A gift for spectacle and a chunk of computer-generated visuals notwithstanding, "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" plays more like the best Disney animated film of 1981 than 2001. Story line and characterization are decidedly old-fashioned, and a curious decision about production design gives this wide-screen cartoon some of the look and feel of a Saturday morning TV cartoon series.
Co-directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, who share a passion for comic-book artist Mike Mignola, not only asked him to help design the production but also decided to have the "Atlantis"' characters drawn like the film was some kind of giant animated comic book.
The unfortunate retrograde nature of this look (the press material says studio types call it "Dis-nola") is accentuated by the conventional nature of screenwriter Tab Murphy's characters and dialogue that has people saying things like, "You fool, you've destroyed Atlantis." The combination makes this mildly diverting Disney epic, on which six people have story credit, come across as the opposite of cutting-edge, as something whose appeal is likely to be stronger for children than their parents.
One place where the "Disnola" look is successful is in its visualization of the mythical civilization of Atlantis, which Plato famously described as having disappeared into the depths of the sea. Lost worlds are always entertaining, as are picturesque ruins, especially in the film's CinemaScope format, one that is rarely used in animation.
Disney also went to the trouble, though it is far from clear why given how sparingly it is used, of hiring linguist Marc Okrand, the man who gave the world both Vulcan and Klingon, to construct a plausible Atlantean language. It has no capital letters, no punctuation, and, in case you're curious, it's said to zigzag across the page.
The only person in 1914 America who can read this stuff is young Milo Thatch (voiced by Michael J. Fox). He's a language expert languishing in the boiler room of a great museum because his fuddy-duddy superiors don't accept, as he does, that Atlantis was a real and remarkably advanced civilization.
More of a believer is the endlessly wealthy Preston B. Whitmore (John Mahoney), a friend of Milo's late explorer grandfather. Whitmore has uncovered the Shepherd's Journal, a guide to finding Atlantis that only Milo can read, and hired Commander Rourke (James Garner) and the beautiful Helga (Claudia Christian) to take a thousand-foot submarine and find the legendary submerged civilization.
Rourke, a self-described "adventure capitalist," has employed a large handful of nominally comic experts in a variety of fields. Some of these, like explosives guru Vinny Santorini (Don Novello), are funnier than others, like the dirt-loving, soap-hating French digging specialist called the Mole (Corey Burton). As a group, they represent an unsatisfying attempt at comic eccentricity that doesn't wear any better than protagonist Milo's relentless dweebishness.
What does wear surprisingly well is the New Age earnestness with which the Atlantean civilization the team discovers is depicted. Ruled by an ancient king (Leonard Nimoy, that rare actor called upon to master both Atlantean and Vulcan) and his Baywatch daughter Princess Kida (Cree Summer), Atlantis turns out to be run by a mysterious power source that is connected to the crystals (yes, crystals) its inhabitants wear. Shirley MacLaine, take note.
Unfortunately, this endless energy supply attracts the notice of evildoers who attempt to make off with it and sell it to the highest bidder (the state of California?). Both that plot strand and the dangers inherent in just getting to that undersea land mean that "Atlantis" does not lack for brisk action. Flaws the film certainly has, but with a pace this frantic there's hardly any leisure to dwell on exactly what they are.
* MPAA rating: PG, for action violence. Times guidelines: Some sequences may be too intense for the very young.
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'Atlantis: The Lost Empire'
Michael J. Fox: Milo
James Garner: Rourke
Cree Summer: Princess Kida
Leonard Nimoy: King of Atlantis
Don Novello: Vinny
Claudia Christian: Helga
Jacqueline Obradors: Audrey
John Mahoney: Preston B. Whitmore
Corey Burton: Mole
David Ogden Stiers: Fenton Q. Harcourt
Jim Varney: Cookie
Florence Stanley: Mrs. Packard
Phil Morris: Dr. Sweet
Released by Walt Disney Pictures. Directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise. Producer Don Hahn. Screenplay Tab Murphy. Story Kirk Wise & Gary Trousdale, Joss Whedon, Bryce Zabel & Jackie Zabel, Tab Murphy. Editor Ellen Kenesha. Music James Newton Howard. Art director David Goetz. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.
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