Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas was DreamWorks’ final hand-drawn animated film. Based (very) loosely on the Sinbad character from The 1001 Arabian Nights, the idea came to Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio after writing Aladdin for Disney. It takes the character of Sinbad, modernizes and Westernizes him, and puts the story in Greece with Greek Gods and cities. Interestingly, this duo would eventually pen Pirates of The Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl and its sequels. Several of DreamWorks’ earlier movies were accused of being (or known to be) rip-offs of Disney films, and some were intentionally taking potshots at the rival studio. However, Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas is the only project that was developed at Disney and stolen by Jeffrey Katzenberg to be produced at DreamWorks. All this being said, I doubt Disney was upset or jealous given the film’s box office and critical performance. In 2002, Disney had tried their hand at revitalizing the swashbuckling pirate genre with the criminally underrated Treasure Planet, and this didn’t go very well for them, financially speaking. When Sinbad did come out the following year, Disney had an ace or two up their sleeves.
Released in July of 2003, even the star power present in its cast couldn’t protect Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas from bigger fish like Finding Nemo and Pirates of the Caribbean. It’s interesting that Pixar and Disney, respectively, put out an animated movie and a pirate movie around the same time as Sinbad, DreamWork’s animated pirate movie. Made on a budget of $60 million, Sinbad earned only $80 million. It wasn’t one of the worst flops ever, but the studio also paid to market the film up front, so, overall, there was very little profit, if any. My history with this movie is very similar to Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. Growing up, I had VHS tapes of The Road to El Dorado and The Prince of Egypt and saw them a few times. But I only vaguely remember commercials and toys for Spirit, and even less so for Sinbad. I’m not sure I was even aware of this movie until later. When I was a teenager, I sought out DreamWorks’ traditionally animated films and wasn’t very impressed with Sinbad. The one aspect of this movie people occasionally bring up is Eris, Greek Goddess of Chaos and this film’s villain. I honestly couldn’t remember too much about this one, so watching it now for the reviews was almost like a new experience. Let’s dive in.
Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas begins with Eris (Michelle Pfeiffer) sending a Kraken to cause trouble for some humans; particularly Prince Proteus (Joseph Fiennes) and his men, who are on a mission to deliver the Book of Peace to his home city of Syracuse. The book protects the 12 cities, and without it, they’ll be plunged into darkness. If you’re wondering how the book does this and which 12 cities are concerned, don’t worry about it; the film certainly isn’t going to explain it to us. Proteus is tailed by Sinbad (Brad Pitt) and his pirates (Dennis Haysbert, Jim Cummings, and others), who want to steal the book for ransom. Once aboard Proteus’ ship, Sinbad recognizes him as his best childhood friend. It isn’t a happy reunion, as Sinbad still intends to take the book, but their argument is rudely interrupted by Eris’ sea monster, and they’re forced to work together to defeat the beast. After they’ve fought the Kraken off, Sinbad follows Proteus into Syracuse for the book. But as soon as Proteus introduces Sinbad to his fiancée Marina, he disappears, deciding to let the book be. However, this only allows Eris, who struck a deal with Sinbad for the book, to impersonate him and steal it anyway. The council of the 12 cities, which includes Proteus’ father, King Dymas (Timothy West), is ready to execute Sinbad for the theft, and nobody believes his claims that the Goddess of Chaos took it. However, Proteus chooses to put faith in his old friend and takes Sinbad’s place. This gives Sinbad 10 days to either return the book or come back to be executed; otherwise, it’s Proteus’ neck on the line – literally. Marina stows aboard to keep Sinbad honest, as she doesn’t trust him and fears for Proteus. However, on their journey, she wins over the crew and, eventually, Sinbad himself.
Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas has an exemplary cast bringing life to its characters. The big ones are Brad Pitt as Sinbad, Catherine Zeta-Jones as Marina, and Michelle Pfeiffer as Eris. Pitt and Zeta-Jones have great chemistry, and Pitt, in particular, brings a good mix of bravado and vulnerability to Sinbad. Eris just oozes lust, chaos, and danger, and I really can’t imagine anyone other than Pfeiffer voicing her. Brad Pitt would play a more complex character for DreamWorks in Megamind (2010), and Pfeiffer had already voiced Tzipporah in The Prince of Egypt. Two characters/performances that surprised me this time were Dennis Haysbert as Sinbad’s second mate Kale and Joseph Fiennes as Proteus. I’m surprised I didn’t remember either of them being in this, as I quite like them both in other movies. Haysbert’s Kale serves as a sort of conscience for Sinbad, keeping him on track and calling out his BS when and where it rears its head. Proteus actually might be my favorite character, despite not being in Sinbad that much. Fiennes’ line delivery is consistently on point, bringing out all the right emotions and making this character feel like he could be a real person. His words and actions always come off as genuine.
