It's a great relief to discover that "Atlantis: The Lost Empire," the latest animated offering from the Mouse House, isn't one of those all-singing, all-dancing affairs featuring cloyingly sweet songs with didactic messages about the joys of diversity and tolerance. One simply wearies of the irrepressible, rather mindless exuberance of such efforts, regardless of the admittedly high level of craftsmanship involved in the productions.
The shock about this mildly entertaining retelling of the ancient legend, however, results from the visuals, a pastiche of styles heavily influenced by comic-book artist Mike Mignola, one of the film's production designers. The lines used to draw the faces and bodies of these creations, primarily human, are incorporated into a mix of low-tech and digital artwork that comes off as decidedly retro. With the exception of a few sequences involving explosions and celestial transformations, "Atlantis" has an old-fashioned look. It's an odd strategy, particularly in the wake of stunning animation achievements such as the recent Shrek, still the summer's animated release to beat.
The plot, too, echoing with allusions to Disney's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," "Voyage to the Center of the Earth" and even H.G. Wells, might have been lifted from a Boy's Life magazine of a generation ago. The setting is 1918, and nerdy, bespectacled language expert Milo Thatch (Michael J. Fox), temporarily consigned to the boiler room of a museum, is attempting to convince his fuddy-duddy superiors of the veracity of the Atlantis myth. Milo, brainy and high-strung, has a passion for the subject -- the supposed existence of a continent and advanced civilization lost in the sea -- that was handed down to him by his late grandfather, a failed explorer.
The scientific establishment, it seems, would prefer that Milo simply go away. But the intrepid scientist forges ahead and finds his enthusiasm rewarded with the funding support of the wildly wealthy Preston B. Whitmore (John Mahoney), who offers a guide to finding Atlantis, which is easily translated by Milo, the world's sole interpreter of the Atlantean language. The old man also offers the young scholar a berth on a 1,000-foot hardy, high-tech vessel built to take travelers to the bottom of the sea.
Commander Rourke (James Garner), a tough type-A guy, is in charge of the motley crew, a diverse mix of characters nevertheless streaked with stereotypes -- not exactly the effect intended by Disney. There's Rourke's right-hand woman Helga (Claudia Christian), a sexy, icy Nordic type; Vinny (Don Novello in full Father Guido Sarducci mode), a dry-witted explosives expert; Audrey (Jacqueline Obradors), a cheeky teen-age Latin me-chanic; Mole (Corey Burton), the team's French-born digger and resident Peter Lorre imitator; beefy, kindly African-American medical officer Dr. Sweet (Phil Morris); and communications specialist Mrs. Packard (Florence Stanley), a wisecracking old crone. Call it the "Dirty Dozen," now coed and minus a few.
It's a thing of beauty, watching the purple-hulled craft, its portals glowing orange, descend into the deep blue sea. That tranquility is short-lived, though, as the craft does battle with a giant sea critter, and its crew members make their escape, eventually stumbling onto the mythic Atlantis, a land of cascading waterfalls, mountains and beautifully decrepit stone structures.
The kingdom, isolated from the rest of the world for thousands of years, is ruled over by a wise king (Leonard Nimoy) and his beautiful daughter Princess Kida (Cree Summer), who seems to have walked out of the Atlantean version of "Baywatch." The good guys are separated from the bad guys soon enough, and the conclusion offers a fast-moving battle and enough New Age theology -- glowing crystals, supernatural transformations, communication with the dead -- to keep even Shirley MacLaine happy.