Atlantis: The Lost Empire
Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise
Atlantis: The Lost Empire is an incredibly ambitious animated adventure. A total departure from Disney's cookie-cutter formula of sappy Broadway songs and funny talking animals that was fresh with The Little Mermaid, but stale with the likes of Hercules and The Emperor's New Groove, Atlantis shoots for the stars, but ultimately gets stuck in the stratosphere.
Under the Sea
Milo Thatch is a young linguist/cartographer/historian who's in search of funds for a deep-sea venture to find the fabled lost empire of Atlantis. Aided by the Shepherd's Journal, a legendary book that has passed through time and hands, from kings to da Vinci, Milo believes he holds the key to the location and desperately wants to prove his worth.
Told with modern-day action film sensibilities, Atlantis works hard to thrill, but it loses track along the way. While it holds some of the feel of an Indiana Jones adventure, those films built up to a mystical conclusion. Atlantis, unfortunately, falls a bit flat at the end and it at times has the feel of a hokey Super Friends Saturday morning cartoon.
Unlike Saturday morning fare, though, Atlantis does deliver a unique set of characters that do manage to get fleshed out along the way. Among the standouts are Don Novello (famed for his Father Guido Sarducci character on Saturday Night Live) as Vinny Santorini, a so-laid-back-he's-borderline-narcoleptic bombs expert, and Florence Stanley (better known to millions of 1970s TV viewers as Bernice Fish, Abe Vigoda's wife on Barney Miller) as Wilhelmina Bertha Packard, a crusty, chain-smoking communications officer who's far more interested in gossiping with her octogenarian friends than in the explosions and chaos surrounding her in the depths of the ocean.
Milo gets the star treatment as played by Michael J. Fox (Back to the Future, Spin City), and his boyish voice is perfect for the 30-something character still in search of his own identity. Leonard Nimoy (director of Three Men and a Baby), James Garner (Space Cowboys), and the late Jim Varney (the various incarnations of Ernest) also lend their vocal talents to great effect.
Be Our Guest
As already stated, the film is Ambitious with a capital "A." Seeking to create its own world and provide something never seen before, the creators developed an entirely new language for the citizens of Atlantis. Atlantean plays by its own rules and is a full-fledged language devised by Marc Okrand, the same guy who spelled out the Klingon and Vulcan languages for the Star Trek franchises. It was actually pretty neat to be watching an animated movie that requires subtitles because of its own innovative spirit. (Not that there's a lot of reading to be done, for you parents of younger children.)
Atlantis is a combination of traditional hand-drawn animation and the latest in computer-generated animation from the same team (Don Hahn, Gary Trousdale, and Kirk Wise) that crafted Disney's Beauty and the Beast. Shot in CinemaScope, the movie has an unusually grandiose feel to it, for animated fare.
Yet, in comparison to Shrek, DreamWorks' entry into the summer animation frenzy, the animation doesn't quite come alive to the same degree as the fully computer-generated world of the loveable green ogre and his cohorts. The animation in Atlantis, even with the technological enhancements, is still essentially the exact same animation seen in so many other Disney animated films. Compared to Shrek, it seems downright old-fashioned.
Therein, perhaps, lies the film's biggest flaw. Shrek created a sense of wonder through its storytelling and its fanciful execution; Atlantis, for the most part, fails to deliver the wonder. It's proof that $100 million (the reported budget for Atlantis) can buy lots of fantastic stuff, but wonder is an intangible that can't be calculated by accountants. It's a by-product of the film's chemistry as generated by its characters, animation, and story.
To that end, even at 90 minutes (the longest animated film in Disney's library), there isn't enough time to explore all the movie's ambitions and build up the sense of awe. Instead of an unfolding sense of mystery and anticipation, the movie favors frenetic action to move the story from A to B. It's as if the movie is racing against its own running time.
For example, Milo so quickly sums up the entire circumstances regarding Atlantis' disappearance that it'll take most viewers a couple viewings to catch the entire premise.
Also, a crew of 200 is quickly whittled down to seven during an encounter with a nasty leviathan. Thereafter, undertones of The A-Team seep in as the characters carelessly plunder their way down to Atlantis.
A Whole New World
Those flaws aside, there is still enough to give the film a modest recommendation to fans of animation and those young at heart and eager for adventure.
But, while it's a pleasure to experience a movie that does have so much ambition on its mind, the end product simply doesn't carry the same cross-generational appeal of Shrek and the Toy Story movies. A lot of painstaking work was obviously put into the production. It just needed a little more fairy dust from Tinkerbell's wand to make this Pinocchio come to life.
• Originally published at MovieHabit.com.