Imagine all the “so bad, they’re good” movies you possibly can. Now, focus only on those that are important to the history and advancement of cinema. Have that handful in mind? Good. If any you’re picturing are live action, trash them. How many does that leave you? Be honest: probably none. This brings us to today’s review: “Sinbad, Beyond The Veil Of Mists.” It was the first animated movie to be made entirely with motion capture. Without what was learned during the making of this movie, we wouldn’t have Gollum from “The Lord of the Rings,” nor Robert Zemeckis’ career from the last decade. It’s peculiar that all of these much better movies hinged upon a movie this patently ridiculous.
Sporting an impressive cast — Brendan Fraser as Sinbad, Leonard Nimoy as the villainous wizard Baraka, John Rhys-Davies as King Akron, Mark Hamill as Captain of the Guard, and voice actress extraordinaire Jennifer Hale as Princess Serena — it’s surprising that this film didn’t have a wider release, or that it isn’t better known.
With a severely truncated production time, things were rushed during the production and several key members of the crew were fired during the all important post. The co-directors wanted two years for the film, and the producers gave them six months. However, due to a critical lack of cameras available to handle the performers (the cameras could only process four actors at a time, thus several action scenes were shot multiple times) or delineate the sets properly, and even fewer capable of ‘digital puppetry,’ the production went over schedule by a year. During that time though, higher quality, quicker cameras that were compatible with timecodes were created based on what the production had to overcome.
With its cast and importance to cinema history, just what makes this movie so bad? Some unwieldy dialogue, a seemingly confused performance, and the biggest sin of all, character animation. With all the technological issues, the terrible animation is understandable. But it’s also what makes this so much fun.
The plot is your typical Sinbad yarn: the evil wizard, saved from near death by the naive Princess Serena, trades bodies with the king. Serena hires Sinbad to help discover how to reverse it. It’s not dissimilar to Harryhausen’s last Sinbad hurrah, the under-appreciated “Sinbad And The Eye Of The Tiger.” And in several respects, this movie does things right. First and most importantly, the title character is quite spot on.
“I don’t know what books you’ve been reading, but the world isn’t flat. Hasn’t been for years.”
“You’re asking me, I’ve been lost since the manta ray cave.”
These two lines from Sinbad show a real understanding of how to create a true adventure story. The background designs and level of detail are also good, often overshadowing the lumbering character animation. Footprints left in the sand and reflections in the water add a weight to the world not found in the character animation.
But when a character grips anything — a rope, or a sword — there’s clearly a void between the item and the hand itself. Whether they’re dancing, running, or jumping, there’s a disconnect between the characters and the ground. The level of detail in the character animation is hilariously non-existent. Elbows resemble silly putty, a detail that makes every scene amusing . Each movement is jerky and awkward. Considering that this production was created to show off what mo-cap can do, it’s notable that when there isn’t enough money or technology available, the final product stalls out despite the best of intentions.
While little gestures that’d be almost unfathomable to render using typical animation techniques are captured, all the characters look clumsy and unrealistic. During the establishing shot of a tavern, it appears as though the character animations are looped. This gives everything a jarring, rigid look that is pretty ludicrous. The shape interpolation, used to render facial expressions, was either barely used or so rudimentary that it couldn’t help but pale in comparison to the well-crafted backgrounds. For instance, a desperate plea for help (“I just want my father back!”) is severely undercut of any emotional resonance due to the severely limited facial range. The characters have nearly the same expressions whether they’re meant to be scared, awed, frustrated, or happy. Couple that with the unimpressive voice acting from 95% of the cast and you’ve got a real groaner.
All of the minor characters sound as if they were rushed through the ADR to free up time for the bigger actors. This leads to some confusion, especially aboard the ship, since many of them sound indistinguishable from each other.
On the other hand, Nimoy overacts like a true champ and infuses his scenes with a breath of life that’s missing from many other parts. Fraser fares the absolute best. He injects humor, warmth, and a sense of thrill seeking that illustrates just how much everyone cared about this film. John Rhys-Davies and Mark Hamill are good, but if you didn’t know it was them, you probably wouldn’t guess it.
This leaves poor Jennifer Hale. As great as she has been throughout her career, she’s god awful here, sounding like someone doing a bad valley girl impersonation as opposed to a naive princess who wants to genuinely help.
The script doesn’t give Hale anything to work with, as her character has very little development. Aside from a few blunder-headed lines, the script’s big issue is its focus on showing Sinbad’s progression at the expense of the other characters. It’s too bad too, as with one solid rewrite this could have been an almost perfectly written adventure.
While terribly animated, the action scenes have a frantic, kinetic energy that leads to some fun. They’re also surprisingly bloody, especially during a demonic bat fight. The bats look gnarly and straight from the mouth of hell, which keeps things engaging.
Later a mystical underwater race is revealed, and they’re badass. A decent amount of thought was put into the design of their civilization and language. But those elements aren’t given enough time to be explored. At 85 minutes, and feeling quite rushed (especially closer to the end), time to slow down and explore what this new world means for our characters would have not only been welcome, but could have provided some necessary gravitas.
The ending is especially rushed. The climax involves Sinbad and Serena getting to her kingdom in time to stop the execution of King Akron (still body switched as Baraka), getting everyone to their proper bodies and living happily ever after. All of which happens in five minutes or less. This demands a solid ten minute sword fight scene, with rope swings, near misses, and the like…but we don’t get that. No thrills are to be had there.
In spite of honorable intent, some truly inspired moments, and my own personal preference for the adventure genre, the technology and time just weren’t present to make this film a success. The terrible character animation, bad lead performance, and rushed pacing do provide plenty of laughs, though. I hope “Sinbad, Beyond The Veil Of Mists” takes its rightful place upon the mantle of “so bad, they’re good” movies soon.