'Sinbad' Sails Across the Same Old Seas

Though you wouldn't know it from "Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas," the original Sinbad was a merchant from Baghdad, a truth-stretching, tale-spinning protagonist of the celebrated Arabian Nights. If he appeared on the scene today, he might be detained by John Ashcroft rather than appear as the hero of a new animated feature.

The latest version of "Sinbad" is a pleasure to look at. It's filled with fine, imaginative moves and an overarching sense of visual freedom, a feeling of play that entices us into enjoyment. But, when it comes to dialogue and story, this "Sinbad" apparently used up all its initiative in changing its hero's ethnicity to generic Greco-Roman. There's little here that isn't overly familiar and formulaic, nothing that's even in the same arena with the eye candy of those vivid adventures.

What mainstream animation desperately needs is men (and women) to match its mountains -- creators able to bring the same sense of excitement to the drama that has become almost second nature to the art. It's been managed in items like DreamWorks' "Shrek" and Pixar's "Finding Nemo," it just has to happen more often.

It's especially dispiriting to see this conventionality in a film driven by Eris (voiced by Michelle Pfeiffer), the Goddess of Discord and a major believer in "glorious chaos." If anyone would like to see a story that tries for something different, it would have to be her.

Eris gets things moving by spying on "a noble prince, a priceless treasure, and a black-hearted thief" all about to come together on the open seas of an ancient world where humans are playthings of the gods. "This is going to be fun," she enthuses. "Let the games begin."

Said treasure is "the world's most valuable object, on its way to Syracuse." No, it's not the NCAA basketball trophy headed for upstate New York, it's something called the Book of Peace, which is headed for that other Syracuse, where it has guaranteed international security for generations.

Guarding it is a king's son, Proteus (Joseph Fiennes), noble as advertised. The black-hearted thief is Sinbad (Brad Pitt), but anyone who believes he's really black-hearted also probably believes that "Sinbad" producer Jeffrey Katzenberg and Disney's Michael Eisner like to get together and split a six-pack every chance they get.

Sinbad and Proteus, it turns out, were inseparable childhood friends until something mysterious came between them a decade ago. It's not completely clear where Sinbad has been in the interim, but given the line of patter screenwriter John Logan ("Gladiator") has written for directors Tim Johnson and Patrick Gilmore, hanging out with stand-up comics in Las Vegas seems like a good possibility.

Continuing a trend that has become a veritable animation plague, Sinbad's dialogue consists of nonstop wisecracks of the "things to do, places to go, stuff to steal" variety. "Did you catch that last move, pretty cool," he says mid-sword fight, and punctuates the tossing of an explosive into a fish with the glib "stand by for sushi!"

The original reason for this type of chat was probably to amuse adults who have to accompany their children. But it has become so hollow and repetitive, it might not be a bad idea for someone to simply do an animated feature on Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack and be done with it.

Through a variety of plot turns, Sinbad ends up chasing the Book of Peace in the general direction of Eris' domain of Tartarus.

Accompanying him is Proteus' fiancee, the feisty and beautiful Lady Marina (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who ignores Sinbad's antediluvian "a ship is no place for a woman" wails and proves herself to be as fine an action hero as any man.

Many of Sinbad's best visuals come on the trip to Tartarus, including a spooky ride through the ever-dangerous Dragon's Teeth and encounters with enormous mythological beasts, whose huge computer-generated forms make an interesting contrast with the film's hand-drawn characters. Possibly best of all are the legendary sirens, whose seductive yet watery forms are both fantastical and completely convincing.

Along the way, "Sinbad" endeavors to answer the question asked of the protagonist by Marina early on: "Which are you, a thief or a hero?" She's probably the only one in the theater who really doesn't know.