Disney animated features have never been known for their originality, but their creators almost always craft delightful entertoonment from threadbare grab bags of clichés and contrived plot devices.
This year's regularly scheduled summer cartoon release is a perfect example of this principle. "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" is a grand-scale archeological adventure that, if it were live-action, would be the kind of campy, glossy, bottom-rung syndicated stuff you find padding the prime-time schedules of the UPN and WB networks.
It's populated with an unlikely racial balance of stock characters -- a muscle-man African-American doctor (voice of Phil Morris), a sassy teenage Latina tomboy mechanic (Jacqueline Obradors) -- most of whom are mercenaries ("adventure capitalists," one proffers) on a quest for the legendary ancient city in the title. The catalyst for the endeavor is, of course, an eccentric millionaire (voiced by John Mahoney) who funds the expedition.
The story arch -- about saving the found Atlantians from those who would exploit them -- is so shopworn it's virtually identical to a dozen movies from the last 10 years, most recently DreamWorks' 2000 fun but formulaic 'toon "The Road to El Dorado."
In that movie, Kenneth Branagh and Kevin Kline voiced comedic 16th Century treasure hunters who grow a conscience and save a Mayan city from conquistador Cortez. In this one Michael J. Fox lends his oh-so-apropos voice to a beanpole milquetoast of an amateur archeologist named Milo, who works in the boiler room at an East Coast university, circa 1914, and does Atlantis research in his spare time.
Milo, whose antiquity-expert grandfather once went on digs with the millionaire (John Mahoney), gets tapped to guide the undersea crusade to the lost city.
The picture gets off on the wrong foot with a prologue that not only ruins the suspense and wonder of discovering Atlantis later in the film, but is laughably absurd to boot. It shows Atlantis thousands of years ago, before it disappeared into the ocean, as a splendorous city of Aztec-Incan-Grecian architecture populated by tan, white-haired, blue-garbed denizens who have mastered the power of flight -- in fish-shaped hovering laser-fighters, no less.
But even though the story is wholly predictable and never gets any more plausible (the finale is a supernatural circus of lights and levitation), "Atlantis" coasts by on its extravagant artistry and especially its wit.
The scrappy crew of rabble-rousers -- who at first do nothing but pick on Milo as they follow his nose -- are a saucy bunch and a constant source of surprisingly cheeky laughs. Especially juicy zingers come steadily from an Italian explosives expert named Vinny (Don Novello, better known as Father Guido Sarducci), a filthy French digger called Mole (Corey Burton) with a forensic nose for dirt, and Mrs. Packard (Florence Stanley), a batty, blue-haired, chain-smoking and extremely sardonic radio operator.
These characters get us though the journey to Atlantis itself, which takes place in fabulously animated, Verne-inspired submarines and huge underwater caves. When Milo's theories about the location prove right, the group discovers a dying civilization led by an ancient patriarch (Leonard Nimoy) with a va-va-voom warrior daughter (Cree Summer) who has a proclivity for skimpy equatorial garb and skinny brainiacs like our hero.
Most of Milo's crew now reveal themselves to be opportunistic treasure hunters, happy to plunder Atlantis for its riches, so Milo has to join the natives to fight them off in ludicrous and excessively action-packed showdowns using those laser-equipped flying fish thingies. (This is a cartoon clearly aimed at boys.)
"Atlantis" is weighted down by its dependence on such overwrought machination. If it weren't a cartoon, I think it would be impossible not to laugh at it. But thanks to its zesty characters and dialogue "Atlantis" remains entertaining, in spite of inviting major misgivings about its strained narrative.
By the way, parents, the PG is not for show. "Atlantis" may be too scary and violent at times for little kids.
Run time: 95 mins
In Theaters: Friday 15th June 2001
Box Office USA: $83.6M
Box Office Worldwide: $186.1M
Distributed by: Walt Disney Pictures
Production compaines: Walt Disney Feature Animation, Toon City
Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 49%
Fresh: 69 Rotten: 72
IMDB: 6.7 / 10
Starring: Michael J. Fox as Milo James Thatch, Corey Burton as Gaetan 'The Mole' Moliere, Claudia Christian as Helga Katrina Sinclair, James Garner as Commander Lyle Tiberius Rourke, John Mahoney as Preston B. Whitmore, Phil Morris as Dr. Joshua Strongbear Sweet, Leonard Nimoy as King Kashekim Nedakh, Don Novello as Vincenzo 'Vinny' Santorini, Jacqueline Obradors as Audrey Rocio Ramirez, Florence Stanley as Wilhelmina Bertha Packard, David Ogden Stiers as Fenton Q. Harcourt, Natalie Strom as Young Kida, Cree Summer as Princess 'Kida' Kidagakash, Jim Varney as Jebidiah Allardyce 'Cookie' Farnsworth, Jim Cummings as Additional Voices
Also starring: Michael J Fox
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