Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)


The Disney company’s success rate with animated features is unrivaled and undisputed. You can point to individual movies that didn’t work (“Treasure Planet”), and even an entire decade that’s best forgotten (the 1980s), but the overall quality — from 1937’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” to this year’s “Winnie the Pooh” — is sterling.

While I do count “Beauty and the Beast” as one of my favorite films of all time, I don’t think my general fondness for Disney’s animated output is any more fervent than the average person’s. We all like our cartoons, yo. Nonetheless, I do seem to have had some blind spots, instances where I gushed over a film that, in retrospect, did not warrant gushery. As a college student, I gave rave reviews to “Hercules,” “Mulan,” and “Tarzan”; subsequent viewings made me want to modify those raves to a more demure “recommended.” (Look, we all do crazy things when we’re in college.)

Then we come to “Atlantis: The Lost Empire,” which nearly became lost again when I buried it under a vast mountain of praise…

What I said then:

“Walt Disney Pictures made billions from its string of animated musical hits in the ’90s. Perhaps the dwindling returns on the last few … inspired the folks at the mouse house to change things up…. 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…. 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…. Disney can still crank out a fine piece of work. Atlantis, to coin a phrase, blows everything else out of the water.” Grade: A [complete review]

Sweet fragrant flapjacks! I sound like a madman! Read the whole review, it’s a doozy. You’d think the movie had pulled me from a burning building. Only half the reviews it got were positive at all, and even the positive ones weren’t generally THAT positive.

And here’s a fair question: If I loved “Atlantis” so much, why did I never watch it again until ten years later (i.e., a few days ago)? My review reads like the manifesto of a person who has found a new religion, yet apparently my zeal fizzled rapidly.

The re-viewing:

I remembered having laughed a lot the first time I saw it, but I couldn’t recall many specifics. (One thing I did remember: the explosives expert, voiced by Don Novello — aka Father Guido Sarducci — nonchalantly listing the supplies in his kit: “Gunpowder, nitroglycerin, notepads….” The way he hit that last one just cracked me up.) It started coming back to me on the second viewing. There’s a good mix of vivid, fun characters on display here in the ragtag team assembled to search for Atlantis.

I wouldn’t go so far as to call the movie “hysterically funny,” however, like I did a decade ago. Funny, sure, but “hysterical”? What was I referring to? At what point in that initial viewing did I find myself in hysterics? I wish there were surveillance footage.

The adventure scenes, on the other hand, are about as good as I said they were. If they seem diminished, it’s only because there have been animated films since then (including some by Disney) that were just as adept with action. At the time, though, it must have been just about as visually thrilling a story as the Disney animators had ever told. “Atlantis” is still one of the few Disney cartoons to be produced in widescreen (2.35:1 aspect ratio), and you can tell that making it a rollicking, Jules Verne-esque adventure tale was a priority.

But the story — I don’t know why I was ever so smitten with the story. Oh, it’s a fine, sturdy one, to be sure, told efficiently and without many extraneous characters. There just isn’t anything to it. It’s strikingly similar to the generic plot line of “Avatar,” which means it’s pretty close to Disney’s own “Pocahontas,” which means it is simple and unremarkable.

Do I still love this movie?

No, and I’m mystified that I ever did. Apart from some rousing action scenes and humorous bursts of dialogue, the film is merely passable — I might even say mediocre. It’s interesting that my reaction to it on second viewing is about the same as my reaction on first viewing to Disney’s subsequent “Treasure Planet” and “Brother Bear.” Either I’d overcome my Disney blind spot by then … or else those movies are actually much, much worse than I thought. Grade: C+