That Sinking Feeling
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
seventieshammy 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 voicesor, 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 solipsismdefines 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
voicesas with Ed Wynn and Jerry Colonna in Alice in Wonderlandit
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
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 voicesas
with most of the performers in Sinbadthe 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 himhis
smart-ass lines (presumably the work of John Logan, a screenwriter
who has otherwise written for live action) demand such contemptuous
The vocal performances by the other three above-the-title actorsZeta-Jones,
Michelle Pfeiffer, and Joseph Fiennesare 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 clichéshow 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]