The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 33.0°F | A Few Clouds


Atlantis: The Lost Empire

Atlantis Sinks

By Vladimir Zelevinsky

staff writer

Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise

Screenplay by Tab Murphy

Story by Kirk Wise, Gary Trousdale, Joss Whedon, Bryce Zabel, Jackie Zabel, and Tab Murphy

Original score composed by James Newton Howard

Featuring voices of Michael J. Fox, James Garner, Cree Summer, David Ogden Stiers, Leonard Nimoy, and Jim Varney

Rated PG

I should have seen it coming. I should have noticed Disney’s failed attempts before: jarring comic relief in Mulan, piles of clichÉs masquerading as political correctness in Pocahontas, murder and rape for kiddies in Hunchback of Notre Dame, cheesy computer-generated images in Hercules, use of a disgustingly horny monkey as a laugh generator in Dinosaur, attention to anything but the story in Tarzan.

I still love all of these movies, because there is still some heart found amid commercial crassness and because -- despite their follies -- Disney has managed to be the most consistent maker of satisfactory entertainment. In the last decade, they have made a handful of pop culture masterpieces (The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, The Emperor’s New Groove) and one true, grand, for-the-history-books masterpiece (Beauty and the Beast). But nobody can flirt with mediocrity (or worse) for so long without succeeding at last in making a total disaster: Atlantis: The Lost Empire.

The only way to talk about Atlantis is in terms of other successful movies. Originality is completely missing from Atlantis, which surely should set some kind of record: an hour and a half without anything that is not a clichÉ.

I can just imagine the planning session at Disney Headquarters: “We’ll make this film with the exactly the same storyline as DreamWorks’ The Road to El Dorado mixed with Japanese TV series Nadia. Then we’ll mix in the multi-ethnic crew, just like they had in Titan A.E., and add nifty things from Hayao Miyazaki’s films, like glowing blue crystals and a floating island setting from Laputa and giant robots from Nausicaa. We’ll also steal from our own works, especially from The Little Mermaid, because half-naked babes underwater bring in the young male demographic.’’

This mix is executed by screenwriter Tab Murphy, whose addition to the Disney team is clearly the worst thing that happened to them since the demise of Howard Ashman (Mermaid/Beauty/Aladdin lyricist/writer/producer). Murphy is already guilty for transforming one of the darkest novels ever written into a light-hearted fantasy -- complete with singing gargoyles and comedic scenes of people being hanged and tortured -- for the lucrative G-rated audience in Hunchback, and also responsible for the fact that Tarzan induced nothing but derisive howls when any character started speaking. His screenplay for Atlantis is by far the worst of all: since it’s not based on somebody else’s work, it fails to have any interest, relevancy, or subtext; it simply fails to make any sense.

There’s some opening nonsense about the young linguist Milo Thatch (voiced by Michael J. Fox, who actually manages to sound like he is enjoying himself) sitting around all bummed because of his unresolved personal issues about his grandfather. Then, in roughly three minutes of screen time, he receives a map to Atlantis which he can read (being, of course, well versed in Atlantean language) and a giant submarine (which gets destroyed roughly ten minutes later anyway). Then Milo leads a motley bunch of, uh, supposedly colorful stereotypes to the lost continent, which, for whatever reason, happens to be located under Iceland (the South Asian style for the lost empire notwithstanding).

The colorful stereotypes include a kindly black doctor (totally devoid of personality other than being kindly, black, and a doctor), a horny Frenchman who does not shower (how’s that for international sensitivity?), a mechanic who is teenage, female, and Hispanic simultaneously (thus hitting several demographic groups), and a woman who is beautiful, sexually confident, and not defined in terms of a romantic relationship to the protagonist, which automatically makes her a controlling bitch. I found her to be potentially a much more interesting character than the milquetoast love interest. There’s also a commander, a tall man with a square chin who speaks in basso profundo and always carries a gun. The screenplay, clearly enamored of its own subtlety, pretends for about forty minutes he’s not the main villain, despite being an exact copy of every single Disney villain of the last decade.

The leads do not fare much better. Milo is admittedly very well animated. His supervising animator John Pomeroy is not afraid to take chances, and they pay off: designing Milo as a mix of James Stewart and Harold Lloyd is a masterstroke, and it is solely responsible for the generous star-and-a-half rating. Milo’s arc, however, is simply ridiculous. His transformation from a geek to an action hero is a half a second transition from being indecisive to kicking bad guys while hanging from spinning propellers. The screenplay does get brownie points for making the protagonist a linguist -- and then loses them all and then some by having ancient Atlanteans being fully capable of speaking and understanding modern colloquial English, in a sequence that has to be seen to be derisively hooted at. What concerns his love interest, Princess Kida -- well, she has two very large assets, which are constantly on prominent display.

The characters clearly came from the pitiful imagination of a hack screenwriter who was guided merely by commercial considerations. The worst are the scenes where the characters are introduced, or -- supposedly -- developed, by monotonously presenting them in a row one by one as if they were animatronic robots in a Disney World ride.

The story is worse. The first act -- underwater/underground journey to Atlantis -- is almost tolerable because only parts of it make no sense (the encounter with a huge mechanical, uh, thing called Leviathan that, um, guards the entrance to Atlantis is one of these head-scratchers). The last act -- in Atlantis proper -- is a complete waste of time, pure and simple. Here, some characters start mysteriously floating in the air and turning colors (some turn light blue, some turn dark blue with red splotches), and the explanations involve only endless mutterings about “life force” and the ancient prophecies of impending doom for tampering with nature. Or something.

Oh, and there is also violence, the amount of violence that would cause parliamentary outcries and calls for revamped rating system if this were a live-action movie. Since this is animation, and this is Disney, all the MPAA does is slap a PG rating on the thing, and it does not matter that hundreds of faceless, nameless supporting characters perish (mostly offscreen, which does not make this better) by drowning, burning, gunfire, explosions, and drowning in flaming lava.

I would be the last person to accuse Hollywood of intentionally desensitizing audience to violence -- but I have to do so in this case, especially when they start drawing imminent victims in gas masks, not because there is any danger of poisonous gases, but simply because that would not show the faces of the people who exist merely as cannon fodder.

And last and worst, there is the poor direction. This does not make me angry, like the hideous screenplay does (after all, I would be surprised if Murphy wrote something remotely passable), but deeply and truly sad. After all, directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise made the masterpiece Beauty and the Beast, a yardstick not only for animated films, but also for love stories (animated or not). Therefore, it is with a heavy heart I have to admit that the direction of Atlantis is abysmal, incoherent to the point of being headache-inducive, and jawdroppingly tedious.

The previously mentioned Leviathan (see the picture, which shows one of the more lucid glimpses of that monstrosity) clearly cost a ton of money to animate, appears for roughly forty seconds, and you can’t even see it behind the explosions and random objects hurtling across the screen. The love story is singularly ineffective (and unaffecting), with the single exception of one shot of the heroine stripping to her bikini. Worst of all is the action climax, with constant gunfire, closeups of exploding machinery, and the average shot length of half a second. Most of these shots depict random characters jumping somewhere.

And all of this is touted by Disney public relations as a radical departure from the formula. I have to disagree: this is still the same old routine, just progressed from the moldy stage to the rancid stage, albeit newly packaged. All the quotations from Plato (one opens the movie) will not disguise the fact that Atlantis sinks like a stone.

What I would be really curious to see them try is this: have one person write the screenplay (none of those dozen “additional story material” people); have a smaller budget (Shrek cost less than half of Atlantis and will surely gross more than twice as much); and try to just make a good movie, instead of making a pre-marketed and pre-sold product. That would be a departure.