atlantis: the lost empire(2001)
directors: kirk wise, gary trousdale
voices: michael j. fox, james garner, cree summer, leonard nimoy

. Disney’s animated features, once state of the art, are up against more competition today than at any time in their history. Perhaps that might explain why a film like Atlantis: The Lost Empire, from the same team that produced Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, is so hard to distinguish from other latter-day animated product, like Dreamworks’ The Prince of Egypt, or Warner’s The Iron Giant.

The story itself is the usual farrago of quasi-mystical hokum about the mythical vanished continent, voiced by the usual, impressive cast of voices, from Michael J. Fox as the nebbish hero, to James Garner, Leonard Nimoy, Don Novello and Jim Varney. Full of Jules Verne submarines and frightening undersea monsters, it’ll be a delightful inspiration for millions of youthful nightmares.

The bad news is that the romance, between Fox’s bumbling adventurer and the Atlantean princess (voiced by Cree Summer), doesn’t really take off -- a somewhat absurd criticism to make about two-dimensional animations, but there it is. The good news is that it isn’t as cloying as The Little Mermaid or Pocahontas, and blessedly unfolds without a single musical number. It’s probably more of a little boy’s story than a little girl’s, and thanks to a cast of wryly amusing secondary characters, won’t drive parents out of the theatre.

Perhaps it's just me, but I find it ironic when a company like Disney makes a film, like Atlantis, that celebrates an anti-technological worldview, demonizing profiteering mercenaries who exploit innocent natives to benefit some looming, offscreen supervillain, here personified by "the Kaiser". When did these military-industrial stooges replace the clumsy, prosaic evil of the hunters from Bambi?

The design of the ruined underwater city and the Edwardian props is magnificent, though it has to be said that the current trend away from graceful character moulding -- perfected in Snow White and Cinderella -- toward fairground caricature is a bit disturbing. Every character, not only the villains and grotesque sidekicks, is defined by jutting chins, bulging eyes and flapping ears; even the lissome heroine is burdened with a pair of massive cartoon feet that would do a sprinter proud.