The backgrounds are mainly computer-generated. The sea monsters are too. But the human characters in this loose cartoon retelling of the ''Arabian Nights'' tale -- fortuitously set in the Mediterranean rather than Baghdad, which would have made it awkwardly topical -- are all hand-drawn figures. ''There's a kind of subtle animation acting you can only get out of pencil and paper,'' says codirector Timothy Johnson (''Antz''). ''Especially in close-ups.''
There's also a promotional boost you can get only by hiring top stars to provide 'toon voices. DreamWorks learned that with its computer-animated ''Shrek'' (which grossed nearly half a billion dollars worldwide), while last summer's story-is-the-star horse saga ''Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron'' stumbled out of the gate. Russell Crowe, in the DreamWorks stable because of ''Gladiator'' (also cowritten by ''Sinbad'' scribe John Logan), was initially in line to play the titular sailor/thief but fell out, reportedly over scheduling. In came Brad Pitt, who wanted to make a film his nieces and nephews could see. ''They can't get into my movies,'' he says. ''People's heads getting cut off, and all that.'' Pitt had tried out as the narrator of ''Spirit,'' but ''it didn't work, so Matt Damon ended up doing it.'' He worried Sinbad might not pan out either, since the character is Middle Eastern. ''Now he's Missourian,'' says Pitt. ''It bothers the purist in me.''
But the filmmakers insisted Pitt's Midwestern accent was just the mood lightener they wanted. Meanwhile, Michelle Pfeiffer struggled playing Eris, goddess of chaos. ''She likes to stir up trouble for Sinbad for sport,'' says the actress. ''Then she watches from above. Like her own form of reality TV.'' But getting the villainess right required multiple rewrites. ''First she was too sexual,'' says Pfeiffer. ''Then we lost the fun. After the third time, I called [DreamWorks cochief] Jeffrey Katzenberg and said, 'You know, you really can fire me.'' He assured me it was just part of the process.''