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Atlantis: The Lost Empire Review
by Joe Tracy, Publisher of Digital Media FX

Note: This review contains a massive spoiler in the section titled "The Bad." It is recommended that you do not read this section until you have already seen the movie.

dFX's Movie Rating for Atlantis

Disney's PG-rated Atlantis: The Lost Empire is not your typical Disney animated production. There are no characters that break out into song, no animal sidekicks that speak fluid English, and no fairy Godmother to show Milo the way. The focus in Atlantis is on the action and adventure, much like last year's Titan A.E. movie. However, Atlantis does a much better job than Titan A.E. in telling its story... a story brought to life in a visual medium inspired by comic book artist Mike Mignola. The visual representation is, as Disney describes it, a "flat, graphic, and layered style that blends classic Disney and Mike Mignola" resulting in a style Disney refers to as "Dis-nola" (sounds like a breakfast cereal).


The Story

Disney's Atlantis: The Lost Empire is the story of an inexperienced young adventurer who becomes the key to unraveling an ancient mystery when he joins up with a group of daredevil explorers to find the legendary lost empire of Atlantis. The adventurer, a clumsy cartographer by the name of Milo Thatch, dreams of completing the quest started by his late Grandfather, a famous explorer.

The team of daring explorers follow the readings of "The Shepherd's Journal" (which only the nerdy Milo can interpret) to help lead the way to the famed city of fables.

Here's a breakdown of the great, the average, and the bad in Disney's Atlantis: The Lost Empire:


The Great
Disney's Atlantis: The Lost Empire has a lot going for it:

1) The visual style and animation are great. The overall look and animation, inspired by comic book artist Mike Mignola, creates a unique visual environment for this movie (character drawings aside, as discussed in "The Bad" section of this review).

2) The music. Disney can do no wrong with James Newton Howard handling its animated scores. The music fits perfectly in Atlantis. Before watching Atlantis, I had viewed Tomb Raider which had a score so bad that it massively detracted from the movie. The score in Atlantis, however, adds a mysterious and emotional balance that enhances every scene. If you have the Atlantis soundtrack, pay close attention to tracks 13 & 14 which really help capture the mystery and awe of Atlantis, bringing it to life in the movie and showing how the score can become a major enhancement to the movie.

3) Original humor. With one exception, Disney strayed away from bodily fluid, belching, and farting jokes to successfully capture humor that has to be earned. Some of this is very effectively presented through characters like Vinny and Mrs. Packard, who in one scene is on the intercom trying to get the commander's attention repeating "Commander...Commander...Commander..." in a monotone voice, while the commander is talking with someone else trying to ignore the persistent monotone page. You see tension begin to build within Commander Rourke as he tries to resist the annoying repetitive Packard while trying to stay attentive to the person talking with him. Vinny also pulls off several well written jokes that help move Atlantis forward. But even with all this humor, Disney did have to throw in one of its trademark belching jokes (been there, done that).

4) The mystery and awe. An excellent job was done in building the mystery throughout Atlantis. Solid story points helped to move the mystery forward while the audience tried to piece together the puzzle. From figuring out the mystery of the power source to protecting Atlantis from an exploding volcano, the movie weaves one mystery after another together, ultimately bringing answers to the puzzle. Both visually and storywise the mysteries in Disney's Atlantis are given life and help rid the bad taste people received from the disjointed and poorly developed mysteries in Tomb Raider.

5) Kida's Backstory. Disney did a great job at building the backstory of Kida (through an opening sequence) that helped the audience better identify with her in the latter part of the movie. But to make sure the audience didn't forget, Disney successfully reminds the audience, via a montage, of some of the backstory later in the movie, thus successfully setting up a new scene that answers some of the questions surrounding the mystery of the crystal and what happened to Kida's mother.


The Average

For the most part, the supporting cast in Atlantis: The Lost Empire is too big, resulting in a lack of proper character development. For example, one may ask why the character of Audrey even appears in the film. Not only is she not developed, but she also doesn't play any type of role to warrant her appearance unless Disney was simply trying to create "racial diversity."


The Bad

There are two areas where Atlantis falls short. The first is the drawing of the characters and the second is the movie's plot point near the end. Here's the problems:

1) The character drawings. Disney can't expect a general moviegoer to see characters with square hands, rectangular fingers, triangular fingernails, triangular toes, and think, "Oh, how nice, these characters are drawn in the style of artist Mike Mignola." Instead, the general audience thinks, "Disney must really be strapped for cash to put out such fast drawn and sloppy characters with no definition." While the style may work for the overall look of the film (and the look of the film is visually appealing), it does not work on the characters (Milo, Rourke, Mr. Whitmore). It effectively causes the perception of the general viewer (who has never heard of Mike Mignola) to be negative when compared to other beautifully drawn characters like those found in Disney classics like Beauty and the Beast and even Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

In our review of PDI/DreamWorks Shrek we made the following comment about Shrek: "The characters are well drawn. An array of recent animated films have sacrificed the quality of their character drawings (calling it a 'style' decision)...From square chins to square hands, the 'style' of other animated films have been a great disappointment. That isn't the case with Shrek. Shrek delivers character drawings that are realistic within the fantasy environment it has created. This adds to the realism of the production and enjoyment of the film."

Atlantis is the perfect example of what we meant in that review when we said, "An array of recent animated films have sacrificed the quality of their character drawings (calling it a 'style' decision)... From square chins to square hands, the 'style' of other animated films have been a great disappointment."

The Washington Post (and several other publications) also addressed this issue in their reviews of Atlantis. As the Washington Post stated, "Watching Atlantis, which is supposed to be graced with 'eye-popping, wide-screen animation' (according to Disney), I found myself thinking, are these the rough draft drawings for the final print? When will they fill in the rest? I had the same reaction watching Hercules, a poorly designed, ineptly illustrated Disney spectacle. Both movies seem to avoid detail in the figure drawings, a sort of short-cut animation that looks cheap, fast and economic."

2) Having the entire team betray Milo. Up until the plot point where the entire team betrays Milo, Atlantis had shown strong creativity and originality in the presentation of its story. At this point, it reverts to a "been there, done that" plot that is just as ineffective in Atlantis as it was in other movies like Titan A.E..

But who am I to say it is a terrible plot point if I can't offer a better one to compare it to? With that said, here is a quick example, off the top of my head, on how Atlantis could have pulled off a better plot point while deepening the mystery and preserving the team as "good guys":

Accompanying the team throughout the adventure were "military men" decked in dark clothing and masks. The obvious purpose of these military characters were to help support and protect the expedition. Disney could have used this military to mount a hostile mutiny, making these mysterious figures (because you never see their faces) a surprise enemy and developing a deeper mystery as to why they want the power source (versus the current team's plan to "sell it to the highest bidder"). This would have been a much better betrayal storyline than having every single main character betray Milo. It also would have allowed the team to stick together and fight together versus going from good characters to bad characters to good characters, thus breaking the consistency of character development.


Conclusion

Despite the above two setbacks, Atlantis: The Lost Empire is an enjoyable film (sometimes intriguing) to watch. When compared to its direct competition — Tomb Raider Atlantis comes off looking like a masterpiece. With stronger plot points, more defined character drawings, and better character development, Atlantis could have been one of the box office gems of the summer. Unfortunately its summer will likely be short as people move on to new adventures. But the film is still memorable and worth seeing multiple times even if the second or third time is to simply close your eyes and listen to the awesome James Newton Howard score.

dFX's Movie Rating for Atlantis

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