Atlantis (United States, 2001)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

What would summer be without a new animated spectacle from Walt Disney Pictures? In recent years, the arrival of warm weather in the Northern Hemisphere has augured the coming of the latest feature-length animated saga from the mega-corporation that holds Mickey Mouse and Regis Philbin in its back pocket. Yet, even though Atlantis: The Lost Empire has captured the traditional Disney summer slot, it's a non-traditional movie, at least by Disney standards. Gone are the songs, the cuddly animals, and the cute, comical sidekicks. In their place is a relatively straightforward adventure story that owes as much to anime as it does to Jules Verne and the Indiana Jones movies. (Someone even compared this to Die Hard, although I fail to see the connection.)

It's ironic to note that, in a summer that's shaping up to feature one live-action dud after another, two of the best sources of entertainment have been in the animated arena: Atlantis and Dreamworks' Shrek. Of course, as computer-generated special effects become increasingly important to live action films, the more blurred the line between "live action" and "animated" becomes. Then there are films like Final Fantasy, which seem determined to obliterate that line altogether. How much longer, I wonder before all science fiction/fantasy/adventure movies are predominantly animated?

Atlantis is from veteran Disney directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, whose previous credits include Beauty and the Beast (which is about to undergo an IMAX re-release next year, with seven minutes of additional footage) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The vocal talents represent a large cross-section of Hollywood, including Michael J. Fox, James Garner, John Mahoney, Leonard Nimoy, and, in an indication of how long it takes to produce one of these animated films, the late Jim Varney. Then there's David Ogden Steirs, who is making a record-setting fourth appearance in a Disney animated picture (and that doesn't include his participation in three direct-to-video sequels).

The story is simple enough. Nerdy Milo Thatch (voice of Michael J. Fox) is chosen to participate in an early 20th century expedition in search of the lost city of Atlantis. Milo, a linguist by trade (or, as some call him, an "expert in gibberish"), has earned that honor because his grandfather was the explorer who retrieved the journal that tells of the city's location. Milo is part of a party that includes a wisecracking cook, Cookie (Jim Varney); a bubbly teenage mechanic, Audrey (Jacqueline Obradors); an explosives authority, Vinny (Don Novello), a burly doctor, Sweet (Phil Morris); and The Mole (Corey Burton), an expert on digging. The group is led by the no-nonsense Commander Rourke (James Garner) and his equally humorless second-in-charge, Helga (Claudia Christian). After taking a submarine under water, battling a giant sea monster, and falling into the bowels of a dormant volcano, the group encounters the Atlantians, led by the pretty Princess Kida (Cree Summer) and her wary father, King Nedakh (Leonard Nimoy). Soon, Rourke's real objective in finding the city becomes apparent. He's not there for the "discovery, teamwork, and adventure" that drives Milo. His motive is purely mercenary - he sees dollar signs if he can bring back Atlantis' mysterious source of power. And the rest of the group is with him - at least to start with.

Atlantis contains less dialogue than some of the recent Disney animated features, replacing the songs and talking with some genuinely thrilling action sequences. There are submarine chase sequences, aerial dogfights, and a variety of daring escapes and near-escapes that feature all manner of pyrotechnics. Trousdale and Wise employ some bold camerawork, creating the animated equivalent of impressive tracking shots. There are also numerous panoramic sequences that involve a moving, rotating camera. The look of the characters is more angular than usual (although not as angular as in Hercules), giving the film a non-traditional appearance. And James Newton Howard provides a "standard" action/adventure score, complete with all the expected heroic cues, that is much different from the pop-saturated soundtracks which characterized nearly every Disney animated release during the 1990s.

In terms of wit and character empathy, Atlantis is a notch below other recent Disney offerings, but, to a degree, the level of adventure spectacle compensates. Milo is a likable enough guy, but, in many ways, the presence of so many supporting characters dilutes both his importance and his chance at development. His character arc is stunted. As a love interest, Princess Kida has potential (and provides some animated sex appeal when she strips down to a bikini), but she isn't given much screen time. Those are primarily minor gripes, however. On the whole, Atlantis offers 90 minutes of solid entertainment, once again proving that while Disney may be clueless when it comes to producing good live-action movies, they are exactly the opposite when it comes to their animated division.

Atlantis (United States, 2001)

Run Time: 1:33
U.S. Release Date: 2001-06-15
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1