by Ed Symkus
While there's usually big cause for celebration upon the release of a new animated feature from the folks at Disney, something about this new one, the story of a turn-of-the-20th-century search for the legendary sunken continent, just doesn't ring true.
Oh, there are the usual colorful bunch of characters, albeit, thank goodness, without the dorky and annoying little sidekick that almost always has a part in one of these films -- Rosie O'Donnell played the most recent one in Tarzan. And there's an okay story, focusing on Milo (voice of Michael J. Fox), an imaginative but nerdy fellow whose grandfather long ago kept talking about finding Atlantis, and who now has stumbled upon a clue to its location himself. But no one, certainly not the scholarly people around him in his stuffy college linguistics department, will even give him the time of day.
A short while later, though, on a dark and stormy night, someone pays him a great deal of attention -- the sultry Helga (voice of Claudia Christian) is waiting in his apartment with a proposition, one that will eventually bring him along on a trip to Iceland and then into the depths to find out what actually happened to the long lost civilization.
He meets some good folks and some bad folks and one real irritating guy -- Moliere, or "Mole" (voice of Corey Burton, relying on memories of Peter Lorre) -- who hovers a bit too close to one of those irritating sidekicks, and could easily have been eliminated from the plot.
In playing out these parts, the acting among the leads at least is uniformly good. Fox does his usual job of playing the same character he's played and perfected for as long as he's been in the business. James Garner is particularly good as the initially heroic, but later on quite evil Rourke.
Unless it was Garner doing a little ad-libbing, the scripters gave him the film's best line of dialogue. As he's perusing a book with some pictures in it, he quips, "I prefer a good Western myself," in a nod to his Maverick days.
But despite the acting; the eye-pleasing, almost retro look of the film; and even, the larger-than-usual supply of action-packed sequences for a Disney film -- this apparently because the filmmakers decided to go for a feature with no songs, thereby leaving time and energy to try to make things a little splashier -- despite all of that, Atlantis comes off kind of flat. The story is sort of interesting but ends up having a large dose of blandness mixed into it. Some of the characters have an edge to them -- neither Rourke nor Helga feel they need to worry about any morals. Money is the name of their game, and the discovery of Atlantis means lots of cash for them, but the film's writers have taken a cliched route in building up clashes and confrontations between good, evil and, in the case of the denizens of Atlantis, the mystical.
There are definitely some great moments: the visual introduction of the immense, whale-like steel and glass submarine; every scene with the jaded, chain-smoking (is this really a Disney film?) Mrs. Packard (voice of Florence Stanley); the nicely delivered one-liners from Vinny (voice of Don Novello); the big climax that might not make a whole lot of sense but sure is impressive to look at. And before I get off the subject, of course, this is a Disney film; right at the beginning, just before a huge wave destroys Atlantis, the young Princess Kida traumatically loses her mother. Hi Bambi, hi Dumbo!
But it's the mistakes that this film will be remembered for -- or forgotten because of. One of the biggest questions is why the character of Audrey (voice of Jacqueline Obradors) is even in the film. She not only doesn't add anything to the story, but because of an overdone Chicano accent, along with a style of drawing -- big eyes, big lips, completely different body shape -- that bears no resemblance to anyone else in the film, she also really sticks out.
The biggest fear for Disney is that because this film is geared much more to only youngsters than the studio's last few features have been (The Emperor's New Groove had shtick that only adults would get), adults are not going to be interested in watching the film with their kids. That said, a much worse problem on the horizon is that the kids who do get dropped off to see it are going to be bored, and then tell their friends about it.