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'Atlantis': That Sinking Feeling

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 15, 2001


    'Atlantis: The Lost Empire' Milo finds the lost city and meets Atlantean Kida in "Atlantis: The Lost Empire."
(Walt Disney)
If Disneyland were 20,000 leagues under the sea, it would look a whole lot like "Atlantis: The Lost Empire," the studio's quaintly animated summer feature. With its magic mountains, pastel colors and genial, Bambi-eyed populace, the sunken Shangri-la could easily be mistaken for the remains of "The Lost Theme Park."

Ironically Disney had hoped to update its image with this mildly diverting adventure, yet the picture hasn't really broken away from the tried-and-true format spoofed in the far superior "Shrek." But apparently shaking the company's warm and fuzzy tradition isn't so easy.

Directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise ("Beauty and the Beast," "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," etc.) have axed what Disney does best: calypso crustaceans, wisecracking warthogs, singing teapots. They even hired a hip comic-book artist (Mike Mignola of "Hellboy") to work with studio veterans in a futile, even misguided attempt to appeal to preadolescents and teens, instead of Mom, Pop and the small fry.

The result is cutesy but harsh, a hybrid of saucer-eyed anime and square-jawed angularity that brings to mind an edgier "Pokemon." On top of everything else, the filmmakers decided that the picture should also recall the studio's live-action films from the '50s and '60s such as "Swiss Family Robinson." This means the computer graphics must look as if they were hand-drawn and the film shot in CinemaScope. Put it all together and you've got what the company calls "Disnola," a new-fashioned but old-fangled hash.

The same goes for the plot, which draws on Plato's version of the story as well as Edgar Cayce's alleged memories from a past life in Atlantis. Plato says the people got uppity and angered Neptune; Cayce suggests they produced unfathomable energy from powerful "fire-crystals," which they misused, causing the continent to go plop-plop, fizz-fizz.

Anyway, the story centers on Milo Thatch (voiced by Michael J. Fox), an insufferably eager nincompoop who joins an expedition in search of the submerged utopia. Oddly, although it's 1914, the crew is as inclusive as the Rainbow Coalition: a Latina mechanic (Jacqueline Obradors), an African American doctor (Phil Morris), a crusty Euro-American commander (James Garner), a German dominatrix (Claudia Christian), a French geologist (Corey Burton), an Italian explosives expert (Don Novello), plus a chuck wagon-era cook (the late Jim Varney) and a cynical switchboard operator (Florence Stanley).

When it comes to stereotypes, Disney tries its darnedest but still fails. These characters are an improvement over the hook-nosed, evil Arabs of "Aladdin." Yes, stereotypes exist for a reason, but must all Frenchmen stink, all Germans wear jackboots and all Latinas recall Rosie Perez?

If the screenwriter, Tab Murphy in this case, is too lazy or unimaginative to provide his characters with distinguishing traits, the answer is invariably yes. Alas, strong supporting players are even more crucial when the story is less than compelling and the hero this bland.

Cree Summer gives voice to Princess Kida, the Pocahontas of Atlantis and Milo's love interest. The city's crystals are dimming and the civilization is dying. And while they speak all languages, its people can no longer read Atlantean. Luckily Milo can, and with his help, Kida manages to provide a happily-ever-after ending. How's that for cutting-edge?

"Atlantis: The Lost Empire" (95 minutes), is rated PG for action and violence.


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