**/**** Image A+ Sound A Extras A
screenplay by Tab Murphy
directed by Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise
by Walter Chaw Clearly trying to gain some anime credibility by aping the mystical mumbo jumbo of Akira in an unfathomable third act, jettisoning the musical romantic comedy format, and inserting a few subtitles, Disney's Atlantis: The Lost Empire (henceforth Atlantis) has moments of true grandeur, though it has a good many more of pure Disney. It gets hip genre credibility from the story contributions of "Hellboy" creator Mike Mignola and "Buffy" scribe Joss Whedon, but the best of intentions often lead to the worst of eventualities, and Atlantis is ultimately less "wow" than "oh, boy" and, eventually, "huh?"
Set in 1914, Atlantis is a strange mish-mash of Island at the Top Of The World, Lost Horizon, Brigadoon, Titan A.E., and Hideaki Anno's 39-episode anime "Secret of the Blue Water", which features a mysterious blue pendant while owing, like this film, a great deal to Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. More, Atlantis borrows from another Verne pulper, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and liberally from the western genre in its obvious evocation of a wagon train (complete with a Jim Varney-voiced Cookie) and conflict with mystical guerrilla-tactic Injuns/Atlanteans. Mix with the ill-defined hoi polloi of Akira and what you're left with is a largely unengaging action/mysticism/vaguely racist colonialist apology that sports some whiz-bang, but only enough to highlight the puzzling shortcomings of the rest of the exercise.
In the best parts of Atlantis, linguist Milo (voice of Michael J. Fox) is allowed to take centre stage as an anti-Disney hero: not muscled, not coordinated, not particularly resourceful, but rather clumsy, bookish, and hopeful for a chance to make something of his largely squandered life and legacy. Milo, the boiler-room attendant at the Smithsonian, dreams of fulfilling his archaeologist grandfather's life's ambition to find the lost continent of Atlantis (which, once found, tends to resemble Walt's trademark castle). We meet Milo as he delivers a presentation to a captive audience of broomsticks and buckets, detailing how the Atlantean phrase "Coast of Iceland" has one rune that has been mistranslated, resulting in the misleading "Coast of Ireland" and thus obscuring the secret location of an illuminated text that details the "coordinates" of fallen Atlantis.
Firstly, a different language is not a code to be translated letter by letter; second, the rune for "C" has already been translated as "C" or else the phrase would have read, "Roast of Ireland"; third, nautical "coordinates" like latitude and especially longitude did not enter popular usage until nearly 1800; and fourth, in 800 BC, it would be an awfully strange coincidence that the Atlanteans would call Iceland "Iceland." It is at this point that I realized that Atlantis, although some very smart people were involved in its making, is not the least bit interested in being very smart.
I'm not going to spend any more time than this in talking about the inconsistencies of Atlantis--I want to disclaim, in fact, that I understand how fantasies depend on a kind of distorted reality. But a fantasy, a science-fiction action film--any film--absolutely must adhere to its own internal logic. If you tell me that a culture has forgotten how to read its own language, and then you tell me that the members of that culture are immortal (the cutie-pie heroine Kida (Cree Summer) is 1800 years old), you must explain to me why they have forgotten their own written language. If you tell me that a society depends on a mystical blue crystal for its power, then you need to explain to me how everything still functions after that power source is removed (see also: Independence Day and the inexplicable working condition of the human-piloted ship after the energy-supplying mothership explodes).
This can easily be read as the nyah nyah school of criticism, punching holes in minutiae in order to justify a greater dissatisfaction, but the internal inconsistencies of Atlantis speak to a much larger problem. Most filmmakers presume that you'll either not notice the gaping yaws in its own reality construct, or that you won't care, dismissing this trash as "a kid's movie" as though what we present to our children matters less than what we present to ourselves. The dangerous presumption is that we're imbeciles who will forgive anything if it's fantasy, sci-fi, or meant for children (or worse, "just a movie"), and because we don't seem to care how we waste our money and our time, they're not held to any kind of standard for either quality or intelligence.
