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Atlantis: The Lost Empire
Reviewed by Jason Myers, ©

Format: Movie
By:   Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise
Genre:   Animation / Science Fiction / Adventure / Fantasy
Released:   May, 2001
Review Date:  
RevSF Rating:   6/10 (What Is This?)

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 same sources.

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 World.

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 society).

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.


"So, RevolutionSF Movies Editor Jason Myers, you just finished your review of Atlantis: The Lost Empire. What are you going to do next?"
"I'm going to Disney World!"

 
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    Animated Biases

    Film/DVD editor Jason Myers has seen pretty much every full-length animated Disney movie. The only ones he hasn't seen, that he knows of, are A Goofy Movie, Doug's First Movie, and The Emperor's New Groove.

    Below is a list of the full-length animated Disney movies, ranked in order from Jason's favorite to his least favorite, so you can judge for yourself how many grains of salt to take with his review. Not included are computer animated movies, direct-to-video dreck, and live action/animated movies like Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Pete's Dragon, and Song of the South.

    Aladdin (1992)
    Alice in Wonderland (1951)
    Mulan (1998)
    Peter Pan (1953)
    Fantasia/2000 (1999)
    Sleeping Beauty (1959)
    Black Cauldron, The (1985)
    Sword in the Stone, The (1963)
    Fantasia (1940)
    Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, The (1949)
    Beauty and the Beast (1991)
    Dumbo (1941)
    Jungle Book, The (1967)
    Pinocchio (1940)
    Robin Hood (1973)
    Bambi (1942)
    Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
    One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961)
    Lion King, The (1994)
    Lady and the Tramp (1955)
    Tarzan (1999)
    Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)
    Hercules (1997)
    Little Mermaid, The (1989)
    Cinderella (1950)
    DuckTales: The Movie - Treasure of the Lost Lamp (1990)
    Great Mouse Detective, The (1986)
    Rescuers, The (1977)
    Aristocats, The (1970)
    Fox and the Hound, The (1981)
    Hunchback of Notre Dame, The (1996)
    Three Caballeros, The (1945)
    Oliver & Company (1988)
    Rescuers Down Under, The (1990)
    Pocahontas (1995)

     

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