In the main, the big Disney summer release, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, is the “spectacular” event it’s been touted as. Much of the film’s design is strikingly beautiful, the story line is effectively simple, the script is witty enough to pass muster with adult viewers, but there’s a central problem in that the film ultimately emerges as an uncomfortable mix of Disney Traditional and a harder-edged, more modern approach. It’s almost like Atlantis is two films in one. On one side are the utterly stylized standard Disney characters — a nerdy hero, a big-eyed heroine, cute sidekicks (“modernized” to the extent of being a careful ethnic mix), an utterly nasty villain. It’s all to a formula, of course, but it’s a formula that’s worked well with audiences for a good number of years, and it works just as well here. The Disney approach is, admittedly, goosed to a degree: The sidekicks include a crusty, chain-smoking telephone operator prone to gloomily prophesying, “We’re all gonna die;” a bizarrely manic, almost subhuman character called the Mole; etc. These characters fit nicely into the first parts of the film, which are done in a style that mostly recalls the animated 101 Dalmatians — though there’s a slight problem because there’s no cohesion to the style in which the characters are drawn. Hero Milo Thatch (Michael J. Fox) is executed in a not-very-attractive blockish style (one person viewing the movie posed the somewhat rude question of wondering if every part of his anatomy was square), which is entirely at odds with all the other characters but for the villainous Commander Roarke (James Garner). (If there’s a lurking subtext here, the film doesn’t know it.) In other words, the usual Disney homogenized approach is missing, making the film feel somewhat uneven. The problem is exacerbated once the film moves toward its journey on a search for the mythical Atlantis. Here, the film suddenly turns genuinely epic and the drawing style becomes much more realistic — almost to the level of propaganda poster art. Placing the very unrealistic characters against this background feels forced and false. Worse, it’s distracting. However, there’s no denying that certain moments in Atlantis almost seem like genius. The designs of the submarine and the other realistic-looking devices are breathtaking, especially in the unusual (for an animated film) wide-screen format. The submarine’s encounter with the film’s monster, the Leviathan, is a stunning combination of traditional animation techniques and CGI effects (even if the monster ultimately disappoints by looking a bit much like a marauding lobster once we see it too clearly). Atlantis itself is a beautiful evocation of a lost civilization, even if the movie never bothers to address the issue of just how this undersea kingdom not only exists in sunlight, but also has both night and day. The film’s concept of Atlantis owes more than a little to the 1961 George Pal film, Atlantis, the Lost Continent, but even more seems to be drawn from the almost forgotten fantasy novels of Abraham Merritt. Certainly, the circling stone masks and characters being pulled up into a ray of light are too much like images from Merritt’s The Face in the Abyss and The Moon Pool to be wholly coincidental. This is not a criticism. It is high time — and technology has reached a point where it’s possible — that Merritt’s mystical grandeur was translated to the screen. It’s just unfortunate that it’s his influence rather than his actual stories that has so far made the transition. Atlantis is a terribly flawed film — make no mistake about that — but it has just enough visual splendor and epic vision to make it worth a look.
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