Atlantis: The Lost Empire
Screenplay : Tab Murphy and Joss Whedon (story by Bryce Zabel and Jackie Zabel)
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 2001
Throughout the 1990s, Disney released a string of critically acclaimed and commercially successful animated movies, including Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), The Lion King (1994), and Tarzan (1998). All of these movies were structured in a similar manner involving a deft blend of action, romance, humor, sentimentality, traditional values, and musical numbers that has become synonymous with the Disney corporate logo.
Lately, Disney has been trying to break out of that mold. Last year brought us the delightfully humorous The Emperor's New Groove, which relied almost exclusively on slapstick comedy with only a slight reliance on sentimentality and no musical numbers. It was a breath of fresh air and a sign that Disney was realizing that same formula used in The Little Mermaid back in 1989 was getting tired and tiresome.
This summer, they have reached out again with Atlantis: The Lost Empire, which drops all pretenses of "the Disney formula" and strives to take its place in the slam-bang action-adventure category. Interestingly enough, though, it seems like Disney is reaching back into its old playbook, as Atlantis feels much like The Black Cauldron, its only other PG-rated, nonmusical boys' adventure movie, which was made in 1985 as a last act of desperation for an animation studio that was faced with the prospect of being shut down. Disney isn't even close to that point now, but with the incredible success of DreamWorks' computer-animated Shrek at the box office, they may be feeling some heat.
Unfortunately, like The Black Cauldron 16 years ago, Atlantis is something of a misfire, as the movie, despite being visually innovative, is somewhat clumsy in its melding of old-fashioned storybook adventurism with a modern sensibility. Directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, who previously codirected Beauty and the Beast and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), pare the narrative down to the essentials needed for a good adventure flick, but somehow they lost the magic needed to elevate the material. Part Indiana Jones, part Jules Verne, and part New-Age mystical hokum, Atlantis never coheres into anything beyond its individual parts.
The story takes place in 1914. Its protagonist is Milo Thatcher (well-voiced by Michael J. Fox), a skinny, goofy, but determined and aspiring young scholar who wants to carry on his deceased grandfather's mission to find the lost continent of Atlantis. When the board of the directors at the museum in which he works poo-poos the idea as myth, Milo is saved by an eccentric millionaire named Preston B. Whitmore (John Mahoney), an old friend of Milo's grandfather. Whitmore, whose enormous gothic home is a humorous homage to Citizen Kane, offers to personally finance an expedition to find Atlantis.
Next thing Milo knows, he's aboard an enormous submarine that looks like it came right out of the pages of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The assembled crew is a motley and comical bunch of ethnically and internationally diverse characters. The leader is a square-jawed military commander named Lyle T. Rourke (James Garner). His second-in-command is Helga (Claudia Christian), a slinky femme fatale who is probably the most overtly sexual creature featured in a Disney film since Jessica Rabbit (the PG-rating was supposedly for "action violence," whatever that means, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the MPAA thought Helga's sultry introduction in Milo's darkened apartment was a little too risque, which is why it's such a good scene).
The rest of crew is made up of a bizarre French digger nicknamed The Mole (Corey Burton); an African-American physician named Dr. Sweet (Phil Morris); a teenage Latina mechanic named Audrey (Jacqueline Obradors); an Italian demolitions expert named Vinny (Don Novello); and the good 'ol Southern-fried American cook, "Cookie" Farnsworth (Jim Varney), who thinks that the four basic food groups consist of beans, bacon, whiskey, and lard (the funniest line in the movie, in my opinion). Amazingly enough, each of these characters manages to create an impression beyond their ethnic and national characteristics, and together they form what amounts to one giant comical sidekick character with many faces.
Atlantis starts off well enough as Milo and company descend into the depths of the ocean, using a book called "The Shepherd's Diary," which is written in an ancient language that only Milo can interpret, to lead them. They encounter a giant mechanical leviathan that almost sinks them, and soon find their way along a buried highway beneath the ocean's floor to the sunken city of Atlantis. Once there, the story slowly bogs down into a murky saga about how the citizens of Atlantis are slowly dying and most of Milo's crew show their true, money-grubbing, mercenary colors by stealing a giant glowing crystal that is Atlantis' source of life.
The movie's animation consists of a nice combination of traditional cell animation with computer-generated effects. The hand-drawn characters have a somewhat odd style, constructed primarily of sharply angular lines, with the exception of Helga, who looks like she's making a guest appearance from Heavy Metal (1981). Milo, with his oversized glasses and sharp, pointy face, makes for an amusing central character, but he's never very engaging. One of the movie's value-laden themes is the might of brains over brawn, but one almost wishes that the animators had put at least a little more meat on Milo's bones, especially since he's asked to become an action hero for the big climax.
Ultimately, Atlantis never soars because it doesn't seem to have a heart of its own. It's too much of an obvious concoction of other people's ideas and images, and it doesn't have anything new or particularly interesting to say with its material. It's designed through and through to be an adventure movie, and in that respect it is a success. But, considering that it was intended to be an experimental movie to test the waters, so to speak, of animation's future market potential, it is a bit disappointing that they didn't take it further instead of going back to 1985.
©2001 James Kendrick