Rixflix A to Z: Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)

Directors: Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise // Walt Disney Studios; 1:35; color
Crew Notables: Joss Whedon (story treatment); James Newton Howard (score)
Cast Notables: Michael J. Fox, James Garner, John Mahoney, Cree Summer, Leonard Nimoy, Jim Varney, Don Novello,
David Ogden Stiers, Jacqueline Obradors, Florence Stanley, Natalie Strom, Corey Burton, Claudia Christian, Phil Morris, Jim Cummings
Cinema 4 Rating: 6

I do have to give kudos to the Disney animation department for defying expectations. Just when you think that you can sum up their efforts over the past, say, 70 years into a neat little package surrounded by cute, fuzzy animals and singing princesses, they pull this out of their bag of tricks. A Jules Verne-style voyage into the depths of the oceans, rendered in a modern action style, and populated almost entirely by actual human characters. Well, characters that are designed to look human, though they still fall into a precisely divided set of action movie stereotypes, so let's not give them the Palme D'Or for cinematic innovation just yet.

And yet, there is enough here to allow the viewer to forget that this film falls into the Disney line, even though the film starts out unpromisingly with an opening flashback to the downfall of Atlantis that might seem fresh if television animation and anime weren't already filled with similar imagery. Even though the film is loaded with death, it is mostly depersonalized and on a largely imagined, unseen scale (200 people lost in a submersible explosion, etc.); there are major characters that bite the dust, but never the ones that you wish would go, i.e. the grimy and smelly Mole character, who is supposed to be creepily endearing, but just ends up being an unrealistic and wholly unnecessary French stereotype. Likewise many of the stock action characters, including a commander (voiced by James Garner) whom you don't believe for a freaking second is one of the good guys, so that there is little surprise when he turns into a Big Bad. (I do wonder if the girl mechanic character was devised by Joss Whedon, who turned in a story treatment, because she bears a remarkable similarity to the hottie mechanic Kaylee in his later Firefly.)

Of course, Disney can't resist the obvious temptation: since this movie involves a lost ancient land, naturally it leads to yet another magical Disney princess. Princess culture makes me want to vomit, but since this movie was nowhere near a big hit, the company swiftly swept her and the rest of the characters under the rug. The truth is, she is one of the more bearable royal figures in their pantheon; more concerned with saving her civilization than herself, she is actually one of their more noble figures. (Of course, so is Pocahontas, but I friggin' hated her movie.) Yeah, "true love" plays a hand here, as can only be expected when a Disney princess is prancing about in a loincloth, but the film seems to be more committed to its re-certification of by-the-book action movie stereotypes and predictable action.

Again, this is one of those movies that I seem to have been programmed since birth to simply love from its first frame onward, and again, I find myself shrugging my shoulders in ennui. I seem to be predisposed to Verne-type fantasies, as well, but the fact is it just doesn't work for me here. I don't buy into the time period in which they set it because I really can't figure out why it was even necessary to place it there. The fact that I don't give a shit about the lost civilization of Atlantis in this film is because I don't believe it is underwater in the middle of the ocean in the first place. (If it is underwater somewhere, it would more likely be in the Mediterranean or Aegean areas.) I will believe anything in a movie if the characters in the movie themselves believe it can happen, and thus
I am prepared to take an amazing leap of faith on my part to believe that the Atlanteans possessed the ability to prolong life through a mysterious lost power source or fly about on anti-gravity fish-ships. But, until late in the game, there is little sense of wonder to any of this frenzied action. Most of the characters seem to react to the most amazing things as if they happened everyday, and therein lies the problem. I said I will believe anything in a movie if the characters themselves believe it can happen, but with this, there has to be a healthy dose of disbelief within the characters, too. When the giant underwater creature that destroys the Nautilus-like submersible first appears, the general reaction is one of "Oh, well. Let's get out of here." Half of those characters, no matter how battle-hardened, should be crapping in their khakis.

This might seem like a giant leap to ask of generally G-rated Disney -- but, hey! The film is PG-rated, the safety zone of fart and poop jokes for kids, and Disney is about to kill 200 people in that submarine. Who said they can't go out with a laugh?

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