Atlantis is not just another attempt to please a nerdy teenage audience. What you see before you is nerdy teenage paradise. Indiana Jones in spirit, Star Wars in scope, Atlantis tears the Disney musical formula in two and comes out with one of the most original, and enjoyable, animated movies of recent times.
The Indiana Jones in question is Milo Thatch (Michael J. Fox), a scrawny, geeky linguist confined to the boiler room of the Smithsonian in the early twentieth century, and his wild theories of the existence of Atlantis doom him to stay there (although the boiler room isn’t a bad starting point for wannabe explorers, considering Indy operates out of one).
Milo’s boiler room days end, however, when Mr Whitmore (John Mahoney), a reclusive millionaire gives him the opportunity to find Atlantis, using an ancient journal as a map, and travelling aboard the Ulysses, the coolest submarine since Captain Nemo’s Nautilus.
The time setting of the movie deserves mention because the early twentieth century was the Jules Verne era, when technology was developing by leaps and bounds, but there was still plenty of uncharted territory to be discovered; and with war looming on the horizon an unofficial race between nations started, to see who could get their hands on as much new weapons, resources and land as possible. The time setting also adds a distinct dirty, retro steampunk feel to the machinery and the look of the characters, which is welcome when compared to the sterile futuristic look of the USS Enterprise.
An international ragtag team is assembled, including Vinny, an Italian demolition expert (Don Novello, an SNL alumni); Audrey, a Puerto Rican teenage mechanical whiz (Jacqueline Obradors); Mole, a French geologist who never got over his childhood fascination with digging (Corey Burton); Sweet (Phil Morris), a gentle giant of a doctor with one of the fastest mouths on earth; the through and through American Commander Rourke (James Garner) and his lieutenant Helga Sinclair (Claudia Christian), the most seductive animated character since Jessica Rabbit.On discovering Atlantis, Milo falls for the Princess Kida (Cree Summer) and tries to help her decode Atlantis’ ancient language to restore her people’s livelihood.
Atlantis is directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise of “Beauty and the Beast”, the first directors to truly wed live action camera movement with hand drawn animation, thanks to their masterful control of CGI. Imagine the ballroom scene in “Beauty and the Beast”. The action sequences soar in equally breath-taking measure, and there are many of them. The animators understand how to portray weightlessness without making the characters or their vehicles appear paper thin, which sucks us into the exhilarating Leviathan sequence, the breath-taking climatic battle and a beautifully animated swimming scene.
The animation is complimented by some zany, original character design (based on Mike Mignola’s comic book style) and one of the most diverse voice casts to ever appear in a Disney film. Michael J. Fox throws away all the toughness and coolness of Marty McFly, playing Milo as a massive ball of energy that perks our ears up whenever he speaks, accompanied with some hilarious, energetic (occasionally OTT) animation. Not only does his character have a unique style of animation and character design, he’s one of a tiny group of Disney male characters we can actually see ourselves in. And not only is Milo one of the most likable Disney frontmen, he generates laughs of his own rather than leaving the comic relief to the supporting cast.
That being said, the supporting cast is one of the best assembled in any animated film. James Garner perfectly embodies Rourke; Obradors gives the most emotive performance of the whole supporting cast as tough-but-tender Audrey; and Morris as Sweet provides a hilarious mix of fast-talk with a deep voice that has the vocal equivalent of honey.
However, the star of the supporting cast is Vinny, the polar opposite of the cute animals we’ve gotten accustomed to seeing beside the main character. His sole purpose in life is to blow stuff up, and coupled with some rarely seen cynicism, some good one-liners, a Stalin-esque moustache and a pair of the most expressive hands ever seen, Vinny becomes a worthy action sidekick. But, his character wouldn’t have worked without Don Novello’s dry delivery and perfect timing, which turns even the dullest exposition into comedy gold.
Obviously the non-musical animated action movie idea didn’t convince Disney to make more (Treasure Planet being a notable exception), but that’s alright with us nerds: Atlantis will remain unique, a hidden gem waiting to be found only by those who want it most, and it will endure, like the myth that inspired it.
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