Saturday, March 16, 2013

2001 - Atlantis: The Lost Empire

Before I write these I put together a loose outline of what the final product is going to be. Just a little note reminding me of what I want to put in each paragraph. The note I have for this intro is “The CGI Menace”, and that’s a pretty accurate assessment of what Disney was feeling at the time. When Dinosaur came out, the audience’s hunger for computer animation was just starting to grow, and they hadn‘t had much to choose from. By the time Atlantis came out, four more computer animated films had debuted, three of which were successful, and two of which were good. While the development on this film started long before those movies came out, Disney were smart enough to smell the change on the wind. To that end, they decided it was time for them to change with the times. And they knew what America wanted to see: A dramatic sci-fi adventure set in 1914 and inspired by Japanese animation and American independent comics. Were they correct? Was America ready for - You know what? I’ll just tell you. No, they were wrong, people didn’t want to see it, it didn’t flop yet was not a big hit, and it’s largely forgotten today by the company and the public.

However, like The Black Cauldron, Disney’s attempt here at a darker palate and more dramatic tone has led this to be a bit of a cult classic. However 2, the phrase “like The Black Cauldron” is not one that inspires confidence for a lot of reasons. However 3, the company is in a much better place artistically now than they were back then, so it might not be that bad. How ever are you feeling? I’m sure I feel the same. So eat some chuck wagon slop and let’s talk about Atlantis.

This movie had one great advantage for me going into it, and that’s the designer that came up with most of the movie’s visual aesthetic, Mike Mignola. Mignola is an independent comics artist best known as the creator, author, and primary artist of Hellboy. I have no idea how he came to work for Disney, but I’m glad he did, because the movie looks fantastic. Mignola’s got a very distinctive visual style, and lost civilizations and ancient monsters are a specialty. While it’s not a flawless transition - his fondness for bulky sleeves and his square, blocky hands make for some awkward moments of animation - it does give the movie a unique look that works wonderfully. I don’t think I’ve seen this strong and cohesive a design aesthetic since Aladdin. The biggest problem comes when the animators were clearly going away from Mignola’s designs. The character of Moliere, in particular, is pretty blatantly Disney-designed, and he never quite fits with the look of the other characters.

And those characters are EXCELLENT. A voyage to Atlantis clearly requires a submarine, and a submarine requires a crew. The writers smartly decided to take a page out of Star Trek (or, more to the point, SeaQuest DSV) and work out what jobs they needed, fill those jobs with a diverse group, develop a clear personality for each character, and give everyone a moment in the spotlight. Some of them are familiar Star Trek archetypes, like the Medical Officer or Chief Engineer, and some specific to the job, like the Geologist or Demolitions Officer. And they all feel like real, developed people. Dr. Sweet is half black, half Native American, grew up on a reservation, and served in the army. Audrey is the Hispanic 16-year-old daughter of their previous engineer who trained under her father. Vinny the explosives guy is Italian, and comes from a family of florists. None of this is plot-relevant, but it makes the characters seem far more real, and it lets the movie take a breather in between the action scenes by developing them. Also, time spent on character development is time not spent on plot, and… Well, we’ll come to that.

Look at all that production design! No, really, look at it, we can't have you paying attention to the plot.

The actors, to my everlasting relief, are FANTASTIC. This is a loooooong way from Dinosaur. Whether it’s voice actors like Cree Summer and Corey Burton, character actors like Don Novello and Jim Varney, or primarily live actors like James Garner and Michael J. Fox, everyone presents a voice that is full of personality and perfectly suited to their character. Fox in particular, as the mission’s linguist and our lead character, does a marvelous job. This was his first role after his Parkinson’s Disease forced his retirement from TV, and he throws his all into it. The animators clearly took a lot of influence from his mannerisms in the development of the character, so the fusion of actor and animation is as good as it’s ever been.

Actually, that happens a lot in this. Don Novello does his typical stream-of-conscious rambling as Vinny the demolitions guy, and the animation puts in just the right blend of stone-faced deadpan and accents of emotion. Novello actually recorded his part by reading the lines as written and then free-associating alternate takes. The filmmakers actually wound up using not a single line as scripted, landing him in the Robin Williams/James Woods camp. Phil Morris as the doctor also provided a challenge to the animators by talking as fast as he possibly could in his introductory scene. And if you’ve seen him on Seinfeld as Jackie Chiles (the only black person in New York, as far as I can tell), you know how fast that is. The actors inform the characters as well as the other way around. Man, I hated Dinosaur.

As long as I’m throwing out propers to the actors and avoiding the part I have to talk about next, some more standouts: Leonard Nimoy as the blind Atlantean king brings his legendary gravelly gravitas. Cree Summer, best known at the time as Elmyra from Tiny Toons, plays Princess Kida as stone cold badass. And particular credit to Jim Varney as the expedition’s cook. Not because of his great comic relief performance, I knew that would be good. But because he took the role knowing full well his lung cancer would kill him before the he’d have a chance to see any of it. Oh, also John Mahoney is in it. He's always good.

Okay, Mignola, we get it, you like old-timey photos of people standing in groups.

