It's probably no surprise that ATLANTIS: THE LOST EMPIRE isn't very good. For a Walt Disney Picture, there isn't any dancing tea cups or pumas breaking out into song to make up for an awkward story. In fact, the very adult nature of the film which tries to be RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK by way of Jules Vernes is likely to be so unappealing to children, that this could very well be the last time the folks at Disney take a chance on an animated feature outside of their tried and true formula.
The premise for ATLANTIS revolves around cartographer/linguistics expert Milo Thatch (voice of Michael J. Fox) who has believed in the existence of the Lost City of Atlantis (rumored to be buried underwater for centuries) since he was a child. His late grandfather believed in this quest too, and now it has fallen to Milo to continue in this pursuit. When he lucks upon a journal that his grandfather left him that outlines the coordinates of Atlantis, Thatch finds himself involved with a wacky billionaire who is willing to fund an expedition to find Atlantis.
From here, Milo is treated as a bit of an outsider as the rag-tag group of explorers headed by Commander Rourke (James Garner) take charge and action, leaving a lot of debris and damage on their way to this underwater babylon. Once they finally reach Atlantis, nothing is what it seems as the civilization is in ruins. The culture has lost touch with its past and is dying off and the appearance of Milo and his research team only brings more trouble. The daughter of the King of Atlantis thinks differently. Her name is Princess Kida (voice of Cree Summer), and she believes Milo, with his ability to read their ancient language, can help them regain their former luster and rebuild their society once again.
Just writing the plot synopsis puts me to sleep and if it sounds dull, you're absolutely right. ATLANTIS: THE LOST EMPIRE is one big yawn. If you thought TITAN A.E. was a total animated bust, here's something even worse. It's so hard to create epic animated films that still feel cartoony in nature. The forthcoming FINAL FANTASY: THE SPIRITS WITHIN has solved this problem by going for a photo-realistic look and treating the characters as characters. It's also a much more mature storyline. Where ATLANTIS and TITAN A.E. go wrong is surrounding the normal, lead characters with wacky sidekicks, thinking this broad comedy will give the kids something to laugh at. Humor is essential to any animated film, especially those without the benefit of songs, but if the story is there, humor will follow. Sadly, ATLANTIS' brain-dead idea of comic relief is a weird explorer named The Mole who likes to crawl around in dirt. All this does is take away from the more serious nature of the story by trying to please all and ultimately satisfying no one.
Directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale were previously responsible for Disney's excellent BEAUTY AND THE BEAST but also provided another noble failure, THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME. With a PG rating for ATLANTIS they finally get to work with more grown-up material, but as much as the story screams for an epic-looking movie, the production design is sadly second-rate. When the characters finally reach Atlantis which should be absolutely beautiful it ends up looking like a poorly drawn underwater episode of TV's SUPERFRIENDS.
I've always felt the story of Atlantis would make for a great film, and Disney was wise in going the animation route, since doing this live action would no doubt cost twice as much once you factor in shooting on water, etc. However, with all the potential, they end up settling for watered down material that hardly breaks new ground.
Magic has always been a Disney specialty, but that special touch is sorely lacking in ATLANTIS: THE LOST EMPIRE. Inevitably it's a 'damned if you do damned if you don't' scenario. Disney needs to continue to take chances with their animated features because their song and dance toons are getting way too rote and predictable, but at the same time they also need to find a way to break new ground without boring an audience to tears. There's no middle-ground here, just an interesting idea for a movie that should have gone back to the drawing board one more time before it got this far.
Reviewed Format: Wide Theatrical Release
Featuring the Voices of: Michael J. Fox, James Garner, Cree Summer, Leonard Nimoy, Phil Morris, Jacqueline Obradors, Don Novello, Corey Burton, Claudia Christian, John Mahoney, Jim Varney, David Ogden Stiers, Florence Stanley
Writer: Tab Murphy from a story by Kirk Wise & Gary Trousdale, Joss Whedon, Bryce Zabel & Jackie Zabel and Tab Murphy
Director: Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale
Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures