Jerky Buoy

Video-game animation takes wind out of Sinbad's sails

The computer-animated kiddy feature Sinbad: Beyond the Veil of Mists aspires to nothing more than Saturday-matinee thrills for the preadolescent crowd. The obvious direct source for the content is the cycle of Sinbad the Sailor fantasies -- The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974) and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977) -- produced by Charles Schneer as a showcase for the special-effects magic of Ray Harryhausen. But in visual style, this film looks more like a bizarre cross of the old Davy and Goliath show with a '70s heavy-metal album cover. When it was over, I wasn't sure if I'd seen a movie or had an acid flashback.

What it really looks like is a video game, and that's not by accident. Sinbad: Beyond the Veil of Mists is animated through a technique called "motion capture," now widely used for video-game graphics. It has something to do with using the pre-taped movements of human actors as a key by which the computer generates the movements of the onscreen characters. Or something. In any case, it gives the action a funky, dreamy quality. The figures, though they have the same rock-solid three-dimensionality as those in the Toy Story films, seem somehow to be moving in place, while the background perspective shifts behind them. The effect is curiously static, like when you run in a dream without getting anywhere.

The story of Sinbad: Beyond the Veil of Mists centers on the adventure-hungry Princess Serena, who looks roughly like Michael Jackson wishes he did. An evil wizard switches bodies with her father, the kindly King, then has his old body, now containing the King's spirit, thrown into the dungeon. The Princess steals away, hires the roguish Captain Sinbad and his intrepid crew, and sails off beyond the supposedly mythical veil of you-know-what, whence came the wizard. Her optimistic plan is to find the potion that reverses the spell and bring it back before the wizard beheads her old man. Along the way, of course, the wizard stirs up trouble for the Princess, Sinbad and the crew by siccing a variety of monsters and tempests and so forth on them.

On paper, there's nothing wrong with this plot. How could there be, considering how many times it's already worked? Variations on the same story provided the format for all of the Harryhausen/Schneer Sinbad films, which delightfully mixed human actors with mythological creatures brought to life through the once cutting-edge, now charmingly antiquated, process of stop-motion animation.

But if the Toy Story films demonstrate the amazing possibilities that lie in computer animation, this Sinbad demonstrates its limitations. The Toy Story toys were full-blown, subtly conceived, complex characters, yet the human characters in Veil of Mists are as stiff and inexpressive as toys. Indeed, they look like "action figures" from Toys "R" Us, moved around by invisible hands. There's far more personality in Harryhausen's Cyclops from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad alone than there is in all of the characters in Veil of Mists put together.

The voices of some good actors come out of their mouths -- Brendan Fraser as Sinbad, Leonard Nimoy as the wizard, Jennifer Hale as the Princess, Mark Hamill and John Rhys Davies in smaller roles -- but they might as well be speaking through hand puppets. The action has a muddled, half-finished quality. It's not just that there's no sense of swashbuckling pizzazz; much of the time it's hard simply to follow what's going on.

On the other hand, there's no denying that some of the psychedelic imagery is pretty cool, especially in the latter part of the film, when Sinbad and the Princess find their way into an Atlantean undersea kingdom. The vast fields of giant tentacled jellyfish tended by agricultural sea-horse-men, or the sky of water held aloft by enormous power stations, are like images direct from the mind Georges Méliès. But they're just a series of cool pictures; as a movie, they don't come to life.

It may be that this is only true for fuddy-duddy grown-ups like me. Kids, already accustomed to the look and herky-jerky visual shorthand of video games, may take quite comfortably to Sinbad: Beyond the Veil of Mists. But I doubt it. "Motion capture" may have its uses as a supplemental special-effects technique -- it was used, for instance, to generate some of the passengers on James Cameron's Titanic. But on the evidence of Sinbad: Beyond the Veil of Mists, it's not yet ready to be considered a feature-length medium.

 
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