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This review is from: Atlantis: The Lost Empire -- Two-Disc Collector's Edition [DVD]  (DVD)
Yes, it's a cartoon. Yes, it's Disney. But Atlantis is also an impressive science fiction film in its own right, and refreshingly different from the standard Disney fare. Disney have made some excellent cartoons in the past, notably Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, and The Lion King but recently have been failing to deliver that standard. Here we see a departure from the cute sidekicks and sugary songs, and are offered a darker action film which kids can still enjoy.
Milo Thatch [Michael J. Fox], a linguistics expert working as a museum boiler room attendent, has been continuing the work of his grandfather and has finally solved the puzzle of the location of Atlantis. With the aid of an eccentric billionaire, he and a team of intrepid explorers set out to find the fabled lost city and its power source, the Heart of Atlantis. When they arrive, however, Milo discovers from Princess Kida [Cree Summer] that the Atlanteans' power is slowly waning, and realises he might be the key to saving their way of life.
Disney have pushed the boundaries considerably with this film, earning it a PG rating in the USA. Ferocious battles, including realistic gun use, abound as well as gigantic robot monsters defending the city. The characters are also darker, but equally characterised in greater depth, than usual, with the team including pyromaniacs, chain smokers, and a dirt-obsessed frenchman (Mole is the least impressive of the character designs, providing a rather bland variety of slapstick comic relief). Most impressively, the romantic connection between Milo and Kida is neither love at first sight, nor filled with longing gazes. Instead it is subtly infused in their relationship, and develops in a sweet and mature fashion.
The computer aided artwork and cell shaded animation varies in quality throughout the film. Atlantis features some top notch underwater sequences and a brilliantly creative portrayal of an entirely new civilisation. However, at times backdrops lack the detail of some of the previously mentioned Disney greats. While the animation of those films looked virtually identical, Atlantis utilises a distinctive and unique style, a dramatic departure for a Disney film. Indeed influences can be seen from Japanese anime, with the wide-eyed characters and especially in the sharp hair of the Atlanteans, who look genuinely attractive! The more squared-off adventurers contrast the lithe Atlanteans, utilising different artistic styles to highlight the differences between the two cultures. Other influences come from the comicbook style of drawing, but these sources are not being copied or exploited, but instead are infused with Disney's own design skills to produce something new and innovative.
The plot is hugely flawed, with many holes or threads that are not developed. The film runs are almost a quarter of an hour longer than any previous animated Disney release, in order to allow its story to develop at a slower pace, and yet there are a still a few scenes which appear rushed. Disney shot high in trying to weave a truly epic tale with this cartoon, and the tangled plot just misses the mark. The voice acting talent is excellent, and rarely can such a cast be brought together. Older sci-fi fans will love having Fox, Nimoy and also Claudia Christian (Ivanova from Babylon 5) in a single film.
Atlantis is not a perfect Disney film, but it is delightfully original in both its content and execution. It maintains a Jules Verne-esque epic quality throughout, and it may have gained more commercial success as a live-action film, we are instead offered some of the most stunningly ambitious animation in a Disney movie yet. Having hit the peak of cutesy sing-along cartoons more than once, and probably achieving all they can in that area, surely the future of Disney lies in this more mature direction.