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SINBAD, OR, WHAT?S THE USE OF ANIMATION?

10 March 2007

I happened to have the misfortune of watching Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, the Dreamworks animated feature film from 2003. I would like to take this as an opportunity to rant a bit. Note that Sinbad, though certainly not reaching for instance the pinnacle that was Prince of Egypt, and perhaps only maybe the worst of what Disney has to offer, is not necessarily a horrible movie. It has its merits. But I'm still going to nail it to the wall for a philosophical flaw that occurs a lot of times in animation to their unfortunate detriment.

And this can be summed up in one slightly hysterical question: What's the use of making an animation when all you're going to do is try to make it as realistic as possible?! Sinbad is a tale from the Arabian Nights that could be compared to some of the stuff from Greek myths as described by the likes of Homer: there's lots of capricious gods, crazy spiritual adventures, larger than life monsters and whatnot. You would say: that is excellent material for animation. No other form of film making lends itself so well to depicting distorted characters and crazy stuff that doesn't show up in the real world. Right?

But no! Sinbad tries to stay as close as possible to realism, and in doing so completely nullifies any reason not to just simply have it be a live-action movie. You might make the mistake of looking at all the outlandish stuff that is in the there: the monsters, and even the design which is classical Disney ripoff; a little bit abstracted and decidedly 'cartoony'. However, if you look further, you will see that this is only its visual outer shell. Inside, the characters act, talk, move and express themselves bound by the terrible restrictions of real life. Expressions in the face are extremely subtle and underplayed, there is never any distortion (heaven forbid the lead character's face should be anything less than perfectly even and pretty!) and there's just no, no reason why this should be an animated film at all.

So why are the crippling rules and dogmas of this terribly constricted style used so often in American animation? Is it simply the complacency of the director or creative engineer to rest with whatever has worked in the past, or the lack of any desire to push the medium further? Is it because of the perceived wiles of a fickle and uneducated audience that will not swallow anything that doesn't resemble real life or that which they already know? Jeffrey Katzenburg, CEO of Dreamworks, proclaimed after Sinbad flopped humongously that traditional animation was dead. But perhaps he didn't realise that it was a mercy killing. People may not have been tired of the medium at all. Rather, the medium has been woefully underused the past decades by the conservative companies that lorded over them. Their inability to think beyond the scope of 'realism' became its death knell. Animation should be used not to emulate what can be done in real life, but to explore what can't be.

Roderick.