However lifeless the final results, I must hand it to the Walt Disney animation staff for their enthusiastic trips away from the traditional form of filmmaking that has been passed down since the days of Walt Disney himself. Whether it was dropping character sing-alongs (1999's "Tarzan") or forgoing the predictable moral lesson in hopes of recreating Loony Tunes-like comedic hysteria (2000's The Emperor's New Groove), the more recent attempts to reinvigorate what was quickly becoming a drag (1997's "Hercules," 1998's "Mulan") has yielded flawed, but promising results in the last few years.
"Atlantis: The Lost Empire" (IMDb listing) goes even further into reimagining what a Disney cartoon can be. Director Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale (1991's "Beauty and the Beast") have carefully taken out almost every single element we have come to expect from Disney animation. No songs, no cute animal sidekicks, and a production design that puts almost everything that has come out of the Mouse House in the last 25 years to shame. "Atlantis" is a great big giant slice of fun and adventure for the summer crowds.
Milo Thatch (voiced by Michael J. Fox) is a nerdy student of archeology stuck in the boiler room of a local college. Milo awaits his chance to receive a grant and head to Iceland to retrieve a lost book containing proof of the long lost, and assumed mythical, underwater city of Atlantis. Unable to convince the academic world of his theories, a mysterious old man (John Mahoney) decides to give Milo his chance and forms an expedition party to search for the vanquished city. With the help of an ethnically perfect support team and their leader, a world-class solider named Lyle Rourke (James Garner), Milo and the squad soon locate the forgotten metropolis, only to discover its people dying and the land violently unpredictable. When treachery arrives and his life is threatened, Milo must defend Atlantis and a young warrior (Cree Summer) who holds the key to the city's survival.
Merging Jules Verne-inspired art direction with a "Titan AE" style of teenage-boy action violence, "Atlantis" is a cool breeze from a company that has held tightly to stuffy family entertainment standards for decades. While not alienating the younger audience, the film is more literate and action-oriented. It survives more on a diet of exploration and myths than simply cutesy animals and mediocre songwriting. While I respect this aesthetic a little more than I really enjoyed it (the film does pilfer a little too much from every blockbuster of the last 20 years), "Atlantis" is nevertheless an enjoyable romp that empathizes with a young boy's attention span in place of universally satisfying the demands of all types of potential audiences.
That being said, not all of Disney's tricks have been excised this time around. "Atlantis" seems to work at its premium octane when it dramatically emphasizes the quest for "Atlantis" itself. The characters are allowed the maximum amount of development in these scenes, the animation reaches breath-taking complexity and depth, and the story is gripping without any signs of manipulation. Then, at the moment of disloyalty in the third act, the film suddenly is grounded as the machinations of old-school Disney storytelling come flooding in like the waters of "Atlantis" themselves. It is that moment alone that keeps "Atlantis" in the grips of the Disney story machine. I could literally feels the breaks on the film grind to a halt as the movie started to deal with this new, terribly predictable wrinkle in the narrative. It's hard to imagine that a room full of Disney animators could not come up with a better way to give Milo the needed tension to complete the film. The betrayal subplot is far too calculated a move for the film to reach a conclusion successfully.
Also marking change is the design of the characters. Taking on a Ralph Bakshi ("Fritz The Cat," "Heavy Traffic") style that heavily accentuates sexuality, I could easily see some parents in the audience becoming uncomfortable as mercenary Helga's (voiced by Claudia Christian) shirt straps continually fall down, or watching the teenage mechanic Audrey (Jacqueline Obradors) pouting with her gigantic bee-stung ruby lips. While these little touches do not impede on the "family entertainment" value of the film, they do go a long way into making a more dense world for the story. In focusing on a more adult tone for "Atlantis," the directors have followed through on the character designs, and they don't short change them in the end by adding cute elements that would vanquish the integrity. The "growing up" in the animation is a welcome change.
Atlantis is not, by any standards, richly rewarding entertainment. The satisfaction of the film is mainly seeing just how far Disney can bend themselves into making a film that seems a million miles away for where they usually run to for shelter and the quick buck.
Filmfodder Grade: B