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In this episode: Atlantis: The Lost Empire

A Marks the Spot I really am getting tired of all these titles with colons in them. Would it have been too much to expect this movie to be titled merely Atlantis? Would some kind of überimportant marketing niche not have been attacked without The Lost Empire at the end there? Would the American people—the same people who nearly elected W to office—have mistaken it for an Alanis Morissette concert film?

Questions such as these are important to consider for the simple reason that Atlantis: The Extraneous Subtitle is, er, not so hot.

Okay, there are some "of course"s here. The animation, of course, is beautiful, stylish, unique, and top-notch all around. The sound, of course, is great. And the lack of songs is, of course, refreshing. Atlantis has all the trappings of a big summer action spectacle. Sadly, like most big summer action spectacles, the plot is thin. Thin and hollow. Hollow as a circuit party.

The biggest problem with the narrative of this flick is the explication. I'd say 95% of all the plot points in the movie are explained verbally by a character, mostly Milo Thatch, the thin, dolty amateur archaeologist voiced annoyingly by Michael J. Fox. (I like Michael, but his direction here is aggravatingly off the mark.) Milo has a book that tells all there is to know about finding Atlantis (which is, in case you've forgotten, a lost empire). I am not one to normally advocate such things, but this book should have been burned. BURNED! Why? Because it serves as an easy out for the filmmakers. Milo and his band of colorful and wacky characters seem to find Atlantis in a couple minutes. The obstacles to getting there are few, and those are easily overcome, mostly in a jaunty montage sequence that I imagine took a lot less to animate than it would have several prolonged and interesting action pieces. The mystical book, with Milo interpreting, makes for a dull adventure. Reading a Zagat guide would yield a more pulpy experience.

For much of the rest of the movie, after Atlantis is not-so-lost, the book, via Milo, serves to explain just about everything that's going on. Now, I had no trouble following the plot of Mission: Impossible, and the plot of Atlantis isn't so complex, really, but the machinations and spiritual hoogly-boogly that drive the second half of the film are vague and unsatisfyingly unexplored. I mean, the King of Atlantis (an amusingly cheesy Leonard Nimoy) tries in his dying breaths to explain why Atlantis was lost in the first place, but even when you tie that and the spectacular opening of the movie together, there's still nothing to go on. What happened? Bad mayonnaise? Lyndon LaRouche? And the secret "force" our two-dimensional band sets out to find is blandly uninteresting. I mean, I get it, but it wouldn't really matter if I did or not. I've seen this stuff before.

This Disney animated feature has more plot holes than any in previous years. Dinosaur was dull because it was clichéd to death, but it was still a solid story. And despite the troubles getting The Emperor's New Groove off the ground, that film found its center and became something worth watching. But Atlantis is devoid of soul. It's all flash, no buttermilk biscuit. It's really too bad all those artists had to spend all their time creating a rich and colorful world with nothing but a pencil test of a story at its center. Skip this if you want to remain uninformed, but what's up with everyone being able to instantly fly the old machines from before the Empire was Lost? Even the dum-dums in Battlefield Earth spent more time learning this task! The crystals the Atlanteans all wear, according to the visual picture we're presented, all die when Kida (Cree Summer) is carted off, but they then are perfectly fine when required to run the flying machines. And that whole thing with Captain Rourke (James Garner) turning bad? Painfully obvious from the get-go. And where did all those storm trooper-like guys come from after the sub is destroyed? I didn't see them until then. (Maybe I wasn't looking hard enough.)

The characters provide some humor in the movie, but they, too, mostly become fleshed out only through explication. There's this especially dull scene where the characters go around and tell their stories as they're prepping to go nighty-night at their campsite. It's uninventive. The happy standouts are Santorini, the deadpan Italian demolitions expert, and Wilhelmina Packard, the ancient smoking grizzlepuss. (Before you ask, yes, this movie is rated PG. Smoking is allowed.) These two feel fleshed out even before the "Hello, my name is" exercise because they are so expertly voiced by Don Novello (a.k.a. Father Guido Sarducci) and Florence Stanley.

I really hate to bag on this movie so much because I was really looking forward to it, despite word from the inside that it was not so hot. (The same inside words said The Emperor's New Groove wasn't so hot, either, and look how happily wrong that was). But this is not a quality enterprise. Yes, it's 400% better than Titan A.E., but it's still flat. I expected much better from directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, late of Beauty and the Beast (which was great despite having plot holes of its own) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (very, very underrated).

One cool thing that was enjoyable to watch was the Scope aspect of the picture. Atlantis is presented in 2.35:1 (or thereabouts). It makes for an awesome visual, but you can tell some of the scenes were not originally drawn for this aspect and were cropped to fit. These shots truly don't fit the frame. (I imagine the upcoming IMAX release of Beauty and the Beast: The Special Edition will also be horribly cropped on the sides to fit the IMAX screen, or will have vacant spaces on top and bottom to fill the height.)

Yes, yes, yes. Despite all this hooey, the movie is still okay to watch. It's worth a summer evening of your time. I mean, the thing must only be 70 minutes or something because it feels incredibly rushed, so there isn't much time to get bored. There's the art, some fun if nearly Bay-like action sequences, and the amazing design of the vehicles and Atlantis itself. But it really is an empty movie. My only hope is it still makes lots of money so Disney doesn't get cold feet and decides to never try this kind of straight action movie again. Treasure Planet, Disney's fall 2002 offering, looks quite fantastic in the tidbits I've seen, so there is still hope. There's a lot of possibility in pure narrative animation. Just look at The Iron Giant or Akira.

It's a pity Atlantis: LOST! turned out the way it did. I truly was hoping Disney had nailed this one. I'd say it's their first major slip-up in years.




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©2001 Steven Lekowicz except
Atlantis: The Lost Empire artwork ©Disney