Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Buried Treasures

After the end of the Disney Renaissance, the then-troubled animation studio released two animated features that are similar in many ways: Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet...

Both films were a break away from the Disney formula that had dominated the films the studio released in the 1990s during the much-heralded "Renaissance". However, both of them didn't turn out to be as successful as the studio had hoped. Audiences were tired of the formula, yet one would think these kinds of films would introduce audiences to a different side of Disney, a different direction. The perception is that both of these films bombed at the box office. Critical reception on the other hand was different. Atlantis: The Lost Empire received mixed reviews, whereas Treasure Planet got more positive reception while still not getting unanimous praise. Ask your friends if they have seen them, chances are they’ll just say no or... They’ve never heard of them or don't remember...

There are plenty of Disney animated films that you could call overlooked or underrated. Some say the films released in the 1970s and early 1980s need more attention. Others point to post-Lion King films like The Hunchback of Notre Dame, given hogwash generalizations like "Disney hasn't made a great film since The Lion King..." Atlantis and Treasure Planet, however, are two films that show us the ambitious core of Disney, the story team and animators who wanted to make something that only the animation medium could do...


Atlantis: The Lost Empire is a film that’s riddled with story problems and it ultimately shows that the executives had their way with this, as they had had their way with the animated films prior to this. An excellent cast of characters keeps everything afloat, despite the muddled story. The lead is instantly likable, the passionate Milo J. Thatch, who is voiced perfectly by an exuberant Michael J. Fox. A worker in the Smithsonian’s boiler room, he dreams of finding the lost civilization of Atlantis, but everyone he knows writes it off as a myth. His boss, Fenton Q. Harcourt, tries to convince him not to throw away his job chasing silly dreams.

All of a sudden, he’s whisked into a team of explorers from around the world thanks to the eccentric millionaire, Preston B. Whitmore. Whitmore was close friends with Milo’s father Thaddeus, who was also searching for Atlantis. Whitmore gives Thatch the Shepherd’s Journal, the book which could help him. He gets to meet the explorers on the voyage to Atlantis, all of which is told very briskly without ever plodding. It gets off to an incredibly quick start, even the animation and the editing more than show that.

The different explorers accompanying Milo on the journey are all very unique and most of them are hilarious, such as the fast-talking Dr. Joshua Sweet and the absent-minded former wagon train chef, Jebidiah A. Farnsworth, whose nicknamed “Cookie”. There’s also the feisty Puerto Rican mechanic, Audrey Ramirez, who is one of the few that vocally doesn’t take a liking to Milo at first. One of the funniest characters in the group is explosives the Italian expert Vincenzo “Vinny” Santorini, but then there’s the French geologist, Gaeten “Mole” Moliere. He comes off as this very weird character who is obsessed with dirt and fears being clean. However, the writers restrict the character to toilet jokes and they don’t do much with him, thus he pops in and out like an annoying comic relief character. Commander Lyle T. Rourke leads the expedition alongside his second-in-command Helga Sinclair, who is the first of the crew which Milo meets early on in the film.

Their journey to find Atlantis pits them against several perils, the first of which is an encounter with a seemingly mechanic lobster-like monster called the Leviathan. Atlantis: The Lost Empire immediately begins to take off after we are quickly introduced to the characters, as the film doesn’t want to make audiences wait. Well-edited, exciting as all hell and loud, it’s proof that Disney animation can definitely pull off explosive spectacle and rival action-packed summer blockbusters. That’s the only big action set-piece we get until the film’s climactic battle, and once the team gets to the city, the story begins to fall apart.

With these great characters and a strong first act, you’d think the story would only get better. Once they get to Atlantis, we are introduced to the Atlanteans and Princess Kida. Unfortunately, the Atlanteans aren’t very interesting characters and there isn’t much chemistry between Milo and Kida, though the writers try with their might since this film isn’t attempting to be a love story. Then why have a relationship like this in the first place? All it does is waste time, and it never pays off at the end. In fact, the film doesn’t really tells us enough about the Atlantean’s culture and why their misuse of technology sealed their fate, only the first two minutes imply this. Also, why do the Atlanteans not know how to use the power crystals? They’ve been there for how long, and yet someone from above figures it out for all of them?

Some of the writing is very contrived in the second act of the film, which ultimately feels like a setup for the second and final action set-piece, the film’s climactic aerial battle inside a volcano. Rourke and Helga turn out to be mercenaries who are just after riches, and sadly enough, Rourke is not a very convincing antagonist. James Garner’s voice work is excellent, but the character is your typical greedy head honcho who is going for the gold no matter what. It was already unsuccessfully done in Pocahontas, so here it doesn’t work. The villain has undefined motivations, he’s just a greedy man. That’s all.

Give most of the flamboyant and rather generic villains from the 1990s films credit, they at least had some form of motivation. Rourke on the other hand, not so much. He’s a stock antagonist, just looking for riches. The final battle is certainly exciting and intense, but with all of the meatless bones of the second act that came before it, the action scene is ultimately half-hearted. We root for the crew, but the Atlanteans, they just seem like extra help but without any defined personalities. Fortunately, the action scene doesn’t pull any punches. The body count is high, there’s explosions everywhere and Rourke dies a pretty painful death, though we don't see what happens to Helga, we are only told that. Nice move, Disney. They're okay with clearly showing a crystallized man getting chopped up, but they can't show debris falling on someone? Come on...

