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SINBAD: LEGEND OF THE SEVEN SEAS Despite its frequent reliance on computer graphics, this largely hails from the "old school" of hand-drawn animation, and like most recent efforts in that vein, it proves to be one dull affair. The advent of other modes of toon expression (seen in the eye-popping likes of Shrek, Chicken Run and the current Finding Nemo) doesn't mean that the traditional animated epic should now be treated as the domain of formula fodder -- the recent Spirited Away proved that -- but studios with their hands in the cartoon pot, like Disney, Fox and DreamWorks (which produced Sinbad), seem to be unable to break away from the paralyzing blueprint that rarely wavers from one hand-drawn film to the next. So just as Treasure Planet and The Road to El Dorado have already maintained the status quo of "been there, done that," so too does Sinbad elicit familiar yawns, reactions to its limp storyline about a plucky bad-boy hero (voiced by Brad Pitt) who tirelessly banters with a spunky lady love (Catherine Zeta-Jones) while battling a wicked goddess named Eris (I guess The Little Mermaid's Ursula wasn't available, though listening to Michelle Pfeiffer's purr in the part isn't exactly a chore). There are a pair of nifty sequences that pay tribute to such past fantasy tale spinners as Ray Harryhausen and Jules Verne, but for the most part, this is rough going -- even without the obligatory Bryan Adams tune clogging the soundtrack's arteries.

SPELLBOUND This may sound like so much hyperbole, but in a season packed with reloaded action sequels and superhero sagas, it's shocking to note that the most exciting movie of the summer is actually a modest documentary centering around words. Like Hoop Dreams and many of the other landmark documentaries, this Oscar-nominated gem is only ostensibly about one subject: At first glance, it's merely a piece about eight bright kids who are among the 249 finalists taking part in the 1999 National Spelling Bee. On this level alone, director Jeff Blitz has made a wonderful movie crammed with genuine suspense: Having become familiar with these eight students, we're sweating as each one is confronted with a word that most of us have never heard of before (let alone used), knowing that if they misspell it, they're out of the competition for good. Yet Blitz operates on other plateaus as well, forging subtle yet powerful examinations of the often unrealistic pressures parents place on their offspring, the social stigma among youths of being perceived by their peers as too smart, the ability of this one competition to represent different things to different families depending on their socioeconomic standing, and, especially significant in these pseudo-patriotic times, the real meaning of what it means to reach for that treasured piece of idealism known as the American Dream, blissfully ignoring the conditions that might prevent one's reach and grasp from squarely matching up.

TERMINATOR 3: RISE OF THE MACHINES In the category of Completely Unnecessary Sequels That Were Clearly Made For The Sole Purpose Of Milking More Money Out Of Franchises That Were Already Adequately Wrapped Up, it's just possible that this might be the new king of the hill. Clearly, sights are adjusted southward for this belated follow-up to two excellent Terminator films helmed by James Cameron, but on its own terms, this isn't bad, even if it's occasionally too redundant for its own good. Cameron is somewhat missed behind the camera and Linda Hamilton (the real series star) is largely missed before it, but director Jonathan Mostow and a trio of scripters treat the property with respect and, in effect, don't screw it up the way that, say, Alien 3 and The Fly II soiled the intent of their notable predecessors. Arnold Schwarzenegger's back in "good Terminator" mode, playing another T-101 who's been reprogrammed to journey back in time to our present to protect future leader John Connor (Nick Stahl) from being killed by the female T-X (Kristanna Loken), the most sophisticated cyborg created in the future world. Some interesting plot developments and a smashing (in both senses of the word) chase scene can't quite erase the familiarity of it all (nor the fact that Loken's T-X isn't even as half as interesting as Robert Patrick's T-1000 from the second flick), but this is still a valiant effort by all concerned. 1/2

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