– Summary –
Director : Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise
Cast : Voices of Michael J Fox, James Garner, Cree Summer, John Mahoney, Jim Varney, Corey Burton, Leonard Nimoy.
Year of Release : 2001
Length : 96 Minutes
Synopsis: A young scholar is recruited on an expedition to find the lost city of Atlantis; when the team arrives to find it still inhabited, this creates tension for those who seek more than simply knowledge. Can the once great city survive yet another attack from above?
Review : Knockabout adventure yarn is undone by a cavalcade of unexplained and inexplicably confusing plot developments in the latter third, some rather generic characters, and a sheer lack of heart. The film has all the elements of a great story, and the production value of Atlantis is first rate, however things don’t quite add up to make the film work well, and ultimately, feels a little flat. The humour and the action are wonderful, but the narrative jumps from point to point with almost no sense of time or logic, and this generates a fair amount of disinterest from the viewer.
By all accounts, it should have worked. Atlantis, one of the latter feature animated films to come from Disney prior to the studio canning the hand-drawn stuff (which has, quite recently, come back thanks to Pixar stalwart John Lasseter), is an action packed adventure/epic in the truest sense of the word. Cobbling elements of the works of Jules Verne and a hint of HG Wells, Atlantis remains somewhat of an enigma in the Disney studio canon. It’s success, if it can be called that, remains heartfelt in the true fans of the piece, although the general public failed to support it to the point where it failed to recoup its production costs by a wide margin. In the cool light of history, it’s perhaps easy to see why many people didn’t appreciate the work, perhaps even disliked it.
The animation style, which is greatly influenced by Hellboy artist Mike Mignola (one of comic’s greatest artists, it must be said) keeps the film easy on the eye, if not entirely without flaw. It’s brash, angular animation style gave Atlantis a more vivid sense of adventure and energy, required for a bombastic undersea adventure. The characters in the film hang quite readily on fairly common genre standards: the geek who falls for the indigenous girl, the female mechanic who has more balls than a golfing range, the slightly insane demolitions expert with a penchant for anything going BOOM, and of course, the leader of the team who may, or may not, be on the side of good. Written with a fair amount of charm by a plethora of scribes, Atlantis sunk without trace from the Disney “classic” stable almost as fast as the famed island city itself.
Milo Thatch (voice of Michael J Fox), a young linguist who is berated and belittled by those above his station at the Smithsonian Institute in the early 1900’s, is recruited by a philanthropic millionaire to locate the lost city of Atlantis, at the request of Milo’s late uncle Thaddeus. Milo’s knowledge of a secret book known as the Shepherds Journal, coupled with his linguistic ability, will be of great value to the expedition, even if his tolerance of “adventure” is not all that great. Milo meets the requisite “team” of character who will accompany him on this quest, particularly the stern and militaristic Commander Rourke (James Garner, playing it perfectly), as well as Mole (Corey Burton), Vincenzo Santorelli (Don Novello), and tomboy mechanic Audrey Ramirez (Jaqueline Orbadors). After plenty of (mis)adventures journeying deep into the earth, Milo and the team eventually discover the lost city, although they are surprised to find that it’s still populated by the survivors of the great cataclysm that befell the city centuries ago. Milo befriends the daughter of the city’s chief (as most movie heroes do) in Kida (voice of Cree Summer), sparking a kind of geek-romance between the linguist and the Atlantean native. You can guess where this goes from there.
Atlantis was one of the few hand drawn films to be presented in the wider anamorphic aspect ratio, next to other Disney classics like Sleeping Beauty and Lady & The Tramp. The use of the scope aspect allows the film-makers to create a more epic feel to the story, filling the screen with explosions, effects and massive landscapes. The digital components of the animation, such as the underwater submarine the explorers use as they begin their journey, fit well into the rest of the traditional hand-drawn elements, complementing it wonderfully.
Unfortunately, the characters and story just don’t gel as much as they should. The action feels flat and forced, almost like a runaway roller-coaster ride with little coherence, and very little that occurs is actually explained. Blessed with copious scribes during production, Atlantis suffers somewhat from the old “more is less” problem, the feel of a hundred hands on the script and story belittling the overall impact. Much of the Atlanetan culture isn’t actually explained, which is infuriating in the final act where things begin to happen that simply have no rhyme or reason. Much of it appears to be some “magical” power that beats at the heart of Atlantis, which is apparently what the expedition has been sent to recover (although Milo himself is unaware of that fact), and when things start to go pear-shaped as the film reaches it’s conclusion, logic and understanding go right out the window.
The characters in the film are a little better developed, although the modern style of humour seems at odds with the time period the story is set in. The rapid-fire patter of Doctor Sweet, the large black man who seems a bizarre doppelganger for Michael Clarke Duncan, seems oddly out of place in the overall tone of the film: indeed, the dialogue barrels along at a cracking pace, a very post-2000 feel, rather than the early 1900’s ethos it should have had. Still, this modern-period style can work to an advantage; with Atlantis, unfortunately, it’s a little jarring. The only character who seems more in tune with herself is Kida, perfectly voiced by Cree Summer. Her lilting, lyrical style is wonderful to watch, a perfect example of how to do a “native” character properly.
The music, by James Newton Howard, is suitably epic, evoking memories of those epic films of the 50’s and 60’s, while also remaining intimate at the requisite moments. It’s amazing how good a large scale sweeping score can enhance an already large scale sweeping storyline. The music, however, isn’t quite enough to give us that genuinely exciting film we’d have expected. The “journey” to the centre of the Earth, which is essentially what this story is about, lacks overall cohesion and “smoothness” for want of a better word. Disjointed segues and segmented “moments” of action and character building make for a less than satisfactory narrative overall, and the film’s lack of momentum in the critical central act bogs it down in overtly manipulative dialogue; it doesn’t feel natural, and comes across as such.
Unfortunately, Atlantis lacks the warmth and loving nature of a Lion King or Little Mermaid, which is probably the reason it alienated audiences who went along expecting a more traditional Disney film. In hindsight, Atlantis probably could have worked as a live action film, perhaps, or maybe as an animated film in the CG realm, but for it to work as an animated 2D flick from the Disney stable, it required a lot more…. heart. The film works on a superficial entertainment level, but for those who try and dig a little deeper and squeeze more from it, you’ll be left wanting. Ultimately, a disappointment.