atlantisGrade:  B,  C-
Entire family:  Yes
2001, 2003; 95 min., 70 min.; Color
Rated PG for action violence and G
Aspect ratio:  2.35:1, 1.66:1
Featured audio:  DTS-HD MA 5.1
Bonus features:  C
Includes: Blu-ray, DVDs

When our son was four and Atlantis: The Lost Empire was first released on DVD, he watched it five times in two days. Our little science-minded guy was hooked, and it’s easy to see why. It’s the kind of film Disney usually produces as a live-action blockbuster. The plot is a hybrid that combines elements from two Jules Verne novels—20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Center of the Earth—with a sprinkle of Indiana Jones and Star Trek thrown in for good measure.

Producer Don Hahn said that they thought of Atlantis as an animated adventure drama, not a cute cartoon. Their operational philosophy was “Less music, more explosions.” Hahn said they envisioned Atlantis as a “moving comic book,” with the chief design influence being the Hellboy comics. In fact, they brought Hellboy artist Mike Mignola onboard.

Driving the plot is the Shepherd’s Journal, a fictional artifact that points the way to Atlantis, an ancient civilization which thousands of years ago sank into the ocean and now exists somewhere near the center of the earth. Museum linguist Milo (Michael J. Fox) is obsessed with finding Atlantis to prove his grandfather was right—that it DOES exist. Threatening the mission bankrolled by eccentric billionaire Preston Whitmore (John Mahoney) is expedition leader Rourke (James Garner), a mercenary whose true colors don’t take long to show. 

Hahn said that the effect they were going for was a kind of “Dirty Dozen journeys to the center of the Earth,” but Disney seems to have gone off the deep end trying to assemble a diverse and politically correct cast of characters that, ironically, seem clichéd: there’s the African-American doctor (Phil Morris) who just happens to have a shaved head and a Mike Tyson build; a feisty young female Puerto Rican mechanic (Jacqueline Obradors) who’s also an amateur boxer and no stranger to hot-wiring vehicles; a caustic geriatric telecommunications expert (Florence Stanley); a dry-witted Italian munitions specialist (Saturday Night Live’s Father Guido, Don Novello); and a character that comes, inexplicably, right out of the Old West—Cookie, a Gabby Hayes-style codger of a camp cook (voiced by the late Jim Varney). Add to this ragtag group a femme fatale fresh out of ’40s detective film noir (Claudia Christian) and an over-the-top tunneling expert (the Frenchman Moliere, voiced by Corey Burton) who has telescoping eyewear and a love of dirt, and by the time this group descends in their submarine and gets past the Leviathan sentry that guards the entrance to the subterranean empire, the Atlanteans almost seem refreshingly normal.

AtlantisscreenThat’s my chief complaint about this otherwise accomplished film, which has stellar art direction and set design.  As Hahn explained, the 10 individuals who formed the creative core of the Atlantis team of some 600 workers were also the ones who teamed together on The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King—people at the top of their creative “game.” And you really have to give them credit for attempting such a grand-scale adventure in animation. For the most part, it works.

You can’t say the same about the made-for-TV style sequel, Milo’s Return, which is actually a trio of made-for-TV cartoons that was passed off as a direct-to-video movie. Meant to be three episodes of an aborted series Team Atlantis, this one finds Mr. Whitmore visiting Milo and Kida in Atlantis, seeking help. A Kraken has been wreaking havoc in Norway. Next it’s a statue in Arizona that pulls them into the desert to solve a mystery that makes you wonder if the Mystery Machine is idling behind a billboard somewhere. In the third segment, one of Whitmore’s old nemeses thinks he’s the Norse god Odin and steals an Atlantean spear that somehow he’s deluded himself into thinking is his power source. And even more far-fetched than these plots is a contrived ending that defies all logic, especially if you consider that Atlantis was a real place, as described by Plato. It’s a stinker of a sequel that, like the other sequels in the latest round of Disney 2-Movie Collections, must be regarded as a bonus feature.