Issue 58 (2017)

Vladlen Barbe: Sinbad: Pirates of the Seven Storms (Sindbad: piraty semi shtormov, 2016)

reviewed by Mihaela Mihailova© 2017

sinbadSinbad: Pirates of the Seven Storms is a 2016 feature produced by CTB company (of “bogatyr” franchise fame) and Skazka Studio and directed by Vladlen Barbe, whose previous credits include the computer-generated feature The Snow Queen (Snezhnaia koroleva,2012), arguably one of the most successful recent animated features to come out of Russia. Unfortunately, this film does not have the franchising or export potential that distinguished Barbe’s earlier effort, as it is more uneven and less polished from both a visual and narrative point of view. The storyline revolves around young Sinbad, an awkward, gangly lad who fancies himself a great pirate. In reality, however, he and his motley crew (featuring, among others, burly twins Shumir and Kashmir, a mute boy with snake-charming skills named Shrimp, and a rat), have been unable to plunder a single ship. Enter Antioch, a shifty old magician with sinister motives, who offers Sinbad a chance to prove himself on a risky treasure hunt. The crew, now joined by Sinbad’s childhood friend Solara, take the bait immediately, sailing off for the mysterious Skeleton Island. There, they face mythical beasts, battle Kesam (Sinbad’s equally inept childhood frenemy turned pirate rival), and ultimately confront Antioch following his predictable treachery.

If the plot sounds formulaic, that is because Sinbad plays it completely safe in constructing entry-level popcorn family entertainment. The film is clearly geared towards younger audiences and constructed accordingly. Barbe takes no visual or narrative risks; his characters are paper-thin and often downright silly. The dialogue—as well as the film itself—is instantly forgettable. The story, an all-too-familiar merry band of misfits construct with a half-hearted romance tacked on, offers few surprises and seems content to rush towards its predictable denouement without giving much thought to character development. In the narrative department, Sinbad is as run-of-the-mill as they come.

sinbadA particularly weak point of the script is the obligatory heterosexual romance between the inept hero and his childhood friend Solara, who idolizes him despite his obvious incompetence. The majority of their interactions throughout the movie are completely devoid of chemistry and, in many cases, border on cringeworthy. Worse yet, Solara’s character is a wasted opportunity. After being introduced as a clever and dynamic young woman who can hold her own with a sword, she transforms into a damsel in distress within less than an hour of screen time. Her role on the ship seems confined largely to cooking, pining for Sinbad, and being repeatedly reminded by him  that having a woman on board means  bad luck. Despite Solara’s contributions (she was the one enterprising enough to secure them the ship in the first place), Sinbad only starts giving her the time of day after a particularly gratuitous scene, which requires the entire crew to strip down to their underwear (hers is pink). The fact that this is the best Sinbad has to offer to its only female character (aside from the genie) is as disappointing as it is expected in a film that is more than happy to follow existing models.

Speaking of predictability, Sinbad is visually consistent with the look and feel characteristic of its production company’s animated output. CTB-sponsored cartoons tend to feature a mix of caricature-based character designs and beautiful, evocative backgrounds resembling landscape painting, and this one is no exception. In particular, early shots of Sinbad’s hometown from his childhood and later shots of the open seas are rendered in serene hues of pink, purple, and gold. The overall effect of combining these shots with the comically stylized characters is more than a little jarring, but in shots depicting the background, one may momentarily imagine watching an entirely different film. Perhaps the most bizarre and visually inconsistent compositions occur whenever the film decides to combine CGI with the aforementioned landscapes. As shown in shot 1, the visual contrast between the cloudy blue sky background, with its traditional animation look à la Disney romanticism, and the three-dimensional CGI look of the waves in the foreground is unnatural and distracting. This effect is particularly keenly felt during the second battle between Sinbad’s crew and that of his rival, which features giant, realistically rendered three-dimensional CGI waves crashing against two-dimensional cartoony characters.

