Atlantis: The Lost Empire

The potency of the Disney brand of entertainment will be tested with Atlantis: The Lost Empire: a peculiar animated feature that has no children in its story, no cute creatures, and no musical or dance numbers. Joining forces again, producer Don Hahn and co-directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, who previously created such favorites as Beauty and the Beast and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, have made an action-adventure about a lost-and-found civilization that plays like a Saturday morning cartoon series, with New Age philosophy as the only new element. Shrek, DreamWorks' enchanting animation, which has just crossed the $170 million mark, has nothing to fear from an epic that lacks the magic of former Disney animations and will further suffer from its PG rating.

The action-oriented plot, well-executed on a wide-screen format (seldom used in animation), is structured as an expedition to Atlantis, a fascinating place that has disappeared from the face of the earth. Milo (voiced by Michael J. Fox), an inexperienced adventurer, becomes the key to unraveling an ancient mystery, when he joins a group of intrepid explorers to find the lost empire. As straight a hero as they come, Milo is a museum cartographer-linguistics expert who dreams of completing the quest begun by his late grandfather, a legendary explorer. At first, no one believes that Atlantis was an actual, let alone advanced, civilization.

The yarn shifts into high gear, when an eccentric billionaire, Preston Whitemore (John Mahoney), who has uncovered Milo's grandfather's journal, agrees to fund the voyage. Leading Commander Rourke (a splendid James Garner), a greedy man who describes himself as an “adventure capitalist,” and his team to the elusive undersea kingdom, Milo reaches a site that defies his expectations.

As expected, Atlantis displays politically correct values, required by the Disney logo, among which maintaining/restoring family honor is of prime importance. As is often the case, the protagonists are products of broken families: Milo's parents have died when he was a boy, and Atlantis's Princess Kida was raised by her father after her mother had passed away.

The film's only concession to the zeitgeist is in the composition of the rough-and-ready explorers' team, which is culturally and ethnically diverse. Helga Sinclair (Babylon 5's Susan Ivanova) is a cold, matter-of-fact blonde, whereas Gaetan Moliere (Corey Burton) is an earthy, humorous geologist. Audrey Ramirez (Jacqueline Obradors), the “grease monkey,” is a Latina mechanic who becomes Milo's loyal comrade when he faces danger, and Sweet (Seinfeld's Phil Morris) is a fast-talking doctor. Rounding out the crew are Vinny (Don Novello), a laid-back demolition expert, and a crusty chef, Cookie, vocalized by Toy Story's Jim Varney in his final screen appearance.

Governed by a wise old man (Leonard Nimoy) and his daughter Princess Kida (Cree Summer), Atlantis is ruled by an obscure power force that's connected to crystals, which the outfit's evildoers intend to steal and sell to the highest bidder. The climax, which depicts the ancient kingdom as a once ravishing paradise, offers some magical moments with its pristine rocks, wild forests, magnificent waterfalls, erupting lava, and glowing crystals. However, adolescent viewers will find the tale too garrulous and at times even tedious, shortcomings that the brisk pacing can only partially conceal.

In its good moments, Atlantis assumes the shape of a Jules Verne spectacle (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), but it's hardly enough to please contemporary audiences, accustomed to state of the art animation technology, shrewd dialogue, and sly humor that a movie like Shrek displays with abundance.