In the arena of non-Japanese full-length animated movies, there is a middle
ground between the wholesomeness of Lady and the Tramp and An American
Tale and the prurient teenage boy mentality of Heavy Metal and Cool
World. It's the world of Watership Down, The Last Unicorn,
Animal Farm, Light Years, and the animated Tolkien adaptations.
It's an area rarely treaded, and Disney's Atlantis: The Lost Empire gets
extra points just for the attempt.
The last time Disney went this direction was in 1985, with The Black Cauldron,
and they got burned. It was too dark for Disney audiences, in spite of some
more-than-decent comic relief from the obligatory animal sidekick, Gurgi, and
it tarnished Disney's cuddly image. Until 1998, The Black Cauldron was
a mythical Holy Grail of a movie. Disney simply refused to release the damn
thing on video. Then they changed their minds. I don't know why. I like to think
that it's because, every time I went into the Disney Store, and some friendly
person in a lettered sweater asked me, "Can I help you find something?",
I replied "Not unless you have The Black Cauldron on video."
Point is, Disney is once again attempting to make an animated feature that's
actually a movie instead of a formula cartoon (fairy tale + animal sidekicks
+ love story + catchy songs = Big Money). You could see them going this direction
with Mulan, which, though it still contained those usual Disney ingredients,
had more mature action, characters, and storyline. And with other studios milking
Disney's formula (Anastasia, Quest for Camelot) or leading the
way into more ambitious territory (Prince of Egypt,Titan A.E.),
it was definitely time for a change.
The result, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, is a promising, though not entirely
successful, step into uncharted waters. A highly derivative but entertaining
adventure with 1) good action but bad plotting 2) memorable characters but no
character development and 3) too many good ideas that are glossed over quickly
in order to keep the thing moving along as fast as possible.
In spite of its problems, I hope that Atlantis finds a good-sized
audience, so that Disney will be encouraged to continue in this direction. Unfortunately,
Atlantis may not be Disneyfied enough for Disney fans (The death toll
is high; there are no songs, and no ready-made plush toys to give the kids for
Christmas), and too Disneyfied for fans of alternative animation like anime
and Ralph Bakshi toons.
Atlantis is still relatively wholesome and feel-goody. There's a high-minded
tree hugger eco-message and a typical (though highly abbreviated) Disney love
story. Not one, but two of the main characters, have one or more dead parents.
How much does Disney like orphaned or single-parent children? Let's count the
ways: Bambi, The Lion King, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin,
Beauty and the Beast, Tarzan, Snow White, Cinderella,
and the list goes on. At this point, I think those Disney people are having
a little fun with us. The only terrible misstep on this front, though, is that
- Jiminy freakin' Cricket - a song written by Dianne Warren wails over the end
credits. That woman is the Roger Corman of movie theme songs.
Some people will be put off by the elements of Atlantis that appear
to be pilfered from movies like Laputa: Castle in the Sky, Stargate,
and any number of Star Wars movies. The first appearance of the princess
of Atlantis is awful similar to the first appearance of the title character
in Princess Mononoke.
There are also some uncanny parallels between Atlantis and the recent
Titan A.E., but saying that Atlantis stole ideas from Titan
A.E. is like saying that Urban Legend copied I Know What You Did
Last Summer, that Scary Movie copied Dracula: Dead and Loving
It , or that The Truth About Cats and Dogs copied Roxanne.
Atlantis is similar to Titan A.E. possibly because it stole from
Titan A.E., but more likely because both movies are cribbing from the
What makes Atlantis work, though, is the literary sources it uses as
inspiration: books by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (The Lost World), Edgar
Rice Burroughs (various Tarzan books), and Jules Verne (20,000 Leagues
Under the Sea, A Journey to the Center of the Earth). When it comes
together, it's an adventure - an expedition that will inspire plenty of daydreams
in the same little boys (and girls) who want to be buccaneers, explorers and
treasure hunters. In fact, Atlantis is very much a throwback to older
Disney live-action efforts like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The
Black Hole, The Swiss Family Robinson, and Island at the Top of
The technology in Atlantis is right out of Jules Verne. And the characters
are as good as any ragtag band of adventurers that you could ask for. There's
the scholar (Michael J. Fox), the demolitionist, the mechanic who also happens
to be a teenage girl, the cook who can't cook (Jim Varney, God bless 'im, giving
yet another great posthumous performance), and Gaetan "Mole" Moliere,
who lives to burrow through things with his giant steam-powered drill (some
people will be offended because Mole happens to be both dirty and French; do
us all a favor and go back to writing heartfelt protest songs about Bugs Bunny's
racist tendencies and The Flinstones' role in reinforcing our patriarchal
Then there is the tough second in command, Helga Katrina Sinclair, voiced
by Claudia Christian of Babylon 5. Somebody put a lot of love into her
character. With a permanent sneer, blonde hair, a gun holster, and clothes from
the army surplus store, she's this strange visual cross between Nick Fury, Rick
O'Connell from The Mummy, and one of those women from the soap opera
comic strips in the Sunday paper.
The voice talent is, without exception, excellent (Leonard Nimoy rules). The
character animation may seem too simplistic and too angular for some people,
but I think that the aesthetic that it creates is artful and original. The computer
animation is very well integrated into the movie. There are no jarring differences
in texture and style like there was in Titan A.E. The humor is smarter
than it has to be.
Unfortunately, the movie hurries through each plot point, like someone who's
walked into a museum an hour before it closes but is still determined to see
everything. The action and exposition does not unfold naturally. One event steps
on the heels of the other. If the film was only 10 or 15 or 20 minutes longer,
the story would have room to stretch its legs. As it is, instead of getting
a tour of Atlantis, you only get to take a couple of pictures of it through
the window of your submarine as it speeds by.