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"ATLANTIS: THE LOST EMPIRE"
(2001) (voices of Michael J. Fox, James Garner) (PG)

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QUICK TAKE:
Animated Action/Adventure: A meek but determined researcher sets out with an ancient guidebook and a questionable crew to find the lost land of Atlantis.
PLOT:
It's 1914 and Milo James Thatch (voice of MICHAEL J. FOX) is a meek cartographer and linguist who wants his museum boss, Fenton Q. Harcourt (voice of DAVID OGDEN STIERS), to fund an exploration where he hopes to find The Shepherds Journal, an ancient guidebook that will provide clues to finding the long lost island of Atlantis.

Unfortunately, Harcourt and most everyone else thinks that Thatch is as crazy as his grandfather who had similar notions, and thus his request is denied. Thinks look up, however, when the sultry Helga Sinclair (voice of CLAUDIA CHRISTIAN) takes Milo to meet Preston B. Whitmore (voice of JOHN MAHONEY), a wealthy older man who knew Milo's grandfather. Having recently discovered the Journal and wishing to live up to a bet he made to that man long ago, Whitmore has decided to fund Milo's quest.

Setting out on a huge submersible run by Commander Lyle T. Rourke (voice of JAMES GARNER), Milo meets the rest of the crew including Lt. Sinclair; demolitions expert Vinny Santorini (voice of DON NOVELLO), teenage mechanic/engineer Audrey Ramirez (voice of JACQUELINE OBRADORS); ship physician Dr. Joshua Sweet (voice of PHIL MORRIS); short order cook "Cookie" (voice of JIM VARNEY); chain smoking switchboard operator Wilhelmina Packard (voice of FLORENCE STANLEY); and an odd little fellow, "Mole" (voice of COREY BURTON) who likes to burrow or spend his time in the ground.

In search of a legendary Atlantean power source that reportedly allowed for electricity and powered flight several thousand years ago, the crew battles a gargantuan leviathan and loses most of its men before arriving in the fabled land at the bottom of the sea. There they find a thriving civilization living in a protected environment and meet Princess Kida (voice of CREE SUMMER), heir to the Kingdom of Atlantis.

While she's happy about the arrival of outsiders as she hopes that they can shed light on mysteries from their past, her father, the King of Atlantis (voice of LEONARD NIMOY), isn't as he realizes that most of them are probably up to no good. As he gets to know Kida and explores the land while the King's worries prove to be true, Milo does what he can to help and protect the Atlanteans from disappearing again and forever into obscurity.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
Throughout the history of humankind, there have been villages, towns and entire civilizations that have vanished - often without a trace - into the mysteries of time. Most such disappearances obviously don't occur over night, but instead take years, centuries or even longer to transpire, although our view of the passage of millenniums make such occurrences almost seem instantaneous.

Of course, some such population centers have "suddenly" disappeared, such as the inhabitants of what's now called the Lost Colony in 16th century North Carolina, where a settlement of English villagers vanished with little or no trace sometime between the time the last supply shift left and when the next one arrived.

The most famous lost civilization, however, obviously concerns Atlantis, a land that may have existed or is the grandfather of all hoaxes and folklore. Described as far back as the times of Greek philosopher Plato and the subsequent subject of countless theories, books, TV specials and tabloid front pages, the land and its people - that supposedly sank into a watery oblivion long, long ago - have never failed to fascinate people's curiosity.

Obviously hoping to bank on just that, the folks at Disney have put their own animated spin on the legend in "Atlantis: The Lost Empire." Despite, or perhaps because of the presence of six scribes - Kirk Wise & Gary Trousdale, Joss Whedon, Bryce Zabel & Jackie Zabel and Tab Murphy -- to concoct the story (with Murphy getting the "official" screenwriting credit), however, the mystery and allure of the lost land and its people is missing in this surprisingly flat, trite and less than compelling picture.

That comes as something of a surprise considered that the film is helmed by Wise & Trousdale who previously collaborated on Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." While those films were grand musicals, this one - for better or worse - isn't. Instead, this effort is attempting to be something of an animated Indiana Jones tale where an early 20th century specialist in ancient civilizations sets out to find the ruins of Atlantis and runs into various obstacles along the way as well as varying amounts of action & adventure in the process.

The only problem is that this incredibly calculated looking and feeling film simply isn't that engaging and appears to be missing its animated soul. Most of that stems from the basic plot and the bevy of characters who appear within it, neither of which are constructed well enough to be interesting despite the inherent story and potential contained within. While less discerning viewers - mainly meaning younger kids - may find the story fascinating and/or rousing, any viewer who's been around the cinematic block more than once will immediately sense that something's just not right.

