Were it not for the high-priced talent heard but not seen -- "Michelle Pfeiffer's in a cartoon, and Carnie Wilson's in Playboy. Reverse that," said an aggrieved Howard Stern last week -- Sinbad could well have been dry-docked on video shelves. With its now-familiar blend of traditional 2-D animated characters and shimmering 3-D computer-rendered backgrounds it doesn't leave much of an impression. A feather falling on a beach leaves a bigger mark. It's not until near film's end the animation enraptures, during a desert sequence out of the Simpsons episode in which Homer gets high on chili, and it does not help that characters in films like these all look the same now, angular and bland and oddly free of lips. It's as though one artist, or one computer, draws all of these movies.
Children will be entertained by some of Sinbad, with its occasional charges of action followed by loooooong sequences of exposition ("enough talking," growls Pfeiffer's evil goddess at one point), but little ones are enamored of any moving image projected at length on a huge screen in a dark room that provides frigid-air refuge in summer. Better still if they can rush out of the theater and persuade their parents to purchase a Happy Meal action figure -- in which case they're not so much finding Nemo or watching Nemo, say, as much as buying Nemo with a burger and fries and chocolate shake. Word has it kids at test screenings were far more interested in Sinbad's slobbering dog Spike than in the pirate himself, who's voiced by Brad Pitt with volume control still set at Ocean's Eleven. DreamWorks, alas, was forced to add several scenes of the marketable mutt, who will be stuffed and sold en masse.
Animated films tank only when parents sense there's nothing of interest for them; amazing studios haven't yet thought of offering shuttle buses to and from day-care centers in order to eliminate the middle mom. Sinbad, yet another tale of the storybook pirate fending off monsters while on a quest for a Lost and Mythic Something or Other, tries desperately to play to parents. Wait till Junior asks, "Mommy, what's a brothel?" after one character holds up a bra dripping with diamonds, which she surmises was pilfered from a whorehouse. The movie, a bigger hodgepodge of samples and stolen riffs than any Puff Daddy production, would even fancy itself as a made-over African Queen: Sinbad and Marina (Catherine Zeta-Jones), sailing through rough waters, hate and flirt in equal measure, until at last theirs becomes an undeniable love. (Their banter, punctuated by the sound of slamming doors, is more Rock Hudson-Doris Day.)
Speaking of queens, not since The Road to El Dorado has a studio cartoon played so willfully, unabashedly gay: Sinbad's sent on his quest in order to save the life of his old friend Prince Proteus, whom the too-touchy Sinbad says he met during a sword fight, and one presumes it wasn't at David Geffen's house. There's copious attention given the hard, dangerously pointy nipples of Kale, a barrel- and bare-chested first mate voiced by 24's Dennis Haysbert; and there's even a relatively long, loving shot of Sinbad's partially revealed ass cheek. At least the movie doesn't skimp on accurate portrayals of long voyages at sea in close quarters, where men were men and women.
All Sinbad has going for it is Pfeiffer's Eris, the self-proclaimed Goddess of Discord who resembles the wicked women of old Disney -- the queen from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs crossed with Maleficent of Sleeping Beauty. Eris appears as a form of fragile malevolence that can become giant-sized or a trail of lingering smoke (from one of Cruella DeVil's cigarettes, perhaps); she's a teasing seductress trolling a land of eunuchs, a character trying to keep herself entertained since no one else can amuse her. Eris, who lives in a land the entrance to which resembles an enormous vagina, and who's voiced by Pfeiffer as though it's last call and she's a little too lonely, enlivens an otherwise moribund and moralizing tale. It strives to teach children about sacrifice and loyalty, but never seems so engaged as when throwing harmless roadblocks in Sinbad's way. You come to wish for Eris to triumph, or at least get her own three-picture deal at Disney.