Arabian Noughts


What a difference 45 years makes. In The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), the first film given over to Ray Harryhausen’s nightmare menagerie of stop-motion creatures, a wizard prophesies “great disaster” for Bagdad (sic), our legendary sailor’s native city: “There are great buildings falling, women and children slain. I see . . . war!” He is banished for this unpopular viewpoint. The hyperbole now seems less B-movie apoplectic than headline-ripping apocalyptic. “Enjoy the sight,” he says as he takes his leave, “for soon it will be rubble and bleached bones.”

We shall skip over discussion of the comedian Sinbad, inexplicably popular in the late ’80s, and proceed directly to DreamWorks’ star-voxed animated feature, Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas. Here the threat of war remains, thanks to the machinations of Eris (Michelle Pfeiffer), the goddess of discord, yet some curious substitutions suggest fallout from our real-world war. Baghdad is the metropole that dare not speak its name; instead, Sinbad (Brad Pitt) has as home base a generic, sunset-suffused “Syracuse,” one of a dozen city-states united by the Book of Peace, which has gone missing. The proper names bear a Greco-Roman coat that seems like whitewash: prince and childhood friend Proteus (Joseph Fiennes) and his feisty fiancée, Marina (Catherine Zeta-Jones); Eris’s chaotic desert, Tartarus; Sinbad’s ship, the Chimera. Invoking the granddaddy of adventurers, Sinbad neatly deletes even the most superficial trappings that would bespeak the storytelling tradition of an enemy land.

“Enough talking, time for some screaming,” demands a bored Eris; enough cogent cultural analysis, time for consumer news: Yes, uh, the film is adept and generally enjoyable. Pitt and CZJ sound good together, though their cartoon incarnations regrettably resemble Billy Ray Cyrus and Enya. Harryhausen’s creatures are hard to match for sheer uncanniness, but some marvelous textures kick in here for the monster mashes, especially the Cthulhuan kraken and the island that turns out to be a massive fish (a creature-trope Borges also detects in Paradise Lost and allegorical Anglo-Saxon bestiaries). Adults will be dismayed or delighted to find some smutty visual jokes: Marina’s surprise when she grasps the handle of the ship’s wheel, and the climactic entrance of the Chimera into a luminous vertical slit.

He was Sinbad or Sindband or Sindiband, a merchant whose adventures are some of mankind’s oldest surviving stories, recounted in The Arabian Nights but with origins perhaps in the eighth century. This Sinbad fetishizes the Book of Peace, a grand blue tome that dazzles all who open it. In heft and power, it bears more than a slight resemblance to the one on my desk: Could the coveted text, thick as a Bible, be the latest, azure-covered installment of the Potteriad, sent through a wormhole to insinuate itself in the chapters of an earlier epic?