I never thought I’d see the day when I catch myself saying ‘bring back the Disney musicals.” As the studio has progressed year after year since The Little Mermaid in 1989, they’ve slowly brought themselves away from the more traditional animated fare of old into areas of greater adventure, darker material and absentee songs. Just when they had got back on track with the marvelous Tarzan in the animation, story and song department, they brought out last year’s Dinosaur, a visual masterpiece that was a piece of another kind in the story department. Then it scrapped all its musical numbers for The Emperor’s New Groove (once called Kingdom in the Sun) in favor of a more wacky Disneyfied version of a Warner Bros. cartoon. Now it attempts to rise up the legend of Atlantis in a straightforward adventure tale inherently inspired by Jules Verne and sinks into a colossal abyss of disappointment.
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Gone are the days when Verne was able to inspire readers with tales of rocketships and underwater vessels because (somehow) humans were able to catch-up with his imagination and make them a reality. While Atlantis may seem like a tribute to those tales, the filmmakers have missed the boat on what made them so special – the wonder and sense of discovery.
The impending discovery here, of course, is that legendary lost city that sank into the ocean so many moons ago. After an introduction to that sunken utopia that is a promise of things to come, we meet Milo Thatch (voice by Michael J. Fox), a nerdy cartographer with dreams of grandeur in the basement of the museum where he works. His grandfather used to spark his fancy with tales of Atlantis and the endless search for its ultimate resting place, prompting Milo to continue the quest through a tidal wave of unbelievers.
Milo eventually gets his chance when Preston B. Whitmore (John Mahoney), an old friend of grandpa, finances an adventure that puts the nerdy map reader in the position of resident expert. The hunt is led by Commander Lyle T. Rourke (James Garner) with a racially-diverse crew including the luscious Helga Sinclair (Claudia Christian), Dr. Joshua Sweet (Phil Morris a.k.a. Seinfeld’s Jackie Childs), explosives expert Vinny Santorini (Don Novello, relying on his Father Guido Sarducci persona), tomboyish Audrey Ramirez (Jacqueline Obradors) and Gaetan “The Mole” Moliere (Corey Burton) who is an annoying cross between the Peanuts’ PigPen and Peter Lorre on a coke jag.
So their journey begins in a vessel closely resembling Captain Nemo’s Nautilus, dodging large underwater creatures until they practically discover the lost empire purely by accident. It was refreshing to get to this destination well before the final ten minutes, but by being treated with such nonchalance, our imagination is left thirsting like Lawrence in the desert.
With still a second half of a movie to fill up, we get a cheap tour of the city (except in one grand mountaintop shot) by the buxom thighmaster that is Princess Kida (Cree Summer) and have to suffer through yet another one of those pesky plots to rape and pillage the treasures of the secret society. Why? Why? Why does there have to be such a conspiracy? Haven’t we had enough movies that tried to teach us about human nature destroying the beauties of the world? Of course, this plot has been telegraphed earlier in the proceedings. I won’t tell you where, except to keep an eye on the biggest character with the deepest voice.
As a film that promises to deliver adventure and thrills, Atlantis becomes a bigger disappointment with each passing scene. How can Disney even think to resort to a kind of fallback animation (as they did with Hercules and Emperor’s New Groove) when year by year they continue to up the anime ante every time they’re challenged by either Dreamworks, Warner Bros or the Japanese? Atlantis’ images are positively Saturday morning-ish, failing to cornea the market with the visual artiste masterstrokes that made up such recent fare as Tarzan and Dinosaur. And if Disney isn’t careful, their animation empire is likely to suffer the same fate as Atlantis.
In an era where computer technology and animation is poised to eclipse the accomplishments of live-action spectacles, how can films like Atlantis and last year’s Titan A.E. fall so flat on the excitement scale. With the exception of one sequence where giant statues protect the city, none of the action in Atlantis even comes close to disturbing your adrenaline flow. Even the confrontation climax is disturbingly bland compared to other animated face-offs and chases. A single shot in Shrek (sweeping over the bridge) provides more thrills than anything found in Atlantis.
Another major problem is the film’s hero in Milo. It’s always nice to see a nerdy brainiac in the position to save the day, but Milo is such a weasily little nerd that its hard to root for him because you keep wanting to tell him to shut up and be a man. Such thoughts could have been put to detention if Milo’s brain had been allowed to predicate the state of adventure with the sense of discovery that only an “expert” like Milo could lead us all to.
Not all of the voice talent goes to waste as both Novello and Morris bring a lot of fun to their roles as a guy who LOVES to blow anything and everything up and another whose matter-of-fact common sense gets a smile everytime. Florence Stanley takes to the Lily Tomlin world of comedy with her submariner switchboard operator and Jim Varney turns in one final very amusing performance as the cook who’s never heard of the word cholesterol. However, Corey Burton sucks the laugh quotient right out of the movie as “The Mole” who turns in the most irritating, unintelligible voicework since Ahmed Best as Jar Jar Binks.
For years I’ve been saying that animated scripts have always seemed richer than your average summertime fluff piece (and most films in general) because it takes so much time and effort to create the images that there’s time to perfect the story. Not so with Atlantis. It’s only logical that since most action films these days have more computer imagery than humans, that animation is the next evolution for the adventure film. Situations can be created that you wouldn’t be able to do with natural cinematography and special effects creations would seem more real since everything in the film is painted with the same brush. Hopefully, this summer’s Final Fantasy will be the first step forward in this thinking because Atlantis: The Lost Empire is certainly a giant step backward.