Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise Cast Voices: Michael J. Fox, James Garner, Cree Summer, Jim Varney, Corey Burton, Claudia Christian, Phil Morris, Don Novello, Jacqueline Obradors, Florence Stanley, Leonard Nimoy, John Mahoney, David Ogden Stiers. 2001 93 minutes Rated: (for action violence).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, June 16, 2001.
"Atlantis: The Lost Empire," Walt Disney Pictures' latest summer animated feature, is a step away from their usual cartoon offerings. In place of cute, furry, wise-cracking animals and a stream of pop songs is an old-fashioned adventure yarn with the only appearance of an animal coming in the form of the hero's meowing pet cat. None of the characters break into song, and the legend that the story is based on comes from the words of ancient philosopher Plato. The film is rated PG, as well, and has one character who chain-smokes throughout. It's pretty safe to say that "Atlantis" is most certainly not the movie you've grown to expect from the Disney studio, and that isn't necessarily a bad thing.
Set in 1914, Lanky Milo Thatcher (Michael J. Fox) is a Washington, D.C. native whose linguistic skills have helped him to get a job from the local university. Obsessed with the legend of the lost city of Atlantis, which is said to have been engulfed into the sea thousands of years ago, Milo is delighted to be asked to participate in an expedition in search of the underwater ruins. Following a disastrous encounter with a giant sea creature that leaves their submarine destroyed and much of the crew dead, the remaining members are taken aback to finally reach Atlantis, and just a little surprised to find an entire Atlantian society that has mysteriously survived after all these years. Striking up a friendship with Princess Kida (Cree Summer), who, in turn, tell each other about their separate ways of living, Milo is distraught to find that the rest of his crew, most notably Commander Rourke (James Garner) and Helga (Claudia Christian), are planning to make a ton of money off their discovery, with little regard to the people of Atlantis.
While "Atlantis: The Lost Empire," directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise (1991's "Beauty and the Beast"), is a remarkably more mature, adult-minded Disney film than the norm, it fails to go down as one of their more successful contemporary features. Lacking the pure entertainment value of 1999's "Tarzan," 1994's "The Lion King," and 1989's "The Little Mermaid," "Atlantis" is deliberately paced and not nearly as child-friendly, although kids will, no doubt, enjoy it. It's a good movie, to be sure, and one with several rousing action scenes, but it lacks that something--that finesse--that all of the best Disney movies have attained.
Even if "Atlantis" isn't terribly memorable, it does set up several interesting characters and relationships. The gradual romance between Milo and Kida is understated and charming, with both Michael J. Fox and Cree Summer turning in emotionally involving voice work. It isn't love at first sight for this pair, and they don't predictably spend the whole movie making goo-goo eyes at each other. Instead, they are intelligent people with their own ideas and thoughts. Also standing out are Sweet (Phil Morris), a muscular doctor who is a softy at heart (and the first black character to appear in a Disney animated movie); Cookie, a very bad cook who means well, and is poignantly voiced by the late, great Jim Varney; and the street-smart, teenage mechanic, Audrey (Jacqueline Obradors).
The animation style that "Atlantis" uses is fairly conventional, but it works within the confines of this particular story. While the majority of what is onscreen is hand-drawn, there are occasional lapses into computer-generated territory, with just a hint of anime influence. "Atlantis" is not quite as bold or redefining as it would like to be, particularly in the shadow of the superlative "Shrek," but it does succeed in not seeming like a movie strictly made for children. More along the lines of 2000's "Titan A.E." than anything else, "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" is a worthwhile venture that may not go down as a modern animated classic, but it does expose Disney as a studio more than willing to break free of tradition and try something a little different, for once. It's about time.