Toward Atlantis, in muddied waters

Posted: June 15, 2001

When the submarine sets out in search of the legendary city beneath the sea in Atlantis: The Lost Empire, it marks a radical departure in the course of Disney animation.

Conspicuous absentees on this trip are the Elton John songs, the cute animals and the comic-relief sidekicks. Instead, the production team behind such smashing Mouse House successes as Beauty and the Beast and Tarzan has gone for a curious melange of New Age myth and old-fashioned Indiana Jones adventure. It leads to a confusion of tone and an occasional incoherence in the plotting.

With the injection of action that makes some sequences look like a video game, Atlantis indicates a reassessment at Disney on how to reach a young audience. In trying to appeal to different age groups, the movie lacks the confidence and assurance that have been the hallmark of the spectacular successes of the Disney animation renaissance in the last decade.

The submarine has to face all manner of peril on the way to Atlantis, not the least being the weight of the screenplay's political correctness. The film's scrupulous regard for ethnic sensitivity recalls the piety of Pocahontas. It's a burden Atlantis doesn't need.

On the plus side, the animators' technical flair and resourcefulness offer much pleasure. They are dazzling in the set pieces, such as an attack on the sub by a giant mechanized lobster guarding the portals to the city, and in the small details, such as the persuasive movement of water.

Michael J. Fox leads the vocal talent as Milo, a nerdy cartographer who wants to resume the quest for the fabled metropolis begun by his grandfather. Conveniently, he is fluent in Atlantan and persuasive enough to convince a wealthy backer that he should support the expedition.

Central casting sends over the benign black medic, an Italian explosives expert (voiced by none other than Don "Father Guido Sarducci" Novello), and the feisty Latina engineer.

The movie is reasonably shipshape until the adventurers reach their goal. Atlantis is on its last legs, and the only hope for instant urban renewal lies in the power conferred by mystical crystals. The potential of the crystals creates the conflict that pits Milo and the comely Atlantan Princess Kida against entrepreneurs who want to steal them for huge profits.

Perhaps, Atlantis falls short of high expectations because Disney hasn't followed its usual formula of drawing on a familiar classic or a folk story. Or, perhaps, it's the startling contrast with the hip delights of Shrek, which achieves the rare feat of being a family film that reaches the whole family.

Unfortunately for Disney, the real obstacle confronting the submarine isn't the giant lobster. It's a foul-smelling ogre, and it's no contest.

Desmond Ryan's e-mail address is dryan@phillynews.com.

Atlantis: The Lost Empire ** 1/2

Produced by Don Hahn, directed by Gray Trousdale and Kirk Wise, written by Tab Murphy, music by James Newton Howard, distributed by Walt Disney Pictures. Featuring the voices of Michael J. Fox, Leonard Nimoy, James Garner, Cree Summer, John Mahoney, Corey Burton, Audrey Ramirez and Don Novello.

Running time: 1 hour, 35 mins.

Parent's guide: PG

Showing at: area theaters

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