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Atlantis: The Lost Empire
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I was hardly much of a big fan of the post-Little Mermaid, "Everything must be a big Broadway production" Disney, although several have made it onto my favorites list.  So even when Disney was already several years into running very dry, the presence of Atlantis: The Lost Empire was a bit of a shock and pleasant surprise for me, as here was the first Disney movie in the loooooooongest time that tried to emulate the straight forward classic style while still heading off in its own new direction.  I must admit that when Atlantis: The Lost Empire was nothing but a blip on the radar of preview sites, certain preconceptions ran through my head, and I reckon they ran through almost everybody's heads as well.  "It'll be dark and mature.  It'll be deep.  It'll be as complex as anime.  It'll be long.  Good people will die in this one."
When the movie came around, only one of these came true, which may have led to my initial disappointment with the film.  Unlike most people, though, I slowly came to the realization that many of the reasons this movie was so thoroughly trounced may not have entirely been its fault.  Instead of trying to be like anime, with its often broad and poetic strokes, Atlantis: The Lost Empire was more trying to be like a Jules Verne inspired, steam punk style, "blow em up good", graphic novel journey, with sharp jagged edges aplenty.  Unlike later Disney movies, though, where the writers think that the key to an adult's heart is modern hipness and video game "gee whiz", Atlantis: The Lost Empire simply IS adult.  It lets the movie and the characters do their own thing, and that's the end of that.  Unlike the other Disney movies with the rating, I feel that Atlantis: The Lost Empire is the only Disney movie to warrant its PG rating.  The Black Cauldron got a PG rating for being scary but really wasn't as bad as people said, and Lilo and Stitch got a PG rating merely for having comic mischief.  Other Disney movies have had their share of dark themes and scariness, but Atlantis: The Lost Empire really takes the cake.  It's loud, exciting, and extremely violent.  The tone of the film is set right from the very beginning where a completely still and silent ocean is ruined by a seriously huge nuclear scale blast.  One scene that particularly sticks out in my mind is the look of panic on a background character's face as his truck goes up in flames during one of the film's many exciting sequences.  While no blood is ever seen, the body count is certainly high in this film.
However, this high level adultness is not what carries the film.  After the standard and badly acted opening(who knew Leonard Nemoy could be even worse than William Shatner?), the film soon settles down and finds its place.  It's refreshing to note that while this movie is funny, precious few lame jokes and pop culture references appear. Instead, the dialogue is very wry and witty.  One of my favorite scenes involves a very worn out and wet Milo Thatch shuffling through his front door and calling for his kitty but instead discovering a sensuously dressed Helga, who comes complete with a sexy saxophone introduction.  One of the most natural scenes ever in a Disney movie merges into one so off the wall that it completely works.  And unlike many people, I found the characters of the movie easy to like.  Rourke is so John Wayne-ish, and even in his seriousness, he has to occasionally inject his own one-liners.  Even the other characters, even though they seem defined by stereotypes, still come off as well thought out and rise above their seeming cliches.  And yes, this movie has a good amount of heart and emotion to it.
So what went wrong?  First problem.  Atlantis: The Lost Empire was a journey movie.  About midway in, the film decides to become a series of "encounters" until the characters actually bump into Atlantis.  Second problem.  I got the sensation that Atlantis: The Lost Empire had too much backstory and wanted to do too many things that it couldn't stretch itself far enough.  And about 3/4ths in, the movie had no other way to resolve the conflict but to partially switch to "automatic" instead of thinking of more logical scenes.  Third problem.  People whine about how Disney never strays from their formula but really they aren't ready for a different kind of Disney and Disney really isn't ready to try to be anime.
But in reality, Atlantis: The Lost Empire is still an absorbing, beautiful, and underrated Disney movie.  The characters work.  The action sequences work.  The atmosphere works.  The plot works when it's not grinding gears.  And you have to give props to Disney for trying something this bold and for not giving us another "hip" movie.  Had this movie been two and a half hours long, it likely would've been the best Disney movie of all time.  Grade: A

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