Disney's finally made a cartoon for grown-ups. What was wrong with the old ones they made for kids?

Published June 15, 2001 7:45PM (EDT)

Animated features used to be ostensibly for kids; adults would be the ones tagging along for the ride. And say what you want about movies made for kids: Done right, with fearlessness and imagination, they can be like gifts from heaven for bored adult moviegoers. Even more often than adults, kids know exactly what they like, and their bullshit detectors are much more finely attuned than we give them credit for. They're a tough audience to crack.

The big problem with Disney's latest animated feature, "Atlantis: The Lost Empire," is that it doesn't seem geared to kids at all: It's so adult that it's massively boring. Midway through I found myself longing for a dancing gargoyle, a singing candlestick, a piece of toast wearing a diaper, anything to crack the classy sophisto-sheen that coats every frame -- a little bit of tackiness would at least give "Atlantis" some life. Even its colors are largely undersea blues and grays and greens. It's so swaddled in its own good taste that it sinks itself.

I'm relieved I don't have to try to explain the plot of "Atlantis" to a 3-year-old. It's going to be hard enough to try to explain it to a bunch of adults, but here goes: Milo Thatch (Michael J. Fox), a lanky, mild-mannered genius at dead languages, longs to get museum funding to follow in the footsteps of his beloved explorer grandfather, who insisted that the long-submerged city of Atlantis could be found. What's more, this lost city once housed a mysterious power source that, if found, could be harnessed for the good of mankind -- or maybe it just glows a lot, but something like that.

Milo gets hooked up with eccentric explorer Preston B. Whitmore (John Mahoney), an old pal of grandpa's who persuades Milo to ditch the idea of getting museum funding and to head out on Whitmore's privately funded expedition. (It's made to seem like the equivalent of joining a dot-com upstart instead of a reputable investment-banking firm, Disney's feeble nod to the good old pioneer spirit.) The expedition crew, led by overly friendly meathead Commander Lyle T. Rourke (James Garner), is a ragtag (the word they used to use in the old days instead of "multi-culti") group of hands-on experts who don't take kindly to the bookish Milo at first: There's Latina cutie Audrey Ramirez (Jacqueline Obradors), who's a genius in the engine room; Cookie (whose voice is provided by the late Jim Varney), the Walter Brennan of undersea explorers, who delights in serving up bean-and-lard concoctions for the gang; Vinnie Santorini (Don Novello, who gets the biggest laughs of the movie), an explosives expert who's really just trying to get home to his village to open a flower shop; and Dr. Sweet (Phil Morris), a burly, chrome-domed physician of African-American and Native American extraction who's destined to become a gay icon -- he looks like a black Mr. Clean.

After a series of mishaps, the troop finally stumbled upon the lost city, whose inhabitants are now thousands of years old, thanks to that industrial-strength power source. They also meet Kida (Cree Summer), who, with her ice-white punkette hairdo and single earring, looks like a nostalgic '80s throwback; she has the slick, sexy-savage look of a Patrick Nagel drawing. Anyway, the power source apparently has more powers than the scriptwriters (Tab Murphy and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" creator Joss Whedon, from a story by Bryce Zabel and Jackie Zabel) can keep track of, because one minute it's mysteriously emanating from decorative crystals and the next it's locked up in a box from which it can't escape. Apparently, it's a persnickety kind of power source, perhaps best suited for tough stain removal or clearing clogged sinks.

Regardless, the plot twists wind around and around this nebulous glowing thingie until you have no idea what's happening. Kids don't care about plot or logic, you say? Maybe, in which case you can be the one to try to explain why Kida's mother disappears early in the movie, Bambi-style, apparently sucked up by this energy source, but other beings can be drawn into it and later returned to life on earth. It's magic, I guess -- a polite euphemism for lazy writing.

There are no songs in "Atlantis," save for one instantly forgettable load-of-hooey theme by James Newton Howard and Diane Warren. That's probably good news for most of us. But for a story that should be about the romance of the sea and evoking the secrets of a lost world, "Atlantis" feels numbingly pedestrian and workmanlike.

And then there are the characters. Michael J. Fox (who also spoke up for "Stuart Little") always makes for a great cartoon voice: He's expressive without being disingenuously winsome. But his knobby-kneed, bumbling character -- pleasant enough to watch while he's on the screen -- doesn't linger past the last frame. With the possible exception of Novello's Vinnie (think of Father Guido Sarducci with a toybox full of dynamite), the same goes for every other character in "Atlantis."

I'm rarely enchanted by contemporary Disney animation (it's "Snow White" and "101 Dalmatians" that rock my world), but I've always taken care not to trample on the potential pleasure of kids who make up the audiences for more recent Disney pictures: 2 million kindergarten pixies sporting "Little Mermaid" knapsacks can't be wrong -- and even if they are, I don't want to be the one to stand up to them.

But I just can't believe that "Atlantis" will enchant anyone. Kida lunchboxes may very well be surfacing soon. But I remember the old days, when I used to see her big sister hanging around in the pages of Playboy or lounging languidly on a Duran Duran album cover. She was tacky as hell, all airbrushed prestige, but she fooled you into thinking she was classy. Looks like the '80s are back in a big way.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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