sinbadGiven the subject matter, comparisons with Aladdin (Ron Clements and John Musker, 1992) are inevitable, but in this case, certain similarities go questionably far. In particular, a chase scene in which Sinbad and his pirate comrade are pursued across rooftops and manage to escape via clever use of clotheslines strongly resembles a similar episode in the Disney feature. This is not the only obvious borrowing; Robin Williams’s Genie character is reincarnated as a sassy purple female named Maaba with a penchant for practical jokes. She is conceived as a shape-shifting blob who occasionally, and unnecessarily, takes the form of a voluptuous woman. It is indeed fortunate that Sergei Eisenstein is not here to see what became of his theory of animation’s plasmatic qualities, its “rejection of once-and-forever allotted form, freedom from ossification, the ability to dynamically assume any form” (Leyda 1986: 21). The practice of creating a pastiche of imagery and gags from American mainstream features is also not new to CTB-produced films; for instance, many critics, including David MacFadyen (2005) have remarked on certain similarities between their feature Alesha Popovich and Tugarin the Serpent (Alesha Popovich i Tugarin Zmei, dir. Konstantin Bronzit, 2004) and Shrek (dir. Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson, 2001).

Sinbad frequently finds itself lost at sea when it comes to pacing, too. It feels too rushed to the point of resembling a series of underdeveloped episodes more than a coherent, compelling story. In particular, the third act introduces interesting monsters (a sea monster, a cyclops, The Roc bird), but gives each of them mere minutes of screen time. For example, the encounter with a giant, skeletal dragon-like sea monster has the potential to become an excellent action set piece, but instead fizzles out almost immediately, resolved without any real sense of suspense or danger. Similarly, the confrontation with Antioch begins and ends so abruptly that it feels like an afterthought as opposed to the climax of the story.

sinbadGiven that Sinbad’s original marketing emphasizes the soundtrack-which features Alisa Vox, former vocalist of the rock band Leningrad, as well as musician and television personality Aleksandr Pushnoi—one would expect musical numbers to play at least a somewhat important role in the film. However, this is not the case. While the three song and dance interludes featured in Sinbad are sufficiently catchy (“Zhizn’ pirata” in particular is quite an earworm), they don’t add much to the film, partially because—to return to the pacing issues—they are not allowed sufficient screen time to actually make an impression.

Overall, what takes the wind out of Sinbad’s sails is its general refusal to commit to developing its own story, characters, and even certain key scenes in a way that would make them compelling and memorable as opposed to barely sketched out. The good news is: it is still perfectly passable as family entertainment. Younger viewers, especially those who have grown up watching endless “bogatyr” sequels, should be sufficiently amused by this familiar offering. The film’s competent slapstick humor, colorful monsters, and dynamic fight scenes will be enough to hold their attention. Adults are less likely to want to jump on board, but may at least find solace in the film’s forgiving runtime.

Mihaela Mihailova
Michigan State University

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Works Cited

Leyda, Jay. 1986. Eisenstein on Disney. London: Methuen.

MacFadyen, David. 2005. “Konstantin Bronzit, Alesha Popovich and Tugarin the Serpent.” KinoKultura 9.

Sinbad: Pirates of the Seven Storms, Russia, 2016
Animation, 77 minutes
Director: Vladlen Barbe
Scriptwriters: Aleksandr Arkhipov, Maksim Sveshnikov, Vadim Sveshnikov
Producers: Georgii Gitis, Sergei Selianov
Production Companies: CTB Film Company, Skazka Studio, with support from the Cinema Foundation
Voice Actors: Andrei Levin, Marina Lisovets, Dmitrii Nagiev, Katerina Shpitsa, Iurii Stoianov

Vladlen Barbe: Sinbad: Pirates of the Seven Storms (Sindbad: piraty semi shtormov, 2016)

reviewed by Mihaela Mihailova© 2017

Updated: 2017