When you were a kid, what did you like about Disney animated movies?

Me, I didn’t care whether or not the animation was photo-realistic, nor did I care much about whether or not the voices were provided by celebrities. I was interested in the imagination of the drawings, and whether or not the voices gave the characters memorable personality. I liked the exaggerated maniacal zaniness of the villains and the stalwart but small heroes with all of their idiosyncrasies. Songs? They weren’t essential, but I appreciated them when they suited their environments, like The Jungle Book’s unforgettable sing-alongs replete with bongos and jungle horns. Frankly, I didn’t mind when the movie focused more on story and less on songs, as in The Rescuers, a film that deserves more respect than it’s received.

But most of all, I liked the stories. They were full of surprises worth reliving over and over again, like the importance of the smallest character in moments of crisis (Evinrude in The Rescuers, Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day, and the dogs of the Midnight Bark in 101 Dalmatians… the original, mind you.) I liked that there was no such thing as a supporting character, really. Everybody would play an important role.

Disney these days… well, if you’ve read my reviews before you know I lament the increasing lack of real “magic” in Disney animated features. There is now too much focus on marketable aspects, like pop song-laden soundtracks and an abundance of furry secondary characters who do little more than sell toys. The stories have become far too predictable, the heroines and heroes far too generic in their appearance, and the villains too mundanely sinister. The voices? They’re just a chance to put an attractive superstar’s name on the poster.

Last year, there was reason to rejoice. The Emperor’s New Groove put away the self-importance that had plagued The Lion King and Pocahontas and just went for broke… having a world of fun that might have been enough to lure Bugs Bunny out of retirement and back to his old tricks. Disney seemed to forget their recent compulsion to show off with technological breakthroughs, letting the animators strive for imaginative playfulness instead of pushing them to make everything look three-dimensional and gaudy. And the most memorable and important character in the film might have been the villain’s sinewy sidekick Kronk.

And this year? Well… there are some more reasons to rejoice, most of them regarding animation. Atlantis: The Lost Empire is a visually enthralling catastrophe of storytelling. But the central characters are less interesting than New Groove‘s supporting cast. And there were more laughs in five minutes of Groove than in Atlantis‘ s entirety. With plenty of energetic animation, Disney seems to be trying to cram the lunacy of Groove into the sprawling panoramic splendor of The Lion King, and it just doesn’t work. The contrasts between the character designs and their environments are a distracting dissonance. And the story is so full of things that make no sense, I had no emotional investment in the film’s finale at all. Shoot, even in the zaniness of New Groove I felt a tug or two on the ol’ heartstrings, but not here.

The problem with Atlantis is that all of this breathtaking animation… and the first 45 minutes are indeed truly gorgeous to behold… is in service of a story that doesn’t hold enough water to drown a housefly much less a civilization.

Atlantis: What Sinks…

It’s no secret that the storytellers lead us to the discovery of Atlantis. That happens fairly quickly.

When our heroes get there, a villain emerges who wants to ruin this civilization which has existed undersea for thousands of years. The villain wants to do so by removing the Atlanteans’ magic crystal. So explain this:  If this entire culture practically worships the god-like powers of the crystals, and if it has defended them and healed them and helped them for ages, how can a bad guy just come along and snatch it?

Also, in the opening scene which portrays the downfall of Atlantis, we see a woman “give herself up” to the crystal. We are told she was “taken up” and that she bonded with the crystal too long and never returned. I kept waiting for a hint that this “sacrifice” somehow saved the people. But it never comes. Later, when another character is “taken up,” she returns and there’s no explanation as to why, or to what exactly happened while she was there. If she was trying to “help” the crystal, she didn’t… she only made it more accessible to the villains.

Somebody please explain these things to me.

The movie moves so fast, is so busy with characters, so crowded with lame jokes, that it never has the time to develop interesting relationships. One fireside scene gives us a small window into each character, but one small window is not enough to make us care about them through what ensues.

Worse, the movie asks us to accept a catastrophe halfway through in which we are told hundreds of people die.  That’s right. In a Disney animated movie, hundreds of people die. There is a brief moment of silence, but by the end of the film their sacrifice is forgotten and there isn’t a single tear in a single animated eye. Huh?

The most potential lies in the relationship between Thatch (the linguist hero who is the brains behind the expedition) and the mechanic, a Hispanic woman who shows ten times more zest and appeal than the purely centerfoldish appeal of the mystical Kida, who quickly distracts Thatch once they reach Atlantis.  It’s clear from the moment Kida enters that character doesn’t matter to Thatch; he’d rather follow this super-babe, despite the fact that she’s eight thousand years old.

Sure, sure, the kids in the audience might get restless if time was taken for a real relationship. But why, then, must we waste valuable time on a long and completely unamusing joke… all over Kida’s confusion with the names of the expedition party?  (Frankly, I never figured out all their names myself.) How, I ask you, could this script go through the hands of seven…that’s right, seven…writers and be this flat and forgettable?

In the end, the heroes are on a quest to recover the crystal from a bad guy who basically throws this god-like power into the back of his truck! Me, I’d say that a culture who turns to the crystal the way others turn to God might want to stop and consider: Is this crystal really worthy of worship? It’s a rock… a natural resource, really. It’s something the people of Atlantis can use and control. It is, basically, assuring them that they are in control of their lives and their destiny, and that beyond themselves and their responsible use of it there is no higher power.

Yes, we do need to be respectful of and responsible with our natural resources. But I haven’t seen much evidence that we will do so, the way they’re drying up around here. So we had better hope there is a power higher than stones and minerals to which we can appeal for help. Otherwise, we’re doomed.

So, without any truly memorable characters, with a villain as dull and predictable and forgettable as the bad guy in Tarzan, and with a magical life-sustaining force that needs rescuing the moment somebody grabs it… well, the big explosive finale that Roger Ebert called one of animation’s greatest achievements is, really, just impressive eye candy.

On the other hand…

The action scenes are spectacularly choreographed, ablaze with color and light, with echoes of Return of the Jedi‘s famous dogfight finale and more than one reference to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. One underwater escape from a monster seems to exist entirely to show how much better The Phantom Menace‘s underwater chase could have been.

The voices are perfectly chosen to fit the characters. Michael J. Fox is a natural as the goofy, nerdish Thatch. And James Garner is an inspired choice to play the strongarm of the expedition. (Too bad the character wasn’t anything more than a cookie-cutter tough guy.) Best of all is Leonard Nimoy, recognizable even though his voice has become as cracked, gravelly, and cavernous as the undersea tunnels that lead to Atlantis. Get this guy a lozenge!

The influence of comic book artist Mike Mingola is a definite plus.  Some of the characters, especially the tall tough-talking blonde on the expedition team, exhibit some fascinating and complicated facial expressions that just don’t look like anything Disney’s offered before. While they seem to exist in a nicely drawn Saturday morning cartoon or comic book, their environment looks as 3-D as a virtual reality computer game… equally impressive if sorely incongruous.

But the movie owes far more to the brilliant artwork of Hayao Miyazaki’s brilliant animated epic Princess Mononoke.  When the Atlanteans make their first appearance, they’re wearing masks that look like they were stolen from an imaginary movie set where Mononoke was being “filmed.” And the lush environments, so alive with wind and birds, are enough to have me planning my next vacation to Atlantis.

I’d just prefer to travel with characters from The Emperor’s New Groove.