It’s one thing for DreamWorks or some other, edgier, less well-financed challenger to take aim at the Disney formula, to snipe at the happy-happy-songs, chatty animal sidekicks, and royal romances. But you know the formula has gotten way old when even the folks at Disney think it’s gotten old. By way of remedy, they’ve come up with Atlantis: The Lost Empire, an adventure yarn that borrows more from Spielberg and Lucas than traditional fairy tales, and a crew of ass-kicking characters who look more like the X-Men dressed in WWI era drag than the usual furry suspects.
Surely, one reason for the change-up has to do with the fact that the actual people working at Disney are self-conscious inhabitants of the real world, who feel as disturbed as anyone else by those stories about the fanatical conformity and lice in the underwear at Disneyland. Consider that it usually takes about four years to make one of these animated features that audiences have come to expect every year, and that many members of the Disney team have been doing it for a long time. Eventually, coming up with a prodigious Broadway musical’s worth of songs and dances and predictable plot turns must get tiring.
Atlantis: the Lost Empire
Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise
voices of Michael J. Fox, James Garner, Cree Summer, Don Novello, Phil Morris, Claudia Christian, David Ogden Stiers, John Mahoney, Jim Varney, Leonard
(Walt Disney Pictures)
Atlantis departs from formula in a number of ways, beyond the most obvious one, that there’s not a single song (and the big Elton-John-y Oscar shoe-in number is not a bit missed). The decision to do something different this time led directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise (Beauty and the Beast, The Hunchback of Notre Dame) to look outside the Disney enclave for inspiration. They tapped Joss Whedon (the much-adored creator of Buffy) to work on the script with mouse-kingdom veteran Tab Murphy (Tarzan, Hunchback), and comic book artist Mike Mignola (Hellboy) to lead the animators in a new stylistic direction.
The result is something of a hybrid. It’s an animated summer movie that’s part Disney cutesy-pieness, part Indiana Jones at the bottom of a strangely angular undersea world, part interspecies romance, and part Jimmy Cagney war movie, complete with motley crew of brave humans and a native culture the Atlanteans in need of discovery and repair. The mix is uneven, and there are moments when it’s unconvincing, slow, or redundant, but save for that rather glaring plot detail concerning the Atlanteans, at least it appears to be a gesture toward keeping up with the times.
Leading this quest to find the Lost City is Milo Thatch (voiced by Michael J. Fox), a gangly and ambitious nerdy guy with coke-bottle thick glasses (he’d be a computer-boy if computers had been invented back then). Milo’s yearning to get out from under his day-job as a linguist and museum cartographer, in order to pursue his grandfather’s dream of finding the long-gone Atlantis (sucked undersea by a giant tidal wave thousands of years ago, as the film helpfully informs you in a brief prologue scene). As the film begins, Milo has recalculated some coordinates and found an idiosyncratic billionaire (John Mahoney) who just so happens to be nursing his own lingering admiration for Milo’s dead gramps.
The billionaire also just so happens to have assembled an ace adventuring team to assist Milo on his quest, including the gigantor-chested Commander Rourke (James Garner); his Germanic right-hand Helga (Claudia Christian); Italian demolitions man Vinny (Don Novello, sounding a lot like his famous alter ego, Father Guido Sarducci some folks’ careers get stalled, you know?); wizened cook Cookie (the late Jim Varney); Latina mechanic Audrey (Jacqueline Obradors); cranky communications gal Mrs. Packard (Florence Stanley); well-muscled, black/Native American doctor Sweet (Phil Morris, a.k.a. Seinfeld‘s lawyer Jackie Chiles); and the literally mole-like geologist Gaetan Moliere (Corey Burton).
Broadly conceived as one of those one-from-every-food-group movie crews, these characters don’t really stand a chance as individuals. They’re immediately thrust into some gloriously rendered, CinemaScoped action scenes aboard the Ulysses, a Jules Verne-ian submarine that proves particularly agile when chased by a mechanical beast called the Leviathan. Soon afterwards they find what appears to be an underground pathway to Atlantis, which is lucky, because they’re breathing air, and so never have to don those unfashionable Diver Dan outfits.
Even luckier, when the trespassers arrive in Atlantis, the Atlanteans actually welcome them, and immediately apply a handy-dandy universal translator so that everyone’s speaking a language you can understand without subtitles (this is too bad, because the filmmakers brought in linguist Marc Okrand, inventor of Star Trek‘s Klingon language, to create one for the Atlanteans, and here it’s reduced to a few phrases and some literal writing on the wall). But as friendly as everyone appears to be (there’s no disgruntled witchdoctor here, as there was in a similar scenario set up in DreamWorks’ Road to El Dorado), there is a rather conspicuous ideological problem with this encounter. The premise is that Milo is the only person on the planet able to read Atlantean the Atlanteans themselves are in need of his services, otherwise they’re in danger of losing their own culture. They’re supposed to be grateful that a white guy has to save their day.
True, Milo’s heroic endeavor is somewhat marred when it’s revealed (not very surprisingly) that Commander Rourke is in fact a mercenary who’s in this whole business for the cash, leading to a struggle between evil invaders and good invaders, familiar from previous Disneyfications of legends and histories (like Pocahontas and Tarzan). This revelation comes just about when Milo meets his love interest, the voluptuous Atlantean Princess Kida (Cree Summer). That she and her fellows, including her regally crotchety father, King Nedakh (Leonard Nimoy), are all of a darker skin tone than most of the descending humans (the doctor being the stand-out exception) hardly seems coincidental. Perhaps this coloring and their blue tattoos are intended to make the Atlanteans look “tribal” and “ancient,” to a dominant white eye, anyway. Their appearance is certainly striking in that hybrid sort of way their hair is white and flowing and their features are decidedly Caucasian.
The stunningly athletic and clearly sexualized Kida actually resembles one of those early “black Barbies” issued some years ago in an effort to “diversify” the doll’s target demographic. When she takes Milo on a little excursion to show him Atlantis’s secret cache of power crystals (the mysterious source of their longevity and generically wondrous culture, if not a useful Hooked On Phonics program), she outclimbs, outruns, and basically out-everythings her companion. He’s undeterred however, and impresses her by being able to read the ancient prophecy. Though she’s thousands of years old herself, Kida takes a liking to Milo, and their incipient romance is effectively interracial as well as inter-class, and it is pleasant that he decides in the end to “go native,” designated by his adoption of tattoos and Atlantean sarong-like costume a dress.
But Milo’s transformation comes at a cost for severe (if temporary) cost for the glorious and self-confident Kida, when she’s reduced to damsel in distress in need of rescuing, in order to rouse her man to action-heroism. The film actually includes a loud, large battle scene (with Milo and company piloting Star Wars-like fighter pods, as well as lots of explosions and James Newton Howard’s lofty score). It’s like watching a Michael Bay movie without the live actors, not necessarily a bad idea, but (I’m thinking of Armageddon and Pearl Harbor), it’s not really a new one either.