Atlantis: The Lost Empire

             Back in the mid to late 1980s, Disney's animation division had become
     somewhat moribund turning out disappointments like
The Black Cauldron
     (1985). By the end of the decade, however, it had been energized finding a
     new niche with such family-friendly fare as
The Little Mermaid (1989),                  
Aladdin (1992) and The Lion King (1994), films that redefined the movie
     musical. Arguably one of the studio's greatest achievements was
Beauty and the Beast (1991), the only animated feature ever to receive
     a Best Picture Academy Award nomination. Directed by Kirk Wise and
     Gary Trousdale,
Beauty and the Beast was so well-made and compelling
     that within minutes audiences often forgot they were watching what was
     essentially a cartoon. (It went on to spawn a long-running Broadway
     adaptation too.)

             For much of the 90s, Disney dominated the genre with a similar
     formula. The second Wise-Trousdale collaboration was 1996's
The Hunchback of Notre Dame which did not quite live up to the hype
     and as Pixar's computer-generated animation technology came to
     prominence, the old-fashioned, labor-intensive, hand-drawn cel work
     began to look quaint. The Disney formula began to shift away from
     the musical (although
Hercules, Mulan and Tarzan all contained
     original songs) so that by the time of
The Emperor's New Groove,
     there were hardly any production numbers at all in the movie.

             Wise and Trousdale have once again joined forces to co-direct
Atlantis: The Lost Empire, which in spirit is a throwback to the
     action-adventure films Disney made in the 1950s. Once again, the
     pair brings a strong visual style and sure sense of how to tell a story
     to the project, resulting in an enjoyable experience. (
Atlantis is probably
     not meant for the pre-school set, though, as some of the scenes are
     quite violent and the film did earn a PG rating.)

             The plot is built around intrepid Milo Thatch (persuasively voiced
     by the ever boyish Michael J. Fox), a bookish sort who yearns to follow
     in the stead of his adventurer grandfather. Milo is given a chance when
     an eccentric, wealthy former colleague of his beloved grandfather,
     Preston Whitmore (John Mahoney) agrees to fund an expedition in
     search of the lost continent of Atlantis. A motley crew is assembled
     led by Commander Rourke (a smooth James Garner), and including his
     right-hand woman Helga (a sultry Claudia Christian), explosive expert
     Santorini (an amusing Don Novello), a Frenchman with a penchant for
     digging nicknamed Mole (Corey Burton), plucky teenage mechanic
     Audrey (Jacqueline Obradors), the ornery grubmaster Cookie (the late
     Jim Varney), the sarcastic Mrs. Packard (a very amusing Florence Stanley),
     and, quite unbelievable, the first major black character in a Disney film,
     Dr. Sweet (Phil Morris).

             The early underwater sequence has a slightly rushed quality to it,
     as if the filmmakers could not wait for the group to land in Atlantis, where
     they are welcomed by a princess (Cree Summer) but not so by her
     father (Leonard Nimoy). Eventually, the story boils down to the standard
     good versus evil with the fate of Atlantis and its immense power source
     at stake.

             Atlantis: The Lost Empire has a terrific look to it, particularly the
     spectacular vision of the title world. The animation may not be on par
     with that of
Toy Story 2 or Shrek or even Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within
     (all of which owe a debt to computer technology), but those responsible,
     working by hand, have opted for a bright, classical style that complements
     the time frame (1914). While the entire film is dazzling to view, the
     amazing opening sequences and the slam-bang finale are deserving of
     special mention.

             Atlantis: The Lost Empire may actually be one of the last animated
     films to be crafted in the traditional manner, and that something will be
     lost by turning to computers is an ironic counterpoint to the film's story
     of a civilization that could not harness its own technological innovations
     and which led to its destruction. It will be interesting to see if the targeted
     audience of predominantly young males will respond, or if they will consign
       Atlantis to the realm of the forgotten.

                             Rating:                 C+
                             MPAA Rating:         PG for action violence
                             Running time:        95 mins.
© 2007 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.