded trailer for this one, right? As I mentioned last week, it’s this kind of samey interchangeable marketing that drove people to computer-animated films that were marketed far better. The New York Times noted that the only animated films that found genuine success during this dark period were comedies aimed at both genders instead of adventures that were aimed near-solely at young boys (of course, that doesn’t explain the disappointing underperformance of Disney’s The Emperor’s New Groove, but sure I’ll go with that), a sub-genre that was already a bit over-saturated by the time of Sinbad’s release. There’s also the release date, which was the same weekend as Terminator 3 and Legally Blonde 2 (look, they will have caused some neglectful parenting, believe me), during a Summer where Finding Nemo was picking new releases out of its teeth with $100 bills (which, in fairness, nobody could really have foreseen, especially with just how long those legs ended up being), and seven whole goddamn days before Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl. Also, yes, much like Titan A.E. likely did so for that film, the very public crashing and burning of Treasure Planet will almost certainly have had an effect on this film’s box office takings seeing as pirates were still seen as box office poison (until seven days later, at least).
There is, however, a much simpler reason, one that explains why it didn’t receive a box office resurgence when Pirates Of The Caribbean made pirates cool again. Sinbad just isn’t very good. It’s not bad, and it has very good vocal performances and a great villain, but it is really unremarkable. It wanders through its 85 minutes not really saying much of anything or trying anything different. I mean, those aren’t necessarily bad things; El Dorado didn’t attempt to say anything and wasn’t attempting anything that a hundred other movies like it hadn’t already tried before, but I had a lot of fun with that. The problem comes from how perfunctory everything feels. Whereas El Dorado has love and effort put into every frame, Sinbad feels more slap-dash, more generic, like a lot of the things that do end up going on are only happening because those are the beats that need to appear in this stuff. It feels like “here’s the action opening, now here’s the quiet little bit, here’s the villain giving our hero a reason to set off on an adventure, now we introduce the main dynamic for the film, it’s been too long since an action scene, set one off immediately!” with most being executed with a lack of soul. The requisite thrills are there but there’s nothing beneath or in those thrills, if you get me. It’s oddly soulless.
That’s the main problem with Sinbad, although there are other ones. For another, the film’s structure is awkward and poor. We jump straight into the action with Sinbad already a feared outlaw who is ready to pull one last job, and learn all the important character relationships and skills on the fly. Nice idea in theory, but in practice it just leads to characters spouting exposition at one another (and then frequently re-stating said exposition so that even the youngest are absolutely aware of the vital info) and makes the relationship between Sinbad and Proteus, one that apparently was majorly important for the both of them in their younger years, hollow. I never got a sense of why these two were friends in the first place, let alone why Proteus is willing to risk his life in the hopes that Sinbad still cares about him after all those years. Contrast with The Prince Of Egypt for an example of a DreamWorks film taking the time to build up that central relationship so that it has meaning. I understand the wish to not simply retread ground that El Dorado already covered, but I need full-on proof about a close bond in order to believe in it, not just having everybody repeatedly tell me so.
Mind, Proteus and Sinbad is not the main relationship that most of the film pivots on. That would be Sinbad and Marina, Proteus’ fiancé. Now, for a good hour of this film’s runtime, I really liked what it was doing with her. She was tough without losing her feminine charm, not exactly “sassy” but capable of giving as good as she gets from Sinbad, she gets kidnapped at one point (by the Roc) but is still more than capable at escaping with Sinbad being more of an assist than her sole rescuer, and she was overall a well-written and interesting character. Her capability at seafaring even seemed like it’ll remove Sinbad’s sexist ways via begrudging respect and a close fire-forged bond as friends when all is said and done… And then, right on cue, it’s revealed that they have both fallen in love with one another because of course. I mean, god forbid the token girl who ends up just as capable at proceedings as the men not immediately be attracted to the gravitational pull of the lead character’s genitalia, right? It’s especially egregious here because not only could you cut the romance stuff and lose almost literally nothing, lest we forget that she is engaged to marry our lead character’s childhood best friend! Oh, but it’s an arranged marriage, Proteus totally understands and just wants her to be happy, so it’s all OK(!) I was reminded very much of how the first How To Train Your Dragon treated Astrid, giving her depth and character motivations of her own and teasing a plot where she eventually comes to respect and like Hiccup as a friend or comrade, only to set fire to that hard work at the halfway point by also having her succumb to the gravitational pull of the lead character’s genitalia (METAPHORICALLY! Metaphorically! They’re children, literally would be gross and horrible and wrong).
This makes as good a segway as any to talk about Sinbad himself and how he’s kind of an unlikable dick. Oh, sure, he doesn’t immediately start that way, the opening action sequence with the ship raid finds him in relentlessly charming anti-hero mode, talking and acting like pretty much any Joss Whedon character ever. The issue starts when he is set free from prison with the goal of getting to Tartarus and he immediately, and without any guilt, decides to head to Fiji and leave his childhood friend to die. It’s a dick move, plain and simple; a bit too much of a dick move for me. I get that the idea is for character development to eventually prevail and turn him from a puckish rogue into a full-fledged hero but, well, your lead character should probably not be so much of a jerk as to turn your audience against him near-completely. Plus, his sexism towards Marina only compounds the unlikability. Sexist characters, for me at least (being a very strong feminist and all), are often near-immediately thrown into the “I would like for you to suffer a painful death as quickly as possible” pile anyway (so, if you ever see any pieces of media in which sexists suffer long drawn out dispatches, be sure to check the writer credits cos I may have bumbled my way into an industry I have interest in being creative in), but it’s rarely exaggerated enough to be humorous, like the intention is supposed to be. The film at least has the good grace to call out his behaviour as wrong at every opportunity, but then he gets over his sexism by falling in love and I just want to drink the draining fluid from under the sink.
