Atlantis: The Lost Empire
directed by Gary Truesdale
& Kirk Wise
(Disney, 2001)

This year's much anticipated animated feature from Disney, a homage to that studio's own classic live-action adventure 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, fully captures that same exhilarating spirit and energy. Inspired by Plato's famous account of the legendary Utopian civilization that developed precociously advanced technology before its destruction under the weight of greed and ambition, Atlantis: The Lost Empire also harkens back to such stories as exemplified in Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth and Edgar Rice Burroughs' Pellucidar series ... and the 1914 setting certainly evokes the right atmosphere.

The movie opens with a sequence that briefly and effectively retells the titular legend, showing Atlantean citizens in their flying vehicles and sarong-like clothing struggling to preserve their city-state from the rising ocean. They succeed by using their high-tech to plunge their civilization deep into the mists of mystery, beyond mortal ken.

Cut to our protagonist, Milo Thatch (Michael J. Fox), bespectacled, lovable, nerdy scientist in the making who shares his late grandfather's obsession with finding Atlantis. Milo gets his chance to quit his job repairing boilers at a Washington, D.C. museum when Preston Whitmore (John Mahoney), a wealthy old friend of the young scholar's grandfather, agrees to fund an expedition to seek the fabled lost land. Milo's fellow travelers are a delightfully diverse bunch of colorful, hearty explorers led by the gruff, paternal Rourke (James Garner). Others in the party include teenage Latina mechanic Audrey (Jacqueline Obradors); the eccentric and grimy Frenchman Moliere, a.k.a. Mole (Corey Burton), a tunneling expert with a Peter Lorre-like voice; Dr. Sweet (Phil Morris), a strong, yet gentle African American; Vinny (Don Novello), the explosives specialist with a deadpan sense of humor; the tough old-broad, yenta communications officer Mrs. Packard (Florence Stanley); old-timer Cookie (Jim Varney), the zany, diminutive chef; and Rourke's lieutenant, the hard-as-nails blonde bombshell Helga (Claudia Christian). All these characters, perfectly cast with the right-sounding voices, are memorable and interesting thanks to excellent scripting that gives each a sufficient back story.

The adventurers, after some exciting undersea sequences featuring snazzy submersible crafts, finally discover Atlantis at the bottom of a volcano inside a huge cavity deep beneath the Earth's surface. There they find an aged king (Leonard Nimoy) and his smart, strong and lovely daughter Kida (Cree Summer), with whom Milo develops the inevitable yet satisfying romance. The exotic Atlanteans, fascinatingly conceived as white-haired black people whose advanced culture has slowly decayed in isolation and in their struggle for survival, still possess remnants of awesome technology using crystals to channel life-force energy. Here the crucial conflict that drives the plot toward the climax occurs when, to Milo's horror, it turns out that not every member of the mission is content to respectively study the ancient civilization -- some intend to steal Atlantean science and sell it to the highest bidder. The resolution of the tale makes for some gorgeous, thrilling and emotionally gripping sequences.

Atlantis: The Lost Empire dazzles delightfully in comparison to anything Disney has done previously thanks to the Japanese manga-influenced production design talents of Mike Mignola (famous for his independent-comics character Hellboy). His bold, economical lines and characters with long faces and square-jawed looks create the right period or exotic atmosphere in the appropriate places. Thus, the movie comes blessed with creative concepts for submarine vehicles and for the Atlanteans and their world, which, quite wonderful to behold and complemented by James North Howard's fine score, makes Atlantis: The Lost Empire a real treat for lovers of animation, adventure, fantasy and just plain good yarn-spinning. For a rousing, entertaining family film experience, discover Atlantis along with Milo and company!

[ by Amy Harlib ]
Rambles: 8 July 2001

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