This article appeared in Issue 23 of Frontier, the Australian science fiction media magazine
"Atlantis: The Lost Empire" marks a dramatic change in direction for the obligatory summertime Disney animated release. Instead of the usual toddler-friendly animated musical with singing-and-dancing furry things, the House of the Mouse sets its sights a little higher with this breathtaking sci-fi adventure aimed at an older crowd. Combining the look of Japanese anime, the design motifs of Jules Verne, the spectacle and wonder of the "Star Wars" movies, the rip-roaring adventure of "Indiana Jones", and the accessibility of traditional Disney fare, "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" is an animated epic of blockbuster proportions.
The year is 1914, and like most Disney films, the hero of "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" is an orphan who is saddled with a lack of confidence and big dreams. Milo Thatch (voiced by Michael J. Fox, last heard in "Stuart Little") is a lowly underling in the Smithsonian Institute, in charge of filing maps and fixing the boiler when it goes on the fritz. To continue his late grandfather's work, Milo dreams of finding the fabled lost city of Atlantis-- unfortunately, nobody takes him seriously.
Enter reclusive billionaire Preston Whitmore (John Mahoney, who also leant his voice in "The Iron Giant"), a friend of Milo's grandfather, who is financing an expedition to find Atlantis. The only thing missing from the crew is an 'expert in gibberish', which is where Milo fits in. With a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to solve one of the oldest riddles of human civilization, Milo signs on in a heartbeat, joining the ragtag group of adventurers that Whitmore has gathered. Heading the expedition is square-jawed Rourke (James Garner of "Space Cowboys"). Joining him are his drop-dead gorgeous femme fatale second-in-command Helga (Claudia Christian of "Babylon 5" fame), explosives man Vinny (Don Novello, aka Father Guido Sarducci), French digging expert 'The Mole' (Corey Burton of "Princess Mononoke"), sassy teen mechanic Audrey (Jacqueline Obradors), the kind Dr. Sweet (Phil Morris), a cook named Cookie (the late Jim Varney of "Toy Story 2"), and chain-smoking communications officer Mrs. Packard (Florence Stanley of "Bulworth").
With a giant submarine that would make Captain Nemo envious, the intrepid crew set off to find the lost city. Unfortunately, most of the crew is lost when they have a run-in with a robotic Leviathan protecting the entrance to Atlantis. However, the core team presses on and they emerge in a submerged kingdom ruled by a King Nedakh (Leonard Nimoy of "Star Trek" fame), who is suspicious of outsiders. However, his daughter, Princess Kida (Cree Summer of "Rugrats in Paris: The Movie"), feels that the outsiders may help Atlantis emerge from its millennia-long stagnation, and she takes a particular interest in Milo, whose ability to read the ancient writings may be the salvation of her people. Unfortunately, the lofty goals of exploration and discovery end up being subverted by the interests of commerce and conquest.
"Atlantis: The Lost Empire" is quite a step beyond the 'safe' storytelling that Disney has built its brand with. With edgier animation, some bloody violence, a body count numbering in the hundreds, and the use of subtitles for Atlantian dialogue, this is a film targeted at an older crowd. However, directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise (who last worked on "Beauty and the Beast") never let the on-screen action get too intense for the younger members of the audience. Thus, "Atlantis: The Lost Empire", while catering to the more mature tastes of the adults in the audience, still remains accessible for their kids (mind you, the film does get a PG-rating for the violence).
It was once rumored that the fourth entry into the "Indiana Jones" franchise would involve a search for Atlantis. Had that film actually been made, I have a feeling that it would have ended up looking like "Atlantis: The Lost Empire". In the space of 95 minutes, the audience is treated to one action-filled spectacle after another, such as the film's opening sequence detailing the destruction of Atlantis, an attack by the mechanical Leviathan, the collapse of a bridge leading into Atlantis, and the film's climactic battle, involving aerial dogfights, hand-to-hand combat, plenty of white-knuckle thrills that call to mind the action serials of the 1930s.
So far this summer, most of the 'sure bets' for blockbusters have turned out to be disappointments. "The Mummy Returns" boasted greater special effects, but was bogged down by a story that rehashed the first film and filched from others. "Pearl Harbor" dumbed down a watershed moment in American history into a numbing video game, while "Tomb Raider" turned a hot video game franchise into a, well, numbing video game. In the case of "Atlantis: The Lost Empire", it seems that Disney has crafted the summer's first true epic blockbuster. For sheer summer spectacle, you would do yourself a favor in discovering "Atlantis: The Lost Empire".