Atlantis
review by Gianni Truzzi, 15 June 2001

Disney's latest film, Atlantis, is an eleven-year old boy's dream of an animated adventure film. Heavy on action, light on mush, thankfully singing-free, it speeds at a race-car pace toward a conclusion full of spectacle and great big bangs.  Like most dreams, however, it will probably be only dimly remembered in the morning.

Young Milo Thatch (given voice by Michael J. Fox) is an underfed, overeager wanna-be adventurer of 1914 who shares his departed grandfather Thadeuss' obsession with discovering the lost city of Atlantis. He listens, wide-eyed through large round glasses, as his grandfather's old partner, wealthy Preston B. Whitmore (John Mahoney), agrees to finance an expedition to search for it,using the ancient book Thaddeus discovered as a roadmap. Fortunately, Milo reads ancient Atlantean, due to his fanatical studies. Whitmore lays out dossiers of the crew like a heist film, where each one has a special talent to apply to the job, such as the explosives expert Vinny Santorini (Don Novello), and the dig-happy minerologist Mole (Corey Burton), a cross between Charles Addams' Uncle Fester and Peter Lorre. They're led by Commander Lyle T. Rourke (James Garner), a swaggering mercenary, and the swivel-hipped Helga (Claudia Christian) into the ocean depths.

It's in the briny deep that the expedition encounters formidable obstacles to prevent their entry, such as a giant, mechanical crustacean, which inspires the rugged Rourke to order, "Tell Cookie to melt the butter and bring out the bibs! I want this lobster served on a silver platter!"

Once Atlantis is found, of course, the true motive of Milo's compatriots is discovered, to hijack the legendary power source of Atlantis and sell it to the highest bidder -- even if that's the Kaiser. It's left to Milo to save the dying lost city, and protect his newfound love, the 8,000-year-old Princess Kida (Cree Summer).

The art direction is thoughtful, if derivative. The drawing shares the outsized hands and feet, with pronounced muscle outline of the recent Tarzan, continuing the break from the traditional Disney look. Yet they have scavenged their own past with a submarine that mimics Captain Nemo's in the 1954 live-action 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. Atlantis reminds one of ancient Mayan and Aztec cultures, with bright blue tatoos and feathered headdresses, yet it draws from everywhere, including Byzantine mosaic.

There are six writers credited on this film, but it seems like a waste. How many people should it take to rewrite Frank Capra's 1937 Lost Horizon? All the same elements are here: the stranded explorers, the hidden, blissful city, the romance between outsider and princess, and the intrusion of modern-world greed that threatens to destroy paradise. Atlantis has some pretty cool technology, but that's about the only substantive difference it shows from Shangri-La.

The film's setting of 1914 seems almost arbitrary, and often ignored. The women don't wear corsets. Nobody ever cranks a motorcar. They don't even call them motorcars. And the submarine, with its expansive, glass bubble windows is thoroughly beyond any possible technology of that era. The early 1900s were an exciting time, when modernity suggested that, with progress, anything was possible. But there's no trace of that feeling here.

Events move at such a rapid clip that there's no opportunity to explore or enjoy the time period. The filmmakers are impatient with exposition, and seem in a hurry to get to the good stuff. The obstacles appear and disappear without adequate tension or rest. They've forgotten that the journey is the most fun for the audience, and is the best opportunity to learn. The Disney team should watch the 1966 film, Fantastic Voyage, with its micronauts drifting through the body's bloodstream.

What's missing most is any conveyance of how absorbing real archaeology can be. This was the time, after all, of some of the greatest archaeological discoveries, ranging from Heinrich Schliemann's discovery of Troy to Flinders Petrie's remarkable digs in Egypt, or even Howard Carter's later discovery of Tutankhamen's intact tomb. Yet kids never get the sense of what riches await them in the real world.

While the images of Atlantis are beautiful, they're completely fantastic, derived less from Plato than from every piece of utter rot found in a New Age bookstore. The lost city's inhabitants sport crystals, which give them the power of healing. They build in stone and dress like primitives, yet they fly in machines like Jedi pilots. Eight thousand years ago, Neolithic man was just figuring out how to cultivate crops. How did this bunch get so advanced? It's never really explained.

It would be nice if Atlantis opened its young viewers eyes to real-world ideas that might spark their interest, and send them on their own adventure to the library stacks. Instead, it's nothing more than a vaporous diversion, a way to kill a couple of hours while escaping the summer heat. The problem is, after seeing the marvels of the lost city of Atlantis, what do you do for the rest of the day?

Directed by:
Gary Trousdale
Kirk Wise

Starring:
Michael J. Fox
James Garner
Cree Summer
Don Novello
Claudia Christian
Phil Morris
Jacqueline Obradors
Florence Stanley
John Mahoney
Jim Varney
Leonard Nimoy
Corey Burton
David Ogden Stiers

Written by:
Tab Murphy
Joss Whedon

Rated:
PG - Parental
Guidance Suggested.
Some material
may not be suitable
for children
.

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