Okay, I’ve avoided the subject for long enough. The animation was great. The characters were great. The actors were fantastic. So what was the problem? Well, the plot that all those great aspects were plopped into is TERRIBLE. Well, not the plot really. The plot is fine. When an old explorer discovers a possible map to Atlantis, his insanely wealthy friend agrees to finance an expedition. The explorer dies before they’re ready to leave, so they hire his beloved grandson Milo, a translator of dead languages, to help them decipher the map. When they reach Atlantis, they discover a living, but stagnant situation. When it turns out the captain was planning all along on exploiting Atlantis for his material gain and doesn’t care that he’s going to have to kill the Atlanteans to do it, the more moral members of his crew rebel. Led now by Milo, who has fallen in love with the Atlantean culture, they save the civilization. Writing it down like that, it’s not a bad plot at all. But it is put together so ineptly. And both of the major conflicts are founded on  gaping plot holes.

First and foremost is the fact that the distrust the King has for the explorers, which is bound up in their cultural stagnation. This is represented by the fact Atlanteans don’t know how to read their own language or operate their machinery, which causes Milo to be an invaluable resource who helps them rediscover their cultural identity. The writers were inspired by the Egyptians encountered by Napoleonic forces in the 1800s. They were surrounded by remnants of a great civilization, but didn’t know what they were or what they meant. Problem is, in Atlantis, thanks to a magic McGuffin, these people have been around for 2,000 YEARS. They are the same civilization that sank in the first place. Did they just forget how to read? I hate the movie thing where a white guy shows the minorities that he’s better at their culture than they are (Avatar, Dances With Wolves, The Last Samurai, etc) but their attempt to avoid this trope just reinforced it and made the natives look like damn idiots.

The second conflict, after Milo teaches everyone how to ride a fishbike, is the revelation that Captain Roark was planning on pinching the legendary Atlantean power source, selling it to the highest bidder, and splitting the profits among his team. When he finds out that the Atlanteans are alive, which he had NO WAY OF KNOWING, he takes it anyway, condemning them to die in the process. Oh, and by the way, these movies are getting recent enough where I’m starting to feel a little bad about spoilers, but when the guy turns up with an army of sinister gas mask stormtroopers, I feel his turn to badness is being telegraphed maybe just a little. So forgive me for giving stuff away, but trust me, plot is not among the reasons to see this movie.

"Oh, good, my shipment of expendable faceless henchmen arrived in time for the plot contrivance."

And they’re not the only things he turned up with for insane reasons. For his mission to an underwater cave, he for some reason brought fighter planes and a hot air balloon. Is there any reason for those other than to give his mooks something to fly around and blow up on in the final battle? And not only that, but his plan makes no sense. Why did he think that leading the expedition to discover the lost continent of Atlantis WOULDN’T make him rich already? And when he finds out they’re still alive, why does he still take the power source, even though it turns out to be an actual living person? And if he DIDN’T know they were alive, WHY DID HE BRING AN ARMY?

And why did his team only have a change of heart when it was too late to do anything about it? Not when he announced his genocidal intentions, not when he beat up and murdered an old man, but when he was sitting in a truck, ready to leave? If this was his plan all along, did Milo’s grandfather know about it? He was an original member of the team, and they were all in on it. Where the hell does Atlantis get sunlight from? Why do Roark’s minions never remove their gas masks? Well, I know that one, it’s to dehumanize them, because a LOT of them die. But still.

And the movie’s a mess on top of it. The scenes don’t hang together at all, and the dialogue tends to be horrible. The best actors in the world can’t save a script this bad. It was clearly a case where their ideas outstripped their ability to pull them off. Yet despite all that, I am giving it a recommendation. It’s not the best, it’s very far from the best, but there are enough moments when the quality concept shines through that you can still enjoy yourself watching it, and most of the plot problems are the sort that don’t start bothering you until after it’s over. So give it a look. You probably won’t be sorry.

My biggest complaint is the unconscionable lack of Aquaman. Why, it's OUTRAGEOUS.


* David Ogden Stiers has a brief role early on. He may be edging out Jim Cummings in number of appearances.

* At one point, Milo exclaims that Roark might sell the power source to the Kaiser. This is the only time that the film’s 1914 setting becomes relevant.

* At the very beginning, Milo reveals that one of the runes in a Viking description of Atlantis’ location was mistranslated, and after changing one of the letters, COAST OF IRELAND becomes COAST OF ICELAND. This is stupid for so many reasons.

* Kida is the only Disney Princess to officially become a Disney Queen. Maybe that’s why she doesn’t get any merchandise.

"One side, Milo! I'll make short work of that robot lobster!"

* An early scene is set at the mansion of eccentric retired explorer Preston Whitmore. He has a fish tank full of coelacanths, which were thought to be millions of years extinct at the time, which indicates that he was a damn good explorer, and ties in thematically nicely. I do think, however, that it seems like a lot of effort to go to for something that will only be noticed by nerds like me that watch movies and go “Ooh! Coelacanths!”

Look, I don't care, I'm just going to keep posting Aquaman pictures.

* The film was a modest hit, but came out the same year as Shrek and Monsters Inc., avatars of The CGI Menace, and they wiped the floor with it. Disney did have one far more profitable 2D animated movie that year, namely “Recess: School’s Out”, which I really like. It was made by Disney’s B-list studio, Movietoons. The upshot is that Atlantis cost 100 million, looked great, and made 150 million. Recess cost 10 million, looked lousy, and made 44 million. So, you know, percentages.

"What manner of devilry is this?! We're not a bunch of tattooed illiterates! DAMN YOU, DISNEY!"

1 comment:

  1. "Kida is the only Disney princess to become a Disney Queen."