When reviewing children's films, there are two main approaches one can take. One is to review the film in question as first and foremost a piece of cinema, analysing its narrative and technical aspects and giving out recommendations on this basis. The other is to take a more moralistic view, imagining whether you would show a given film to your own children (real or hypothetical) on the basis of the messages or lessons that it contains.
Both approaches are problematic, insofar as they use adult language, knowledge and expectations of a medium to recommend something that was never intended for adults, at least not primarily. But either approach is infinitely preferable to the dim view that children are stupid enough to watch anything, and that a 'children's film' does not have to be as well-made as one intended for grown-ups. Whichever approach one takes, Atlantis: The Lost Empire is not worthy of any recommendation, being one of the laziest animated films in recent memory.
When I reviewed Treasure Planet three months ago, I drew a comparison between Disney and PIXAR in the early-2000s. I argued that while PIXAR were pushing the envelope of what mainstream animation could achieve, Disney were aggressively re-treading old ground, "trying to push the same old stuff overlaid with snazzier visuals." Since the Disney empire diversified in the 1950s, the animation department has had to fight for power against the cash cows of theme parks and merchandising - and the success of these arms has often influenced the output of Disney's more creative elements.
Apologists may defend Atlantis as a break from the Disney norm of fairy tales and princesses. But this argument holds no water, since in every other way the film is conventional to the point of utter contempt. The film is a relentless race to the bottom, treating its audience young and old like complete idiots and not offering up one original or creative idea in compensation. It's ironic that the film disappointed at the box office, considering that most of it feels like it was created to sell a toy rather than tell a story.
All this could be somewhat rationalised if the film were a straight-to-video project, or an episode of a TV series based on another Disney film. Most of us are aware of Disney's track record in this regard, and would therefore lower our expectations from expecting the best to hoping for something other than the very worst. But Atlantis comes from an original treatment by Joss Whedon, and is helmed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, the same team behind Beauty and the Beast. The only thing more painful than a bad film made by bad filmmakers is a bad film made by good filmmakers.
It's clear that Trousdale and Wise's strengths lie in adapting existing stories. Beauty and the Beast and The Hunchback of Notre Dame both come from reputable sources, and both successfully channel the sources' darkness for a younger audience. Atlantis, by comparison, is utterly aimless, floating from set-piece to set-piece without a map or rudder. For all the flack that Disney gets for its creative liberties in adaptation, its attempts at original material are often just as inept.
What makes this all the more painful is that there is so much potential within this story. The myth of Atlantis is a fascinating one which opens up all kinds of possibilities about different cultures, languages and technologies. Even if the myth were handed with kid gloves, this could have still have been a really fun adventure. The setup is an enticing blend of Jules Verne, Tintin and Indiana Jones, with Atlantis serving as the great, undiscovered 'other world' into which our heroes venture as the eyes of the audience.
But all of this potential is quickly squandered, thanks to poorly-drawn characters and terrible storytelling. All of the characters are flat and entirely one-dimensional - Milo is the well-meaning dork, Kida is the headstrong but naïve princess, Rourke is the blinkered military leader, and so on and so on. The writing is so lazy that there is actually a scene where most of the characters sit down and tell their backstories one at a time. Alfred Hitchcock once said that exposition was a bitter pill that had to be sugar-coated for audiences, and no amount of sweetness or visual beauty can make up for this particularly bitter pill.
As for the plot of Atlantis, it's deeply derivative to say the least. It is possible for a film to come from well-worn conventions and yet still offer something new - Indiana Jones is a brilliant example. But there comes a point when similarity to another work becomes so close that is borders on plagiarism or self-parody, and Atlantis falls firmly into the latter trap.
The plot is essentially the same as Pocahontas, with the central relationship between Milo and Kida having the same dynamic as John Smith and Pocahontas. The traveller or pioneer falls in love with the native's daughter, conflict ensues and they unite to save their two worlds. That would be fine, except that the lead-up to finding Atlantis takes far too long, with the film getting bogged down in needless distractions, lazy exposition or bad jokes. And that's before we address the use of language in the film: Disney commissioned Marc Okrand to create a whole new language for the Atlanteans to speak, only for the language barrier to be dealt with in the stupidest possible way (yes, worse than magic leaves.)
The influence of Indiana Jones is writ large over Atlantis - the filmmakers even cited Raiders of the Lost Ark as their inspiration for shooting the film in widescreen. But if the Pocahontas similarities aren't enough to put you off, then you could easily transpose the plot of Last Crusade onto the film, to the point where the characters completely overlap.
Milo's decision to go after Atlantis is driven by the need to fulfil his father's dream - the same reason that Indy takes up the quest for the Holy Grail. Rourke is essentially Walter Donovan, appearing to be on the heroes' side but ultimately wanting the 'grail' for his own power. You could even argue that his assistant, Lieutenant Helga, doubles for Dr. Elsa Schneider - though the film doesn't imply that both father and son were attracted to her.
The difference between Last Crusade and Atlantis lies in the level of affection for the story and character archetypes. Indiana Jones is driven first and foremost by a deep-seated love for the fantasy and adventures genres. Even when the series became one of the biggest in film history, the films never felt like blatant cash-grabs on the part of the studios. Atlantis has creative talent and affection somewhere in it, but the film has been trampled on by uncreative minds, whether in marketing or middle management.
Internal logic is an important aspect in all fantasy stories, and Atlantis doesn't make a great deal of sense on either a physical or a mythological level. We may be able to laugh at the idea of sentient crystals after Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but in this context the film sets up the idea and then makes no effort to explain it. It's just another plot device, designed to take Kida out of the picture for a quick battle scene. The film is structured like an ADHD theme park ride, its goal being to keep you distracted for as long as possible so that you don't have the chance to stop and take in this potentially complex world - and then proceed to pick it apart.
This rollercoaster approach to storytelling also defeats the film's big trump card - its visuals. Atlantis was the first Disney film presented in 70mm since The Black Cauldron - another film that was brutally compromised by studio interference. The animation is very pretty, with a nice range of colours and tones underscored by shimmering, iridescent blues. But even the prettiest scenes aren't impressive because the editing is choppy and we don't care about the characters. There's very little use made of the widescreen presentation, and the 70mm format is thoroughly wasted.
Atlantis: The Lost Empire is one of Disney's most conspicuous and disappointing failures. It epitomises the studio's reputation for brand paranoia, taking a potentially interesting and entertaining premise and draining it of all creativity and elegance. The result is a crushingly dull and uninspired offering whose only function is to depress and reinforce bad feelings towards the company. It's awful, tedious, lazy and empty - and really, really stupid.