Atlantis: The Lost Empire (review)

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Disneyana Jones

The story so far:

The year is 1914. Jessica Rabbit visits Young Indiana Jones with the news that her employer, Frasier’s dad, has in his possession Professor Jones’s Grail diary. Indy joins their motley crew of adventurers — demolitions expert Father Guido Sarducci; chief engineer Rosie Perez — and they all ride Jules Verne’s submarine 20,000 leagues under the sea. After an attack by MechaGodzilla, they discover the Gungan City on Naboo, which is ruled by Pocahontas and her father, Mr. Spock.

It starts making less sense from there, but I can reveal that, in the end, the bad guy wants the superpowerful Ark for the Nazis.
There’s a significant adult audience for the animated Disney films of the last decade — I’ll never forget being part of a late-night, no-kids-present crowd that got swept up as a whole by Beauty and the Beast — and Disney thinks they’re finally addressing those fans with Atlantis: The Lost Empire. There are no cutesy talking animals here (though one human character comes close); not a single character is a child (though there are two adults who, in the classic Disney tradition, lost their mothers as children). Disney excised the stuff that often detracted from a compelling, adult story (see Mulan‘s wiseass dragon Mushu). Unfortunately, they also extracted the very elements that made the Disney films resonate so strongly for grownups, things like wonder and honor and love. And they left us, ironically, with a rehash fantasy adventure story that only inexperienced moviegoers like children could find even remotely fresh.

When wannabe archeologist and adventurer Milo Thatch (the voice of Michael J. Fox: Stuart Little) joins an expedition to find the lost city of Atlantis, he should be able to tell right off the bat that he can’t trust those in charge, Commander Lyle T. Rourke (James Garner: Space Cowboys) and his first officer, Helga Sinclair (Claudia Christian) — they’re so angular, after all, sharp and pointy and dangerous. They’re bad, and they are drawn that way. That’s the extent of characterization in Atlantis — the ragged bunch that Milo signs up with aren’t people but stand-ins for single human characteristics. Audrey (Jacqueline Obradors: Six Days Seven Nights), the engineer, is Determined. The “Mole” (Corey Burton), who likes dirt, is Obsessed. Vincenzo Santorini (Don Novello) likes to blow things up. Mrs. Packard (Florence Stanley: Bulworth), who seems entirely useless, is Direct, her resigned sighs of “We’re all gonna die” her trademark. She’s at least good for a few laughs; the expedition’s doctor, Joshua Sweet (Phil Morris: Clay Pigeons), seems to just stand around doing nothing. But they’re a PC, multiculti group — black and white, male and female, all working together in relative harmony in 1914 — and that may be all we’re meant to notice.

So why should we care what these folks are up to? The Disney animators and directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise (now 1 for 3; Beauty and the Beast their winner versus The Hunchback of Notre Dame and this one) try to distract us with sweeping visuals of the undersea kingdom of Atlantis, but there’s little sense of grandeur about them. Maybe that’s because no one — with the exception of Milo, who isn’t actually all that convincing — seems to give the slightest thought to what an extraordinary journey they’re supposed to have undertaken, and what an extraordinary discovery they’re supposed to have made. Perhaps it’s because for all the apparent effort that went into creating the culture of the Atlanteans — the invented language, the art and architecture, the religio-mythic stuff — there’s little context for any of it. It’s puffery thrown into a vacuum that we’re meant to appreciate because it’s supposedly so old, and because the Atlanteans live peaceful, happy lives, fishing and fingering the crystals around their necks. And yet there’s no sense of the ancientness — individually or as a culture — of the Atlanteans, removed from the rest of the world for thousands of years. How did they get to the peace they have now? No clues are forthcoming.

No, from the moment Milo and Co. meet Atlantis’s Princess Kida (Cree Summer) — who is notably round and soft and bodacious not angular and evil at all — and her father, King Kashekim Nedakh (Leonard Nimoy: Trekkies), it’s clear where Atlantis the movie is taking us. This isn’t a personal journey of discovery for anyone — it’s a sermon on Disney spirituality, a lecture about how Western civilization and capitalism = bad; beach-bumming and worshipping crystals = good. Emotions good; technology bad. Which is odd when you consider all the computing power that went into this flick, and all the feeling that didn’t.

Don’t look at the light, Marian! It’s only the passing of the animation torch from Disney to DreamWorks anyway.

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