The Moviehunter

Pulp Culture
Disney's 'Atlantis' is a
paint-by-numbers movie

June 21, 2001
By Franklin Harris

A scene early in "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" displays a hint of the movie it could have been. It's a rousing sequence that convincingly blends traditional animation and computer effects to depict the launch of a futuristic submarine.

Unfortunately, the sequence passes quickly, and the submarine, which is the best thing in movie, is soon written out.

What is left is a movie that wants to be a thrilling action yarn but keeps resorting — almost reflexively — to the usual Disney gags. What should be an animated counterpart to Disney's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" turns into a patchwork. Half of the characters are out of place and plot elements are cobbled together from several sources.

Despite its much-discussed PG rating, "Atlantis" is very much a children's movie.

The story revolves around Milo Thatch (voiced by Michael J. Fox), a cartographer who, like his late grandfather, is obsessed with the legend of Atlantis.

While the curators at the museum where Milo works dismiss his theories, an eccentric millionaire named Preston Whitmore (John Mahoney) doesn't.

Whitmore recruits Milo to guide an expedition to Atlantis, and, of course, Milo accepts.

Before you can say deus ex machina, Milo is aboard an Atlantis-bound submarine manned by the usual crew of central-casting stereotypes: the square-jawed captain (James Garner), the blonde femme fatal (Claudia Christian), the over-eager demolitions expert (Don Novello), the engineering prodigy (Jacqueline Obradors) and the ship's doctor (Phil Morris).

Then there are the characters who seem to be in the wrong movie: a dirt-obsessed Frenchman nicknamed Mole (Corey Burton), the ship's cook (the late Jim Varney), and the communications officer, Mrs. Packard (Florence Stanley), who would rather telephone her friends during firefights than relay needed information.

By my count, that's three times more comic relief than "Atlantis" needs, and none of it is particularly funny, although youngsters might think so.

And while no one breaks into song, Mole might as well be an animal sidekick. Disney never strays too far from the old formula.

Once the crew gets to Atlantis, they find a living city instead of the ruins they expected. The Atlantean king (Leonard Nimoy) isn't pleased to have outsiders in his realm, but his daughter, Kida (Cree Summer) hopes the surface dwellers can save their stagnating civilization. Plus, that Milo guy is kind of cute.

Here the plot takes its obvious twist, as Milo learns that his crewmates are actually mercenaries intent on robbing Atlantis of its power source.

That leaves it to Milo and Kida to save the day.

Much has been made of the similarities between "Atlantis" and the 1989 Japanese anime series, "Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water." Those similarities, while real, are trivial compared to others.

In terms of its plot, apart from the obvious Jules Verne references, "Atlantis" appears to borrow most heavily from Hayao Miyazaki's "Laputa: Castle in the Sky" and 20th Century Fox's disappointing "Titan A.E."

Coincidentally or not, Disney owns the distribution rights to "Laputa" but has held off on releasing it in North America for more than two years — and counting.

Unlike the far superior "Laputa," however, "Atlantis" doesn't know what it wants to be. Its makers clearly intended it to be an action film, a departure from Disney's animated musicals. But with three comic-relief characters distracting from the fireworks, it's also clear that Disney didn't have the confidence to go for all-out adventure.

And the other characters are, if you'll excuse the pun, so two-dimensional that you can't get emotionally attached to them.

As for the animation, it may be pretty to look at, but the film as a whole is a decidedly paint-by-numbers affair.

The question is, will Disney learn the right lesson from "Atlantis?" Will it try again with an effort that strays more from the Disney formula, or will it run back to the familiar territory of singing heroines and talking animals?

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