“Atlantis” swims gracefully on its quest with solid action, imagination, and memorable characters

A Review Written By: Victor DeBonis

Photo: Walt Disney Pictures

The early 2000’s was both a tough and interesting time for Disney films. It was tough because, as 2-dimensional animated films, particularly those of the fairy-tale genre from the previous decade, were starting to phase out and 3-dimensional animated films were starting to become more of the norm, the Mouse started doing entering an experimental phase of sorts with its animated films. It was a strange period of time when Disney did what it could to stray a bit away from the fairy-tale image. This ended up with mixed results, containing a few decent films (the hysterical “Emperor’s New Groove”) and some real misses (“Brother Bear” and the absolutely abysmal “Home on the Range”).

Through the weird mix of movies that came out from Disney’s catalog in this period, one of its films, “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” was released in 2001 and was a box office blunder when it came out but, since then, has become a cult classic of sorts with a number of people. People still show some divided feelings about this film to this day. The truth is, that, despite its own stumbles that can vary from being rough to odd, “Atlantis” does serve as a decent and entertaining action-adventure, combining the elements of a light-hearted underwater exploration tale and an interesting attempt by Disney to emulate a bit of Indiana Jones-inspired spirit and thrills. It’s not the most emotional or humorous from the Mouse’s filmography, but, for a movie that is trying to break away from the fairy-tale norm and try something weirder and more unique, “Atlantis” succeeds nicely by providing some solid action, distinct, likable characters, and a vividly imagined world that shows much thought and creativity with how it’s built and brought to life.

As per usual for something from this company, the animation is fantastic. It remains quite bright and colorful and makes terrific use of shadowing and light, yet, similar to the rest of the movie, it possesses a different vibe to how it’s shown. Instead of showing rounder faces and bigger eyes of its animated characters in previous movies, for example, “Atlantis” leans towards a style influenced by comic book artist Mike Mignola, who is best known for writing and illustrating the “Hellboy” comics. This results in characters that have a pointed and slanted design to them in how they’re drawn, but, for a style that feels so unique, it actually works pretty well and still excels in showing some hilarious expressions for comedic situations as well as the quieter reactions from characters in dramatic moments.

In addition to the unique character design, the animation also thrives when it shows off its own world, providing some truly magnificent shots that reveal temples and waterfalls as they tower over our exploration team. The movie just looks huge and gorgeous with so many quiet, awe-inspiring moments in which the camera stays or slowly moves around to let its own world sink in. The movie’s abundance of lovely turquoise colors make this underwater world more wondrous to scavenge through. As far as the inclusion of computer animation in certain parts of this movie goes, it is a little more obvious in certain places than others, but, for the most part, it nicely blends in with the drawn backgrounds. It also helps that this is an environment that partly thrives on technology, so the shinier quality of the 3-D animation matches nicely with this advanced-looking place.

The humor of this movie tends to mostly do fine, but, when a joke or comedic line misses, it can be pretty awkward. There’s actually a scene where a character slips a Whoopie cushion under the seat of one of his teammates, and it did cause some eye rolling. Any time that there’s a line or scene, such as this one, that either feels dumb or tries too hard to cater to the younger audience, the comedy falls flat and takes away from the adventurous vibe that the movie is trying to aim towards. This is a particularly big issue with the first half-hour of the movie.

With all of that said, as the movie progresses and there are more interactions between the characters and engagement with the adventure itself, the humor mostly improves, and the lines that are legitimately funny work like charms. In fact, much of the comedy works as a whole because it’s being delivered by some truly memorable and strange yet likable characters. There’s a Southern chef by the name of Cookie who has a prospector’s demeanor and confidently lists the four essential food groups as beans, bacon, whiskey, and lard. How can one not grin at the firm belief in this type of statement? Then, there’s a Puerto Rican tomboy and mechanic, Audrey, who has a bit of a fighting spirit in her. Of course, the team possesses a dynamite expert by the name of Vinny who speaks softly and lets his literally explosive obsession speak for his deep passion and charming absurdity. When asked what’s in his bag for preparation for future tasks, Vinny says something along the lines of “Oh…er, gunpowder, nitoglycerin, note pads, fuses, wicks, glue…You know, just, uh, office supplies.” All of these characters are lovably odd, humorous, and even hold their own interesting backstories that define more of who they are, and their interactions off of each other and create much of this film’s heart.

The actors behind these characters bring plenty of personality and energy that keeps the adventure further afloat. Michael J. Fox works quite nicely playing the main hero of the movie, Milo Thatch, giving an uncertain yet undeniably passionate and eager voice that matches well with such an awkward yet highly intelligent nerd who tries to adapt and slowly becomes a grander, more confident adventurer in his own right. James Garner (Rest his soul.) brings appropriate grit and cockiness to his role as the leader of the mercenary group created to help Milo on his quest. A decent number of gifted character actors also join this cast, including Cree Summer playing a peaceful yet intensely curious Atlantean princess named Kida Nedakh and the late-great Leonard Nimoy expressing the firm wisdom and strength of her father, King Kashekim. All of them lend their talents in grand ways to their parts and excel in bringing a vast sense of character and charm to this tale of this ancient, underwater world.