This is where one of my major issues with Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas comes in; I really like Proteus and his relationships with Sinbad and Marina, but we get so little of that. As I said, Proteus isn’t in the movie much, as he stays behind in Sinbad’s place. This movie is a sort of fantasy/action/adventure/pirate mishmash, and, as such, things like character development and worldbuilding go out the window to save its 86-minute runtime. I can understand that, but I think it’s a real shame. The Prince of Egypt, The Road to El Dorado, and even Spirit, to a lesser extent, were great because of their characters. These movies vary wildly in genre, theme, and tone, but they all took the time to build up interesting characters and relationships. Spirit, a horse who can’t even talk, goes through a more fascinating journey than Sinbad, and much more than Marina. I wish we could have seen what Proteus and Sinbad were like as kids. I understand this isn’t what the movie is about, but I hate the scene where Sinbad tells Marina about their childhood. This time would have been better served (and more enjoyable to watch) with a prologue or even a flashback later in the film. For that matter, I don’t get much of a feel for what Sinbad and Marina like about each other, or Marina and Proteus earlier in the movie, for that matter. Most of their time is spent bickering until Sinbad realizes Marina is a good fighter and quick thinker and comes to appreciate her. This is well and good if she’s just a pirate with him, or even if they were just friends. But how does “You can hold your own and even help me out a lot” translate to “I love you and we should be together forever”? I also don’t like the backstory (which is also stated rather than shown) of how Sinbad saw Marina years ago, fell in love with her, and left out of jealousy. I’m not opposed to love at first sight in movies like this; I even believe it happens sometimes (but not often) in real life. But the way this is handled is clunky and awkward. I find it hard to believe he briefly glimpsed Proteus’ betrothed and suddenly got so jealous that he instantly left, never wanting to see his best (only?) friend again, and became a pirate. It may have been more believable if we could have watched this play out rather than having it described to us, but we’ll never know.
And do our female characters fare any better? Eh, I’d say a little worse. I like the touch of Marina’s name meaning “from the sea;” I guess it’s a little corny since she loves being on the ocean so much, but I thought it was a nice touch. Like I mentioned earlier, I don’t understand what drives Marina or why she loves either man as the movie progresses. I can see what would potentially attract someone to a noble prince or a roguish thief, but what does Marina, personally, see in them? I do like how the tension of the love triangle is defused by Proteus offering Marina her freedom. I like it when they don’t go the easy route of making one person a huge jerk, so it’s an obvious choice. Proteus really is the best person in Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas; he understands what Marina wants when it isn’t even clear to the audience or Marina herself. Zeta-Jones is very good in the role, but there isn’t a lot to this character. She’s tough and pretty, and that’s all I got from her. I have to say, though, I hate her more modern hairstyle and clothing. I had this issue with a few other characters in the movie, like Sinbad, depending on his outfit. It clashes with the setting, which I otherwise like, though I wish it weren’t so vague. I can see why people like Eris so much; she’s seductive, and the animation effects on her are jaw-dropping. However, I don’t think she’s very interesting, and some of her dialogue is cringey. She talks about “the black-hearted thief” and “the noble prince” in such a trite way that it takes me out of the movie. I also found her ultimate defeat at the end of the movie dissatisfying. She basically loses a bet and has no choice but to give Sinbad the book. This could have been interesting, but they don’t do anything clever with it. It plays out exactly the way you’d expect, and I was surprised by how boring they play it. I guess that’s the twist; it’s predictable and boring. And I usually don’t care how predictable movies are, as long as they’re done well. How to Train Your Dragon is extremely predictable, but it’s such a good movie that you forget about that and just join the ride.
As for the music and animation in Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, they’re incredible. Harry Gregson-Williams provides the musical score, and it’s absolutely gorgeous. Swashbuckling action and quieter, dialogue-driven scenes are equally complemented by his lush score. The hand-drawn animation is all outstanding, especially on Eris. At the time, they said she was a special effect as much as a character, and it shows, for both good and bad. But visually, I have no problems with her or the other traditionally animated elements. I will mention that some of the CGI monsters, like the Kraken, don’t look that good. This is no Treasure Planet or Tarzan in that regard. But I think it’s passable for the time period and because, unlike Disney, DreamWorks wasn’t in the business of making the most expensive animated film ever at this time.
Overall, Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas is a frustrating movie for me. It has a great cast, beautiful animation, and a soaring musical score. I like the idea behind the story and characters. All the parts for a great pirate movie or, heck, just a great movie in general, are here. But the film rushes through its action and character scenes, and by the end, I just feel somewhat confused. I know, technically, there’s a lot of good here, but for me, characters and interpersonal relationships are what make a great film. And DreamWorks has done that so well, both in CG and hand-drawn animation. Sinbad is a film I appreciate more than I like it, and I would say check it out if you like mind-blowing action sequences and gorgeous animation. Just don’t expect a moving experience like The Prince of Egypt or a hilarious comedy like The Road to El Dorado because, in their current form, these characters ain’t that.