Milo gets recruited one night by a Bacall-husky femme fatale Helga (Claudia Christian) to contribute his translating skills to a massive undersea-expedition funded by quirky billionaire Preston Whitmore (John Mahoney). With a surprisingly well-sketched crew of specialists and an excellent Star Wars-style battle between the hi-tech submarine, the submarine's fighter pods, and a giant Atlantean automaton, Atlantis' first thirty minutes are excellent in capturing the Verne-ian invocation to an Odyssean muse: the young hero, unschooled in the physical world, recruited for the quest of a lifetime on the arm of a crew of hardened adventurers.
The film's middle thirty minutes are either uncomfortable (the Noble Savage syndrome of racism, employed in its Old West trope and depiction of sneaky Atlanteans who heal, speak "gibberish," and sneak into camp to steal trinkets) or blandly predictable (the betrayal of the hero; the love interest; the culture clash with the old-school father). And its final thirty minutes (although they feature an excellent adventure sequence involving a hot air balloon lifted from another Jules Verne story, Around the World in Eighty Days) contain elements that are either interminable and drab in its evocation of a slightly condescending mock-religiosity (positing a blue-lightning version of ancestor worship) or madly inconsistent. (Can someone explain the power of the crystal and the logic of its desire to "meld" with a "chosen one" again?)
Atlantis is typical Disney dreck disguised by more violence (I enjoyed the carnage, although I doubted the cause that characters were dying for) and an absence musical numbers. The only positive distinction that matters for Atlantis is, in fact, the hiring of linguist Marc Okrand (creator of Vulcan and Klingon) to develop a dialect for the Atlanteans that requires subtitles in the early going. That Atlantis chickens out and has the Atlanteans also fluent in modern English (English was spoken in 800 BC?) is only another indication of just how much we've been taken for granted. Stick with Princess Mononoke (from which Atlantis borrows the masked visages of the acrobatic marauding Atlanteans and the walking on water of the spiritual force), Ghost in the Shell (not only the source for the major images of The Matrix, but also those of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider), Ninja Scroll, or, for the pinnacle of the art, the heartbreaking Grave of the Fireflies. They are films that don't think you're a moron, an increasingly precious commodity. Originally published: June 15, 2001.
by Bill Chambers Disney has released two versions of Atlantis: The Lost Empire on DVD, one with extra features and one without, and while I was glad to be exploring the former, it's difficult to imagine that the film has any fans rabid enough to gobble up the hours upon hours of supplementary material. The 2-disc set devotes the first platter to the film plus a light helping of bonus features. Presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, the THX-approved, digital-to-digital transfer is the best I've yet seen for a traditionally/2-D animated movie. Accompanying 5.1 mixes in Dolby Digital and DTS are phenomenally loud: this is some of genius-level sound designer Gary Rydstrom's most textured and aggressive work--and there's never any reprieve from it. Owners of a good subwoofer will want to check this one out, particularly the opening flyovers.
As I popped in Disc 2 right after my viewing of Atlantis, by the time I got around to visiting Disc 1's commentary, I was sick to death of producer Don Hahn and co-directors Gary "Harry Knowles Look-alike" Trousdale and Kirk Wise, whose screen-specific session has optional video highlights during which the film will pause and you'll be treated to a short, pertinent behind-the-scenes segment introduced by footage of the cereal-eating trio in a recording booth. One of the things we learn this way is that Milo was to have a rodent sidekick, an idea abandoned after animals joined songs on their way out the window.
A specially prepared "DisneyPedia" consisting of six entries that elaborate on the blend of fact and fiction in Atlantis, trailers for Beauty and the Beast: Special Edition, Cinderella II: Dreams Come True (which looks like it exists to redeem the wicked stepsisters?!), Tron, "Schoolhouse Rock", The Hunchback of Notre Dame II, and 101 Dalmatians 2 (not to be confused with 102 Dalmatians), and a promo for "DisneyDVD" round out Disc 1; the first two aforementioned previews start up automatically when you first insert the DVD. Those with DVD-ROM drives will also discover web-based Atlantis fun on Disc 1.