Speaking of which, Atlantis itself is a rather interesting and remarkable world to admire. It possesses a language and technology that feels as though it truly belongs to this type of place, and it’s fascinating to see how much of this place’s way of life and history works. The sheer architecture looks incredible, and it reminds one of Mayan temples and Tibetan architecture. The round, distinct shapes and designs of these buildings held a great amount of influence to ancient cultures from our real world, but their presence, added with the vastly developed devices that are a part of this world, evoked a beauty and sophistication that made Atlantis feel alive and wondrous to behold.

Composer James Newton Howard, similar to his incredible work in “Unbreakable” conducts another awesome and criminally underrated score for this movie. The chants of the choir sound epic and bring an entirely different level of awe to each scene that they’re in. And, the instrumentals bring the right balance of gusto and quietness to an adventure that knows when to dive further into its action sequences and when to scale back to allow some softer discussion or drama to sink in. Some of the calmer melodies in this film’s music are downright peaceful to listen to and honestly feel reminiscent of the pleasant, easily flowing rhythm of water itself, which is suitable for this adventure taking place in a world beneath the seas.

Setting aside such fantastic elements, the story itself can run into some bumps at moments. The narrative does unfortunately have to deal with the cliché of Milo as the nerdy hero being the one who gets mocked and overlooked by the group before he uses his abilities to earn their trust and becomes accepted. There’s also the relationship of the protagonist developing a relationship and possible romantic interest with the princess, an often used element of not only Disney films but other films that focus on exploration of a different world and the importance of preserving it. However, to this film’s credit, Milo and Kida do have a bond that feels more relaxed in that there is definitely a connection between them, but it’s more focused on two people trying to find out information about their unique worlds that they both come from and what makes them tick. The film doesn’t try to shove its romantic energy for the sake of doing so as a few films can do, and more focus, in terms of relationships, still comes from the team of explorers with each other.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the last act, let’s just say that some events predictably happen that one would expect about a movie regarding a unique environment and the importance of guarding it from the wrong hands. And, while the plot and movie itself never dives into the full preachiness of something along the lines of, say, James Cameron’s “Avatar” or “Pocahontas” and is genuinely good with its unique identity, charming characters, engaging story, and so forth, it’s all the more painful when we see a little of what starts to unfurl. Some of these events in the last act don’t even make sense and don’t line up when one looks back at some of the goals of the characters in the movie.

This movie’s strength comes less from its story and more from its sense of adventure that follows its own path with rather strong confidence. In the tradition of a number of old-school action movies, there are some sweeping scenes with some neat explosions and chases that lead to some decent thrills and exchanges between its characters as they either trade fists or move onto the next big move of their mission. The camera moves along with these characters well enough to bring a vivid scope of what is going on, action-wise, and show off more of the bright colors and appearance of Atlantis, too.

“Atlantis: The Lost Empire” thrives as a decent adventure that may not always make its mark with its story and certain comedic bits, but that doesn’t prevent it from providing a rich amount of character, terrific visuals, and a world that is fit for exploring and witnessing some great action scenes. It has a confidence with how it reveals its humor and sense of wonder, and it stays on a steady path while never losing sense of its own playfulness and spirit. There’s a solid amount of enchanting scenery and downright humorous and exciting scenes that result in a good exploration tale and a fond appreciation for this intriguing world and its team of odd underdogs that are daring enough to look for it.

Some have argued that this movie could have benefitted more from having a harder edge to it with its own fights and tone a la “Indiana Jones” and trying to steer further away from the type of movie trying to strongly appeal to kids, too. I would be lying if I said that I disagreed with that belief. For a company that wants to take bigger risks when it can and recently relies greatly on action-heavy properties, such as the MCU and the “Star Wars” franchise, it’d be neater to see what an animated film from this company would look like today with perhaps greater emphasis in a rougher nature and perhaps bolder sense of humor. Yet, one knows that, with Disney being what it is, it still doesn’t forget its own audience. With that being said, “Atlantis” does take a decent number of risks and succeeds with them quite nicely.

How many other Disney titles, around this time, can one think of that show wounds from people after harsh battles or reveal a world that’s much closer to science-fiction in a way that’s more fascinating and technologically advanced than some people might have anticipated? There’s been more than a fair share of movies from this company that have good intentions in trying to deviate from the norm, such as “The Black Cauldron” and “Brother Bear” and they fall hard in their attempts. “Atlantis” isn’t quite as daring or robust as, say, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” but it has enough of its own charm and entertaining demeanor to make for a different experience that can still satisfy and even wow with a solid number of moments.

When Milo continues further with his own path, there’s a sense that the audience is right there along with him and connects with him along each step of his path. It connects with how much he looks up to his grandfather and wants to finish what he started. It connects with his sense of wonder and excitement when he first beams with wonder upon Atlantis and everything that awaits before him in this incredible world below the waves. Milo faces his own hesitations and low points, but he moves forward with the same thrill and thirst for wanting to learn more that a good adventure, such as this, should evoke from anyone.

Grade: B

I’m passionate about movies, animation, and writing, in general, and I only want to learn more.

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