Atlantis: The Lost Empire

Walt Disney Pictures made billions from its string of animated musical hits in the ’90s. It was a simple formula: Retell a familiar story, put in some Broadway-style songs, make sure you’ve got some animals blessed with the power of speech, and watch the bucks roll in.

Why mess with a good thing? Perhaps the dwindling returns on the last few — “Hercules” and “Mulan,” specifically — inspired the folks at the mouse house to change things up. Or maybe it was a pure desire to test uncharted waters. (Probably not, but maybe.)

Whatever the impetus, “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” is nearly as great as “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin,” but is also utterly and completely different from them.

There are no songs and no talking animals. The villain dies at the end, like in all Disney films, but so do many others, including some good guys (non-graphically, but enough to earn a PG rating).

Sound too serious? Guess what: It’s also hysterically funny, both in the silly way that appeals to kids and the smart way that makes grown-ups howl. There are even throwaway jokes, tossed out as transitional lines that have nothing to do with the central action — the kind of jokes that take effort to write and perform well, but that need to look effortless.

Set in 1914, the film’s star is Milo Thatch (Michael J. Fox), a museum linguistics expert who gets no respect from his bosses. This is in large part due to his insistence that, given the right funding, he could find the lost city of Atlantis. Seems that before his death, his explorer grandfather unearthed several clues, including a secret Atlantian diary.

Grandpa’s old pal Preston B. Whitmore, an eccentric millionaire, has had the journal in safekeeping, bestowing it upon Milo now that he sees he’s serious about using it to find Atlantis. With Whitmore backing the trip, Milo and a ragtag crew of explorers, specialists and psychos take a submarine voyage to the bottom of the sea.

Upon finding Atlantis (there was little doubt of that, was there?), they discover a once-glorious city now in ruins. It exists in a huge under-water air pocket, ruled by an aging king (Leonard Nimoy) who wants to keep the oustide world at bay. His daughter, Kida (Cree Summer), who soon fulfills her obligation to fall in love with Milo (some things never change at Disney), disagrees. She knows that Atlantis is dying.

Unfortunately, there are those in Milo’s crew who only want to exploit Atlantis, and not learn from it. The genial Commander Rourke (James Garner) is not beyond reproach, nor is his femme-fatale assistant, Helga (Claudia Christian).

The crew also includes explosives expert Vinny (Don Novella, aka Father Guido Sarducci), a crusty cook (Jim Varney, in his last role), and a deadpan, smoke-voiced telephone operator named Mrs. Packard (Florence Stanley) — and those are just the funniest ones. There’s also a French guy who loves dirt and a grease-monkey tomboy mechanic, all adding their particular spice to the stew.

(There are some terrific scenes in which the disparate personalities have to work together, reminding audiences of similar groups in “Armageddon” and similar films. It’s not parody, per se, but it indicates a knowing attitude that earns “Atlantis” a few more credibility points.)

When it moves, the film is wildly exciting, recalling the great adventure films of the past. When it’s funny, it’s outstandingly so. It doesn’t have the emotional punch of, say, “Beauty and the Beast,” but the overall combination of humor and thrills makes up for whatever it lacks in the gooey department.

Its well-developed, mystical story line may be too much for young kids to grasp, dealing as it does with Atlantis’ power source and energy crystals and other things more typical in Japanese anime than American cartoons. But it may be too intense for very young children anyway. These things vary from one child to the next, but the age of 6 or 7 is probably a good cut-off. There’s nothing offensive, but the fact that some characters die could be unsettling.

Frequent missteps and greedy maneuvers aside, when it wants to, Disney can still crank out a fine piece of work. “Atlantis,” to coin a phrase, blows everything else out of the water.

A (1 hr., 36 min.; PG, some intense situation, non-graphic violence.)