Atlantis:  the Lost Empire

 
Laura Clifford 
Robin Clifford 

Young Milo Thatch (voice of Michael J. Fox) has the heart of an adventurer. When a long lost and very old journal, once found by his explorer grandfather, surfaces, the cartographer/linguistics expert becomes the key to unraveling an ancient mystery in Disney's latest animation, "Atlantis: The Lost Empire."

Robin:
Disney Studios has played the release of "Atlantis" very close, too close, to the chest for a potential animation blockbuster, so I had mixed feelings of anticipation when we attended a Saturday morning kids' screening. Then, the MPAA rating came up on the screen - Rated PG. What's this? A Disney summer anime with a PG rating? I suspected, at this point, that something good was up.

The movie starts with our soon-to-be hero, Milo, lecturing his "colleagues" on the existence of the lost continent of Atlantis. It turns out he's just pretending as he prepares to present his theory to his doubtful boss, Mr. Harcourt (voice of David Ogden Stiers). Unfortunately for Milo, Harcourt considers the theory - Atlantis is in Iceland - absurd. But, when a gorgeous blonde, Helga (voice of Claudia Christian), sets up a meeting with eccentric billionaire Preston B. Whitmore (voice of John Mahoney), Milo finally finds someone who will listen to him.

Not only does Whitmore listen, he has already invested enormous sums of money preparing for an expedition to find lost Atlantis and has been waiting for someone with Milo's unique talents to join his team. In charge of the mission is the burly Commander Rourke (voice of James Garner) who leads his crew, in an enormous submarine, to the map coordinates dictated by Milo from the ancient journal.

When the team reaches the undersea entrance to Atlantis, Leviathan, a huge, metal, lobster-like guarding the doorway to the lost land, attacks them. Rourke orders an attack on the beast and launches a phalanx of mini-subs. They are only partly effective in stopping the metal monster and most of the crew of 200 is lost. As the remaining explorers journey, heavily armed and equipped, into Atlantis, Milo and the rest soon learn that they are not entering a dead archaeological site but a living, breathing land teaming with life, including the Atlanteans, and Milo is the only one who speaks the language.

It's at this point that the story shifts gears from adventure and a search for the ancient culture to one of intrigue. The mythical power source that allowed the advanced evolution of the Atlaneans comes to the attention of Rourke and his henchmen and they plan to take the treasured crystal for their own gain. At the same time, Milo falls for a beautiful Atlantean, Princess Kida (Cree Summer), and learns that the land and its power supply are slowly dying. Only he can read the ancient runes and save Atlantis, but is it too little, too late in the face of the invaders?

Much in the tradition of Jules Verne adventures, "Atlantis: the Lost Empire" melds past period setting with the futuristic. Such adventures as "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" and "Journey to the Center of the Earth" come to mind as the high-tech action of "Atlantis" kicks in and animated splendor of Disney comes to the fore. This is, visually, one of the most advanced animation works to come out of the industry giant. The deep canvas background animation developed for "Tarzan" is used liberally, giving the proceeds a live action look and feel. The combination of traditional cell animation and computer-generated imagery (CGI) is seamless, with fluidity of movement that, too, harkens to live adventure/action films.

There is a big cast of vocal talent accompanying Michael J. Fox - who gives naïve, boyish charm to his intelligent, kind Milo. James Garner gives a good twist as his Commander Rourke shifts from benign leader to ruthless mercenary, along with his babe henchlady, Helga (Christian), who is one tough chick. There is an ample supply of comic relief provided by the other vocal cast and their characters. The late Jim Varney lends his drawl one last time in the guise of Cookie, whose idea of nutrition is meat along with great quantities of grease. Don Novello (Father Guido Sarducci) lends his vocal talent as the sardonic, carefree explosives expert, Vinny Santorini. Florence Stanley (TV's "Barney Miller" and "Fish") is a riot as the chain-smoking, curmudgeon communications office, Mrs. Packard, in a vocal perf that would have made Thelma Ritter proud. Vocal talent Corey Burton provides and outrageous French accent to his character "Mole" Moliere, the team's earth digger. Leonard Nimoy provides dignity to the voice of the king of Atlantis.

The production owes a great deal to other animations that have preceded it. Elements from such films as Ralph Bakshi's "Wizards," "The Iron Giant" and "Beauty and the Beast" are evident, as are the aforementioned Jules Verne adaptations to the screen. These various antecedents may have influenced "Atlantis," but the makers take these elements and spin them into a fresh, rip-roaring action/adventure that will please older kids through to the adults. Younger kids will be left behind with this more adult-oriented Disney animation, so send them to see "Shrek" instead.

I give it a B+.

Laura:
Linguist/cartographer Milo Thatch (Michael J. Fox) dreams of following in his explorer grandfather's footsteps searching for the lost civilization of Atlantis.  Instead he tends to the boiler in the basement of a museum whose board of directors will not hear his proposal.  When mysterious blond seductress Helga Sinclair (Claudia Christian, TV's "Babylon V") leads him to the home of millionaire Preston B. Whitmore (John Mahoney, TV's "Frasier"), Milo discovers an unknown friend of his grandad's is now prepared to fund his expedition complete with a crack team of specialists.  But that team contains two with a mercenary agenda which will threaten the civilization Milo dreams of studying in the latest Walt Disney animation "Atlantis:  the Lost Empire."

While Disney faces an uphill battle against the likes of the family-friendly "Shrek" and early mixed reviews from NY and LA, animation fans should delight in this gorgeous, eye-popping widescreen adventure tale.  While the story (Bryce and Jackie Zabel, screenplay by Tab Murphy and Josh Whedon) bogs down in its midsection with fantastical New Age crystal mumbo-jumbo better suited to the "Pokemon" films, the large cast of characters are all entertaining, the adventure set pieces rousing.  It's like "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" cast with improvizational comedians, dastardly villains, 'good' aliens and kindly sidekicks as led by "Peter Pan's" bespectacled John Darling.

This PG Disney film immediately marks its difference by opening with a Plato quote and the subtitled destruction of Atlantis (an Atlantean language was invented for the film).  While the animation recalls past Disney efforts, such as the great deep canvas effect created for "Tarzan" to produce multi-planed backgrounds, it also has a new look inspired by the works of comic book artist Mike Mignola, ("Hellboy") who assisted in production design, exhibited most startlingly in the drawing of Helga.

The voice cast is simply outstanding led by Michael J. Fox who gives Milo plucky depth.  Corey Burton gives the film's weirdest character, Gaetan "The Mole" Moliere, a burrowing expert allergic to soap whose eyeballs appear to rest at the end of his night vision goggles, a nifty Gallic babble.  Don Novello of Father Guido Sarducci fame is Vinny Santorini, a comical explosives ace. Florence Stanley, best known for playing Fish's wife on TV's "Barney Miller," gives hilariously guttural asides as the chain-smoking Mrs. Packard.  The late Jim Varney makes his final appearance as "Cookie," the cook who worships beans and bacon grease.  Phil Morris makes the giant Dr. Sweet gentle with his smooth smoky delivery.  Commander Lyle T. Rourke is given stature by veteran actor James Garner.  Leonard Nimoy is also on hand as the King of Atlantis whose daughter Kida (Cree Summer) teams up with Milo to save their world.

Veteran Disney animation directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale ("Beauty and the Beast") have delivered something different from the usual Disney animation, while maintaining the high quality we've come to expect from the mouse house.  While the fast-paced adventure slows to establish its ill-conceived object of contention, this high caliber production delivers on every other front.

B+
 

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