If peanut butter and jelly is getting old, tunafish and marshmallow — admittedly a different sandwich — isn’t necessarily the remedy.
Nonetheless, fresh off a self-evaluation-inducing body-slamming administered by “Shrek” earlier this summer, the Disney gang gathered the wagons and released what was supposed to be a warning shot to the rest of the animation world. “We don’t need the cute, talking animals and elaborate singing, dancing numbers that have put our children through college to get by” was their war cry and “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” was to be their vehicle.
While the cards may not have fallen in exactly that order (“Atlantis” had been near completion long before the release of “Shrek,” as demonstrated by the voice of the long-since deceased Jim Varney), “Atlantis” is no doubt Disney’s attempt to flex their mouse-eared muscles to a growing, more adult-oriented animation audience; their proof that they can change with the times.
The tale of a cartographer commissioned to carry out his grandfather’s dying dream of discovering the mythical lost city, “Atlantis” holds all the elements of a fun summer picture, destined to dip into any number of various movie audience groups. A ragtag group of comical adventurers is gathered and they set off on the voyage of a lifetime. On paper as well, the film looks intriguing. As the bumbling hero Milo Thatcher, Michael J. Fox lends his voice in what is sure to be one of his last film roles. Accompanying him are the charismatic and recognizable voices of James Garner (“Space Cowboys”), Leonard Nimoy (“Star Trek: The Motion Picture”), Jim Varney (better known for his Ernest P. Worrell character of “Ernest Goes to…” such and such fame) and Don Novello (“Saturday Night Live”‘s Father Guido Sarducci).
The media attention leading up to the release of “Atlantis” has been generally warm, if not open-armed, but for all the wrong reasons. Finally Disney was going to show its range and just how mature it could be within the widening scope – or is it the confines – of animation. “Atlantis” was going to be exactly what “Titan A.E.” or “The Iron Giant” had attempted to do but failed. Move over amateurs, it was time for Disney to put on a clinic. To top it off, there was the promise from Disney that neither Sting nor Phil Collins nor any of the other elderly I-was-better-in-a-band Club members would be doing a soundtrack. In fact, there is no love ballad-riddled soundtrack.
The only knock has been on the animation style, which is being called “primitive” and “outdated”-less CGI and more old school cell animation. As it turns out, the classic animation was the movie’s best, if not saving, attribute.
Proving just how inaccurate an “Entertainment Weekly” preview half a year before anyone had actually screened the film could be, the critics were way off.
Nowhere to be seen are the talking teapots and singing bears of yesteryear. In their place are attempts at caricatures that fall pathetically short and lean more towards racial profiling.
In the past, Walt Disney Pictures has escaped detection, but teetered dangerously close to racism-witness the jazzy, jive-talking monkeys in “The Jungle Book” or the portrayal of Arabs in “Aladdin.” Now, with an entirely human cast, they are left resorting to exaggerated racial stereotyping for character humor and it comes off as offensive, to say the least.
To demonstrate, the exploration crew of “Atlantis” is comprised of a smelly French dirt expert; a slick, toothpick-toting Italian; a tough little Hispanic mechanic; a cranky, geriatric chain-smoker; and, of course, the most buff is a John Henry-looking black man nicknamed “Sweet.” Cartoonist Robert Crumb wasn’t half the bigot Disney has become — he just didn’t veil his generalizations.
Beyond that, the Disney crew has outdone even the worst storytellers in weaving a truly frustrating tale, even for adults. David Lynch has written simpler stories.
Furthermore, the film has been in the works for nearly six years — never a good sign — and it wears that fact like a big “kick me” sign on its back.
The film’s most noticeable flaw, or so it has been called, turns out to be its most redeeming quality. Following in the path of last year’s surprisingly funny “Emperor’s New Groove,” “Atlantis” employs a rudimentary animation style that generally makes for a more enjoyable movie. Straying from the dazzling 3-D reality that has become the animation norm via Pixar and PDI, “Atlantis” has a classic, flat feeling that best serves its Saturday morning cartoon feel. But who wants to pay $8 to see a Saturday morning cartoon?