Animation, meanwhile, is not great. It does hold the distinct honour of being the first animated film made entirely in Linux (in 2003 when, according to TV Tropes at least, animation functionality in Linux was limited, to say the least), so it has that going for it, but it’s still not great. Character animations frequently seem to be missing a whole bunch of frames, coming off as jerky as a result, character designs are too Disney-esque for their own good, feeling like pale imitators instead of a unique voice, whilst the attempts to blend CG and traditional animation (if it’s not a person, it’s mostly computer-animated) are frequently nowhere near as seamless as, let’s say, Long John Silver from Treasure Planet. Backgrounds and complicated camera tracking shots are fine. Ships, monsters, the sea and various special effects really aren’t, noticeably sticking out in a way that’s more distracting than a conscious artistic decision. Time and advancing technology may be influencing my thoughts in this regard, it may have looked damn near seamless and really pretty back in its day, but I can only tell you about how a film looks now and it has aged poorly (and before you think I’m too in-love with it to level any criticisms against it, Treasure Planet kinda really suffers from this issue as well).
All this being said, Sinbad isn’t without merit. Although its genre-blending often leaves the film feeling a little schizophrenic until it finally settles into its groove, it does enable us to have a fantastic villain in the form of the Goddess Of Chaos herself, Eris. She’s everything I like in a good showy movie villain: she’s playful, affable, perfectly aware of herself and using that to her advantage, hammy without being overly so, and in it just enough to make you wish she was there more but not so much that she overpowers the film. Most of the animation work also clearly went into her, too, because her every movement is filled with details both obvious, like how she never once stays totally still for even a half second, and incidental, how her eyes can flit between being something close-to-human and completely otherworldly depending on the situation. Initially, upon the realisation that she actually was Eris, I jokingly and rather pessimistically made the mental note that she was going to give me the perfect excuse to go on about the Eris featured in The Grim Adventures Of Billy & Mandy, and Rachael MacFarlane’s performance of said interpretation, if she underwhelmed in any facet, but she doesn’t. Everything really does come together on that character, here, and she is the best part of this film. Hell, you can watch all of her scenes in this video embed, if you want, at least then you’ll know that you’ve seen the best parts of the film and saved yourself another 70 minutes of your life.
The other big plus is that the voice acting from the leads is really damn good, presumably because two of them had genuine personal reasons for getting involved beyond “is that a whopping great paycheque I smell?” Michelle Pfeiffer plays the aforementioned Eris, a role that she took based on the urging of her children apparently (I sometimes wonder what it’s like to be the child of an actor and actress who might play a role in a cartoon), and she knocks it out of the park. Barring one or two awkwardly delivered lines, she gets the character dead-on, going theatrical without being overly hammy and helping to make Eris a villain who is a prankster, but one whose pranks carry about them genuine threat. Brad Pitt plays Sinbad, a role he took because he wanted his nieces and nephews to be able to actually watch one of his films, and his natural charm and likeability is trying its damndest to keep Sinbad himself from veering off the cliff of tolerability, even if I did spend a lot of the runtime distracted trying to figure who exactly was voicing him (you know when you recognise the voice but can’t remember who it belongs to? Yeah, this was one of those times). He was even committed enough to be conflicted about the fact that his Missouri accent sounds nothing close to ethnic or Arab, which is something I guess. Catherine Zeta-Jones is Marina and she’s very convincing in the role, especially when Marina is barely tolerating Sinbad’s sh*t. Also, Dennis Haysbert is in this! I like Dennis Haysbert! He was David Palmer in 24 and Lambert in one glorious instalment of the Splinter Cell series, and his voice is like a hug from a warm teddy bear!
I should mention that I don’t dislike Sinbad. I had some good fun with its mildly entertaining action beats, Eris is a cracking villain, and I was really liking what the film was doing with Marina until it ended up exactly where I should have known it was going to end up. It’s just really mediocre, though. It doesn’t do anything that hasn’t already been done better, its animation is of a lower-quality than I expect, and it’s all rather soulless. There’s no real emotional connection to the film and it leaves the enterprise feeling hollow. Did it deserve the 6th place debut and complete and total failure that it got? No, and I feel that it wouldn’t have suffered that fate if a) traditional animation wasn’t officially in the last stages of life support, b) it were much better marketed, and c) released a few months after Pirates Of The Caribbean in order to capitalise on the resurgence of pirates, but that’s how it ended up and it wouldn’t have fixed the issue of the fact that it’s not a particularly good film. There may have been a higher opening weekend, but it would likely have still sunk like a stone afterwards, and most definitely would not have had the same legs that Finding Nemo had. Sometimes, films fail at release and disappear into obscurity for a reason, and this just happened to be one of those times, I’m afraid.
As you may have gathered, DreamWorks was in a bad spot in mid-2003, with their last two films underwhelming spectacularly at the box office and the company itself having been bought out of its independent roots in order to survive. Fortunately, things would swiftly turn around next year with two major financial successes, starting up a box office hot streak that would last for the next 4 years, albeit at the expense of critical praise and respect by the Internet animated fandom. Next week, we tackle the first of them which is still one of the most successful animated films of all-time: Shrek 2.
A new edition of DreamWorks! A Retrospective will be posted here every Monday at 1PM BST!