ATLANTIS: THE LOST EMPIRE
directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise with Michael J. Fox, James Garner, Leonard Nimoy, and Don Novello opens June 14 at Majestic Bay, Meridian, Metro, and others
WAY DOWN DEEP in the ocean is a great place to explore, but it's nothing compared to a child's depth of media saturation. That's the dilemma not only for Disney's Atlantis, the company's designated summer 'toon blockbuster, but also for DreamWorks' Shrek and the Pixar-Disney Monsters, Inc. (coming in November). Expectations and profits have changed since the smash success and musical-merchandising frenzy associated with The Little Mermaid and The Lion King. More to the point, kids have grown up, and what wowed their older sibs in '89 or '94 now draws yawns from the preteen set. They've seen it all on video too many times before. While the new-school Toy Story series has shown the wit and inventiveness to appeal to jaundiced kids and their aging hipster parents alike, the old-school, traditionalist Atlantis looks even further back than that '50s suburban Howdy Doody Show frame of reference to Jules Verne and the ripping yarns of turn-of-the-century science fiction.
Thus, after a prologue indebted to Star Wars and Deep Impact, Atlantis' story departs from 1914 Washington, D.C., where Milo (voiced by Michael J. Fox) is a bookish dweeb employed at a Smithsonian-like institution. One eccentric millionaire later, he's joined an expedition searching for the fabled lost city. Members of the team include appropriately cartoonish stereotypes: a lantern-jawed, militaristic leader (James Garner), a femme fatale, and a few ethnic caricatures. (SNL's Father Guido Sarducci, a.k.a. Don Novello, gets all the best lines as an Italian explosives expert.)
Obviously, they've got to find Atlantis, and, obviously, it's got to have a babely princess (the somewhat freakishly white-haired, blue-tattooed Kida), plus an ancient king (Leonard Nimoy, Trekkies take note) who imparts a few prophecies before kicking the bucket. Standard stuff. What's not so standard for a Disney animated feature is the absence of song and the heightened action-adventure vibe, which ought to keep bored boys from squirming in their seats. Peppy, special-powered Kida and scrawny, bespectacled Milo make a cute couple—since Atlantis' romance is no less calculatingly targeted at girls.
Parents will dig the often beautiful retro-futuristic animation. Atlantis tosses in references to film noir and Disney's own almost forgotten live-action adventure movies (e.g. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), but there's only so much fun to be had from fiery explosions, molten lava, magic crystals, and battling a giant robot lobster.The knowingly anachronistic Atlantis is a fine, square PG-rated film, with no lulls or dead spots—which adds up to ho-hum integrity. It's not dull, but neither is it special. Kids will like it, but only if Shrek's sold out.
AS WITH SHREK, where the multimillion dollar animation biz is concerned, press junkets are a serious business. It's almost embarrassing, really, to have Disney's corporate might requesting your humble attendance. (SW declines the quid pro quo of out-of-town studio-sponsored junkets, but we'll interview anyone offering free coffee.) It's also refreshing, in a movie without real stars, to see the craft and thoughtfulness animators bring to their work.
Animated features take years to complete; this one originated in '96, and employs both hand-drawn and CG artwork, co-director Gary Trousdale explains. "We thought, 'Since we can't really make the characters more complex and more shaded . . . why don't we work everything else backwards?' It became the idea to flatten out the backgrounds, to not shade or render everything, but to work more in flat colors." It's a design aesthetic where animators sought "to posterize the work."
Yet Atlantis is one of the few animated features to use the CinemaScope aspect ratio. "Because it was wider, and you could see more, we tended to cut less," says Trousdale. "We had [scenes] that were like 20 or 30 seconds long. It's a little more live-action in that respect." He cites how younger viewers familiar with the Star Wars and Indiana Jones series are accustomed to such techniques. Mentioning the Babe movies and this summer's upcoming Final Fantasy and A.I., he concludes. "It seems like every day . . . the distinction between live-action and animation gets fuzzier."