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  • Noel Vera
    Fish out of water Noel Vera “Atlantis,” the latest offering by The Rat Factory (excuse me, by Disney Studios) is an old-fashioned, straightforward
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 5, 2001
      Fish out of water

      Noel Vera

      �Atlantis,� the latest offering by The Rat Factory (excuse me, by Disney
      Studios) is an old-fashioned, straightforward adventure, with nary a musical
      number or cute animal sidekick in sight. Not that Disney doesn�t want to do
      musical numbers, but their previous effort (�The Emperor�s New Groove�)
      bombed big-time, and their live action epic under Touchstone Pictures
      (�Pearl Harbor�) looks as if it�s barely going to earn back its $140
      million-plus cost. �Atlantis� is shaping up to be the Disney suits� Great
      White Hope--it has no ditties like �Emperor� (except for that murky theme
      song playing at the end credits), and it�s only 90 minutes long (unlike
      �Pearl Harbor,� which weighs in at twice that length). It�s old-fashioned
      enough and different enough that the suits at Disney probably hope (and
      sweat, and pray) audiences all over just might want to go to see it.

      Get ready to yell �Incoming!� a third time. �Atlantis� features stunningly
      smooth animation, an incredible palette of colors, and plenty of challenging
      water effects--water being the most difficult of all elements (back when
      animation was drawn, not digitized) to animate. Yet the film has a heart of
      stone. It unreels its handsomely designed narrative for ninety-five inert
      minutes while the audience just sat there, barely able to emit a chuckle,
      much less gasp of wonder.

      Oh, the film tries for warmth--tries real hard. It deliberately chooses for
      its setting the early part of the 20th century, and much of its design is
      based on the charming gas-flame, steam-engine technology of Jules Verne
      (perhaps slightly more advanced, in the �steampunk� manner). There�s a
      submarine that bears close resemblance to the submarine �Nautilus� from
      �20,000 Leagues under the Sea;� there�s also a giant drilling machine, left
      over from some cheesy Edgar Rice Burroughs movie starring Doug McClure.

      There is some attempt at characterization--the film�s first half is devoted
      to introducing a ragtag medley of characters, including an Italian
      demolition expert, a French excavator, a Hispanic engineer, a black medic (a
      first for Disney--which, this being the 21st century, isn�t saying much--),
      etc., etc�

      Not to mention that the lead character, Atlantean expert and linguist Milo
      Thatch, is voiced by the likeable Michael J. Fox while the more ambiguous
      Commander Rourke is played by the easygoing James Garner (my favorite,
      though, would be Florence Stanley as a wizened
      sonar-officer-slash-telephone-operator who keeps predicting their imminent

      All to no avail. The multicultural crew keeps the screen busy for a while,
      but eventually you realize they�re just there for color; none of them really
      figure in the film�s plot. All the Jules Verne gadgets would be impressive,
      even that escapee drill from �At the Earth�s Core,� if only the film would
      let the machines linger a little longer onscreen for us to gawk at. There
      are too many characters, too many oversized setpieces, too much gorgeous
      background animation; to use a really bizarre metaphor (just because I feel
      like it), it�s a toilet so badly clogged with images and ideas, nothing gets
      to sink in at all.

      Accusations have been made that �Atlantis� stole its images from Japanese
      anime, particularly �Nadia of the Blue Water� and Hayao Miyazaki�s �Laputa:
      Castle in the Sky.� The case for �Laputa� seems credible--like the film�s
      young boy hero Pazu, Milo is the son of a man who believed in a myth, and
      died without anyone else believing him; like the earlier film, �Atlantis�
      has its questing mercenaries, its young girl (Sheeta) with a magic necklace,
      its secret source of great power. Of course, many works of fantasy use
      these elements in one form or another--similarities are hardly proof of
      theft. Perhaps the one thing that can be truly said when comparing the two
      is this--�Laputa� does the far better job of taking those disparate elements
      and weaving them into a coherent story.

      It�s not just the length, though at 124 minutes �Laputa� is at least thirty
      minutes longer--Miyazaki uses the extra minutes to properly establish his
      characters, provide well-paced transitional scenes, give his narrative more
      room to �breathe.� It�s not just the fact that Miyazaki has the gifted Joe
      Hisaishi, who uses silences as eloquently as he does sound, while �Atlantis�
      has James Newton Howard�s heavily orchestrated music slathered over the
      images. The words �restrained� and �understated� come to mind when one
      thinks of �Laputa�s� quieter scenes--at Pazu�s house in the morning, say, or
      down in the mining caves--while I can�t think of a single scene in
      �Atlantis� that was quiet, much less understated.

      It�s not just those things (though �those� are plenty); it�s emotional
      believability, it�s careful accumulation of details so that the narrative
      payoffs that come later gain real resonance. Things like Pazu preparing a
      packed lunch for both him and Sheeta before they set out on their
      adventure--complete with an apple and two sweets--prepare you for the way
      the two children look out for each other, gradually care for each other. Or
      the way the pirates of the Dola Clan constantly depend on their commanding
      mother, so that when Mama Dola finally takes center stage she�s a fully
      realized comic creation--a woman with an outsized greed for gold, and a soft
      spot in her equally outsized heart made of the same noble material. By way
      of comparison, when in a crucial scene Rourke�s motley crew is faced with a
      moral dilemma concerning the Atlanteans, you don�t feel the desperation of
      their choice, mainly because they�ve only spent a day in the place, they
      hardly know the natives, and the natives aren�t that memorably sketched in
      the first place. When the climax finally arrives, it hardly feels worth
      watching--just another light-and-sound show, the kind that accompanies the
      opening of a restaurant or shopping mall.

      �Atlantis� is being admirably marketed--we�re sure to see Atlantean
      swimsuits and inflatable swimming pools before long--but it�s yet another
      media event drummed up by yet another multinational corporation for yet
      another segment of the targeted demographical market. For genuine
      enchantment from a genius storyteller, try Miyazaki�s �Laputa: Castle in the
      Sky�--one of the (for me anyway) greatest works of animated fantasy ever

      (Comments? Email me at noelbotevera@...)

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