The character of Sinbad the Sailor has his origins in a group of Arabic tales, but is probably most familiar to Western audiences through the massive cinematic spectacles of 1958’s The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and 1974’s The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, famous for their Ray Harryhausen stop-motion effects. It was perhaps this spectacle that Dreamworks Animation sought to capture with their 2003 film Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, though the film mistakenly places the Islamic tale in a Mediterranean world of Greeks and their gods. Despite being helmed by a capable captain, Tim Johnson of Antz, and Dreamworks’ usual crew of celebrity voices, including Brad Pitt, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Joseph Fiennes, audiences were in no hurry to board. The Sinbad brand had been in drydock too long, and the harbor that summer was crowded with other vessels, but the Dreamworks rear admirals blamed the film’s sinking on its 2D animation (much as their enemy admiralty at Disney had done with Treasure Planet the previous summer), and they dedicated themselves anew to 3D films with quickly dated pop culture references and flavor-of-the-month voice actors.
Dreamworks Animation had tried to outgun the enemy Disney fleet by bringing on many veterans of that armada for their animated division, and that meant bringing Cap’n Hans Zimmer and his scurvy crew of proteges aboard. Zimmer himself had taken the helm on many of the projects, but his mates Harry Gregson-Williams and John Powell had been responsible for many as well, including such hits as Antz,, Chicken Run, and Shrek, all of them energetic and creative voyages that had little in common with Cap’n Zimmer’s evolving “wall of sound” approach. By 2003, Powell had sailed for warmer ports and would go on to become the primary musical voice for rival Blue Sky studios; it therefore fell to Gregson-Williams to helm Sinbad solo as a scoremaster cap’n of his own. Newly promoted Cap’n Gragson-Williams responded enthusiastically, with a swashbucklery that hadn’t been seen since Cutthroat Island nearly a decade ago, creating in the process a sound that would serve his other efforts for fantasy/adventure blockbusters for the rest of the 2000s.
Cap’n Gregson-William’s primary idea for Sinbad is a piece of rousing orchestral swashbuckling derring-do, soaring to life in “Let the Games Begin” and “The Sea Monster.” While the theme is a rousing bit of seafaring excitement when it’s in full-on heroic mode, the real treat is to see how skillfully Cap’n Gregson-Williams steers it into other waters. Sinbad’s theme is present in a dizzying variety of guises, from playful romance as in “Chipped Paint” to melancholy contemplation as in “Is It the Shore or the Sea?” and even a vague Latin lit in “Rescue!” It’s mixed into nearly ever track as a primary idea or counterpoint, and the sheer number of ways that the composer twists and manipulates the theme keeps it from becoming played out or seeming repetitive–an extraordinary fit of seamanship that would make any other scoremaster on the high seas proud.
As incongruous as it was to see Sinbad and Greek myth sailing in formation, it was almost as odd for Cap’n Gregson-Williams to take much of his inspiration from the piratey scores of Erich Wolfgang Korngold (perhaps filtered through Cap’n Debney’s Cutthroat Island), as Bernard Herrmann, Miklos Rosza, and Roy Budd had left their own distinctive stamps on Sinbads past. And it’s true that Gregson-Williams’ primary idea for the heroic sailor is as piratey and swashbuckling as they come, but much more so than Debney he put his own stamp on the music through his incorporation of female voices and light electronic enhancements. The electronics are generally subtle; pulses and synth tambourines in “Rescue!” and an electric violin that directly prefigures the sound Cap’n Gregson-Williams would use in his Narnia scores.
But it’s the vocals where Gregson-Williams really turns the swashbuckling formula on its ear and steers the sound into his own waters. Frequent collaborator Lisbeth Scott is behind the solo vocals in Sinbad, and they are a delight, pure and simple: used to represent the film’s villainess, Eris the goddess of chaos, the snarky and staccato vocals give the music a playfully dangerous edge that is excellent counterpoint to the more straightforward heroics of Sinbad’s own malleable theme. Cap’n Gregson-Williams combines the theme with oboe and woodwinds for Eris’s mischief in places like “Let the Games Begin” and “Eris Steals the Book” to great effect, but when combined with the full power of the orchestra and the London Metro Voices, the effect is electric. “Sirens” is undoubtedly the score’s high point, combining Scott’s cooing Eris vocals with sharp statements of Sinbad’s theme across a sea of sound both alluring and dangerous. As with Cap’n Debney’s own Cutthroat Island, the only real drawback is the sometimes overwhelming volume and length of the music, but Cap’n Gregson-Williams is able to break things up with some gentler music to the extent that it’s even less of a problem here than in Debney’s piratey classic.
With the failure of Sinbad,, the Dreamworks admiralty pulled back sharply from any movie, and any score, that might make waves, with a succession of mostly safe and bland 3D blockbusters to follow. For his part, Gregson-Williams would serve as scoremaster for many of these subsequent voyages, sequels to Shrek that sailed with depressing regularity and without much of the spark that had animated Sinbad’s swashbucklery. But he would have the opporunity to use many of the skills he’d honed on the project with scores like Kingdom of Heaven, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and Prince Caspian; while none of these later scores matched Sinbad,, its stylistic fingerprints are easy to see. Still, as with his shipmate Cap’n John Debney, many of Gregson-Williams’ fans wait anxiously for the day when he will abandon the textual scores that have become his recent bread-and-butter for a return to swashbuckling adventure on the high seas.