The basic concept of the explorers traveling to that sunken land and discovering that it's still inhabited is okay - after all, there wouldn't be much of a movie without that - as are some adventurous moments. Yet, most of the elements regarding the previous sinking and subsequent survival feel either too far-fetched in a flight of fancy fashion or not explained well enough to make sense. The whole bit about the crystals that sustain life there seems a bit too goofy, and a late in the game development where the Atlanteans suddenly learn how to fly their ancient "aircraft" with precision is as stupid and contrived as similar moments in "Battlefield Earth" and "Independence Day."

In fact, when the film doesn't exude that cold, calculated aura of trying to be a cross demographical hit, it occasionally feels rather sloppy and/or lame, such as when a large number of storm trooper-like soldiers inexplicably and abruptly appear with the expeditionary crew. We never know who they are or where they were hiding before they suddenly showed up, and any such related information was either left on the cutting room floor or never created in the first place. Once they and the rest of the team finally set foot in/on Atlantis, however, the film really loses much of its steam, despite some late in the game treachery and related mayhem (that's entirely too predictable).

While this isn't the first such picture to come down the release chute, the ethnically diverse, "rainbow" collection of characters appearing in it - which is an unlikely occurrence considering the year in which the story takes place - feels contrived in a blatant, politically correct bit of historical revisionism. Although it's fine and dandy to show the target audience that most everyone can get along and accomplish the task at hand, it simply feels too forced as we're introduced to one token character after another.

At the same time, however, the filmmakers have opted to make something of an edgier animated flick - perhaps sensing that their audience demographic is skewing a bit older - and thus there's a lot more human on human violence then before, as well as smoking, crude humor and some sexuality/sensuality. Whether they purposefully set out to earn the PG rating isn't sure, but some parents may be surprised at what sort of animated film Disney has delivered.

Although not a musical, and jettisoning the talking and/or at least cute animal sidekicks, the filmmakers obviously realized the film must contain humor and comic relief characters. Yet, both feel as contrived and forced as much of the rest of the film does, and while younger kids probably won't mind or notice, older ones and adults will likely sense the failed and/or flat moments and general mediocrity.

More surprising is the fact that the animation also looks substandard for what Disney usually delivers in its traditional animated offerings, despite being one of the few animated films ever presented in the widescreen, CinemaScope format. Although it's thankfully not of the Pokemon quality and does occasionally feature some nice visuals (of both the hand drawn and computer-generated variety), it almost looks at times as if the animated team was working on a reduced budget.

Thankfully, the vocal work is as decent as usual, with Michael J. Fox ("Stuart Little," TV's "Spin City") bringing a lot of personality to his bookworm-like character. James Garner ("Space Cowboys," TV's "The Rockford Files") hits the right notes as the tough and ultimately ruthless team leader, but Cree Summer (the "Rugrats" films, TV's "A Different World") doesn't make much of an aural impression as Kida, although that's due as much from the mediocre dialogue she must deliver as anything to do with her vocal effort.

While David Ogden Stiers ("Doc Hollywood," TV's "M*A*S*H") shows up for his fourth Disney film, it's Don Novello ("The Godfather: Part III, "Tucker: The Man and His Dream") and Florence Stanley ("Bulworth," "The Odd Couple II") who steal the show as the laidback demolitions expert and gravely-voiced, doom and gloom switchboard operator respectively. Of course, for those who realize that Novello was Father Guido Sarducci on TV's "Saturday Night Live" many years ago, the effect of hearing the familiar voice in this sort of character adds a fun kick to the proceedings.

Nevertheless, and despite seemingly having all of the ingredients in place to be a rousing and funny adventure, including a decent score by composer James Newton Howard ("The Sixth Sense," "The Fugitive"), most of the material feels far too calculated and flat, and often misses the mark. It's something akin to watching a comedian fall flat on his or her face after obviously working hard to set up the jokes. You know you're supposed to be entertained and appreciate the effort, but the mediocre material just doesn't elicit that reaction.

Certainly not horrible, but far from being good, let alone the best animated film that Disney has ever produced, "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" feels like an ancient picture -- especially when compared to the computer generated magic, fun and creativity of "Shrek" and the "Toy Story" films - that will likely sink into the depths of cinematic obscurity, with few really caring, noticing or probably ever making the effort to find and see it again. The film rates as a 5 out of 10.




Reviewed May 11, 2001 / Posted June 15, 2001


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