Disc 2 begins with a crafty Whitmore newsreel that explains the three methods of exploring the special features content: "Explorer" (fancy menus); "Guided Tour" (sit back and enjoy the ride while your player does the work); and "Files" (no bells and whistles, just a straightforward list of everything there is to see). I opted for "Files," which was so stripped-down as to feel like a breath of fresh air--I suspect this how the adults will surf the supps once the carpet spores are tucked in for the evening. Here now, a brief summary of the sections and sub-sections of the "Files" menu, spread over eight pages:
Featurette: The Journey Begins (9 mins.)
Hahn places a lot of emphasis on the chimichangas that were served the night Atlantis: The Lost Empire was born. Currently the only way to see restored clips from a couple of key non-animated Disney adventures on DVD, such as the Bobby Driscoll Treasure Island.
Featurette: Creating Mythology (8 mins.)
Much of what we know about the quote-unquote real Atlantis began with Plato retelling his father's hearsay. Thanks, Greek dude.
Still Frame Galleries: a longwinded, text-based "History of The Shepherd's Journal", "The Shepherd's Journal", and "Shepherd's Journal Designs."
Featurette: How to Speak Atlantean (2 mins.)
The least illuminating language lesson I've ever received, courtesy of "Star Trek" linguist Marc Okrand. Incorporates clips from the Disney 'edumentary' The Reluctant Dragon.
STORY AND EDITORIAL
Featurette: Finding the Story (11 mins.)
Highlights: screenwriter Tab Murphy remembers that his first draft of Atlantis ran 155 pages and cheers the decision to cut the far-fetched notion of "lava whales," something he always despised.
In addition to three proposed sequences in storyboard form, the original prologue, scrapped at great expense to the studio. It's an intriguing sequence in finished 16x9-widescreen and Dolby 5.1 audio.
Interspersed with elaborate conceptual art.
Featurette: Designing Atlantis (11 mins.)
"Hellboy"'s Mike Mignola is briefly interviewed. He came aboard after the animators were told to model their drawings after Mignola's artwork. We're treated to something of a tour of Carlsbad Caverns, too.
There are eight galleries here, one of which is devoted to Mignola's design concepts. Mignola obviously influenced the selectable "Art Direction Style Guide" that finishes off this portion of the disc.
Featurette: The Voices of Atlantis (12 mins.)
Just about every vocal contributor is interviewed or shown hamming it up in the studio. The late, gentle Jim Varney is paid tribute here.
Featurette: Creating the Characters (27 mins.)
Not only the lengthiest doc, but also the most egregious.
Featurette: Setting the Scene (12 mins.)
Discover the challenges of animating for the CinemaScope aspect ratio. Defines the abstract, oft used animation term "scene planning" for us.
"Color Script Gallery" has nothing to do with the screenplay; rather, these are choice paintings by the Atlantis team that helped them to navigate the script. "Layouts and Backgrounds" is a self-explanatory gallery.
Occupying the majority of the "Files" sub-menus are various "dossiers," designs, animation tests, and production progressions for every Atlantis character, even the "miscellaneous" ones.
Featurette: Digital Production (10 mins.)
It's admittedly difficult to tell where the hand-drawn animation ends and the CGI contributions begin.
Digital Production Tests (6 mins.)
Wise narrates a demo reel of 2-D and 3-D CGI tests.
The digital handiwork is isolated in twelve step-frame galleries of vehicles and three for characters.
MUSIC AND SOUND (9 mins.) asks Rydstrom and composer James Newton Howard to illuminate their respective approaches to Atlantis.
PUBLICITY rounds up four trailers and a gallery of the film's unappetizing print campaign. (Sure didn't drag me into the theatre.)
Last but not least, ATLANTIS FOUND (7 mins.) compiles footage from the premiere of Atlantis: The Lost Empire (which Hahn glibly equates with the 1937 black-tie opening of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) and final thoughts from crewmembers. Like so much else in this Collector's Edition, this send-off is, let's face it, a glorified, pre-emptive Oscar speech. Originally published: February 6, 2002.