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That Sinking Feeling

Sinbad DVD coverAt a tribute to the veteran Disney animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston last spring, Jeffrey Katzenberg, one of the DreamWorks studio's principals and the guiding hand behind its animated features, said that he re-read Thomas and Johnston's The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation every year during his family's vacation in Hawaii. Katzenberg said he learned new things from what he called "the Bible" every time he read it: "No two people have taught me more about making animated movies."

On the evidence of the latest DreamWorks animated feature, Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, Katzenberg's enthusiasm for The Illusion of Life is all too credible. That book sanctifies the bad habits that flourished in the wretched Disney features of the seventies—hammy movie-star voices, literal movement, slovenly writing, self-indulgent "personality animation." It is just such bad habits, refined and elaborated to an extent the Disney animators of the seventies could hardly have imagined, that make Sinbad such a trial to watch.

Start with the voices—or, rather, with Sinbad's voice, since Brad Pitt's vocal performance defines the character. Defines him as smug, shallow, flippant, demanding, and self-absorbed almost to the point of solipsism—defines him, in effect, as a movie star, one whose pirate crew is the equivalent of the coat-holders who cluster around the famous. I'm not speaking here of Pitt himself. I have no idea if he fits that movie-star profile. That Sinbad should come across as a spoiled movie star is not a reflection on Pitt, but is instead the natural outcome of the increasing reliance on star voices since the days of The Illusion of Life.

Although the earlier Disney features sometimes used recognizable voices—as with Ed Wynn and Jerry Colonna in Alice in Wonderland—it wasn't until the late sixties and early seventies, just after Walt Disney's death, that Wolfgang Reitherman and his collaborators really loaded the features with voices familiar from live-action films and television. Even then, though, British-born character actors like George Sanders, Peter Ustinov, and Terry-Thomas shaped their vocal performances to harmonize with the filmmakers' conception of the animated characters. Silly though the casting sometimes was for other roles, it was still true that no one could seriously argue that Pat Buttram was signed as the Sheriff of Nottingham's voice in Robin Hood for his marquee value.

The balance shifted in the nineties, thanks first to Robin Williams's razzle-dazzle turn as the Genie in Aladdin, and then to Tom Hanks's and Tim Allen's performances as Woody and Buzz Lightyear in the Toy Story films. Now the advertising for animated features like Ice Age, Shrek, and Sinbad routinely lists the names of the principal voices above the film's title, as if Brad Pitt and Catherine Zeta-Jones were appearing on screen.

They're not, of course, and that's the fatal flaw in the new emphasis on star voices. Movie stars remain movie stars even when their voices are dubbed, but no one buys a ticket for Chicago just to hear Catherine Zeta-Jones talk. The straighter the voices—as with most of the performers in Sinbad—the larger the problem. The DreamWorks people, stuck with a Brad Pitt, had to find some way to make his voice say "movie star." As it turned out, they did that by giving him dialogue that suggests what you might hear from a movie star who is play-acting at being a pirate. Pitt's performance is careless and lazy, but who can blame him—his smart-ass lines (presumably the work of John Logan, a screenwriter who has otherwise written for live action) demand such contemptuous readings.

The vocal performances by the other three above-the-title actors—Zeta-Jones, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Joseph Fiennes—are not so alienating as Pitt's, but neither can they plug the hole created by the peculiar conception of Sinbad's personality. The drawing and animation, like the voices, are prevailingly straight and literal, slipping often into what have become DreamWorks clichés—how many times have we seen that bug-eyed half-smile?

With so much of the film a wasteland, the occasional well-crafted action sequence serves only as a reminder of how much better a film Sinbad could have been if the filmmakers had approached it differently. Absent characters that command sympathy and interest, however, animated action sequences can be no more than technical exercises of greater or lesser virtuosity. There's not the fillip that live action can provide, through awareness that real people are performing those stunts, perhaps at some peril to their skins. If audience interest in live-action adventure films is cooling, as it seems to be, that may be because so much of what is on the screen is not real but is now computer-generated, and as cold and empty as Sinbad.

Although much of Sinbad originated in computers, in the action sequences in particular, the characters themselves are almost entirely hand-drawn. In the wake of Sinbad's failure at the box office, various journalists have proclaimed the passing of traditional animation. Sinbad bears the names of two directors, Tim Johnson and Patrick Gilmore, but it is really Jeffrey Katzenberg's film, and it will be ironic indeed if Sinbad's failure severely damages the medium to which Katzenberg has proclaimed his devotion. How much better off animation and its admirers would be if Katzenberg had never slept with The Illusion of Life under his pillow.

[Posted July 2003]