Atlantis: The Lost Empire really can’t find a direction to go. Early on, its a character-driven film with an action-packed plot. Later on, it’s all about a culture that we don’t really get to know much of, along with a forced romance story. The third act is just pulse-pounding action and a conclusion that feels like an afterthought. The screenplay on the other hand is a bit better, holding everything together like glue as much as it can given the great characters. Early on in production, the film was going to be different. While the writers didn't have a third act before this story was retooled, executives balked at the lengthy project. The second act was loaded with monster battles, but the entire trip to Atlantis is condensed to a few montage scenes of the convoy and the campfire scene. Perhaps if the crew had more time to solve the problems, Atlantis could've had a much stronger story. Disney films had to be completed by a specific release date. If you missed that date, you were in trouble. (See Kingdom of the Sun)

What makes Atlantis: The Lost Empire stick out from most of the Disney films is not that it is an action film as opposed to being a fairy tale or love story, but it also looks much different. The animators and artists were heavily influenced by the artwork of Mike Mignola, and thus the film has a very comic book-like look to with its heavily stylized explosions, art direction and character designs. It certainly didn’t look like a Disney animated film at the time. At the same time, it doesn’t feel like a Disney, not because of the look or the feel. It’s because the film truly lacks heart, or some form of pull. There is some to be found in the film’s first act, particularly with Milo hoping to fulfill his dream. It’s all overshadowed by the second and third acts. When a film can’t decide on what it’s going to be, then you have a big problem.

That said, Atlantis: The Lost Empire is not a big mishap. To its credit, it is very risky. It is a lot more violent than most Disney animated films (it earned a PG), there’s some edgy humor in it that works for the most part, and the film does boast some pretty epic visuals. The characters are wonderful for the most part, but the very flimsy story takes everything into a nose-dive.

Ron Clements and John Musker's Treasure Planet, much like Altantis, is Disney attempting to do something more action-oriented. It has a sci-fi flavored story, lots of action, it aims for the PG rating and it has some incredible visuals. By contrast, it has a much more consistent and defined story, and a believable emotional core. Young Jim Hawkins, despite being a mopey delinquent, is a rather torn character who has daddy issues. Jim Hawkins bonds with John Silver, the rather sketchy cook of the ship that is going to find the much sought-after planet, the RLS Legacy (named after the author of Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson).

At the same time, John Silver is built up as the film’s antagonist, but he has his own battle as he really takes a liking to Jim. Jim is interested in getting to Treasure Planet because he ultimately wants to help his mother, finally trying to make things right by actually putting his life at risk. Joining him is Dr. Delbert Doppler, one of the film’s best characters and one that carefully weaves comic relief into the action epic with fun one liners. Captain Amelia serves as the sly, in control commander of the ship but she’s a rather distant character.

The rest of the cast just isn’t all that much to write home about. Some of John Silver’s baddies (with the exception of the creepy and menacing Scroop) are visually interesting, but there’s not much else to them. B.E.N. is introduced in the later half of the film, a rather loopy robot who is missing his memory piece. This sounds like a potentially interesting character, but everything’s wasted on forced comic relief, as if Doppler wasn’t enough to provide some. Again, the executives are making sure the film panders to children. Another comic relief character, the gelatinous Morph, is also shoe-horned into the story though his playfully mischievous personality does make for some interesting mix ups halfway through the film. Everyone else is just decoration, it’s really the two leads that shine here.

Treasure Planet’s dialogue is either well-written or annoying, with a lot of comic relief that backfires. Most of the time it's just downright awkward. Some of the more “adult” jokes are particularly funny, though there are moments where a simple dialogue scene is just pulled off in such a strange way. It’s a bit of a mess. Unlike Atlantis, there is heart to most of the story and screenplay. The “I’m Still Here” scene is close to being a tearjerker, as it does a fine job establishing why Jim is so angst-ridden.

With its fairly engaging story, Treasure Planet mostly succeeds in the visual department. The look of this film screams “creative”. Taking the story of Treasure Island and setting it in outer space may seem imaginative on paper, but in the film, it’s amazing. The designs of the different planets, the look of the creatures and how everything is done in a steampunk way is just fascinating. Visually, this is one of Disney’s best animated films. It takes an old world look and keeps true to the era Treasure Island was written while making it appear futuristic. It’s an appropriate mix, and one that is loaded with visual imagination at every pore. While some the use of computer animation doesn’t mesh well in some sequence (the floating space whales, for example), the film is still a feast for the eyes.

In the end, Treasure Planet is ultimately superior to Atlantis: The Lost Empire. Both films go against the 1990s Disney grain by trying on the action belt and ditching the musical/big epic story/romance routine. Treasure Planet tries on a much more emotional, character-driven story despite the fact that some of the characters may not be the strongest. Atlantis: The Lost Empire has great ideas early on, but it doesn’t know where to go once it reaches the title city, throwing us around with a bunch of ideas that never reaches a satisfying conclusion. Atlantis on the other hand doesn’t look like a Disney film all that much, whereas Treasure Planet sticks more to the classic Disney character route while taking liberties with it.

Both films proved that the folks at Walt Disney Feature Animation were willing to take risks, even if it meant trouble for the suits. Both films try their might to be fresh and new, with one partially succeeding while the other one is shackled with enormous setbacks. Box office grosses aside (why box office grosses spell bad reputations for a good film is beyond me), these two films shouldn't be forgotten. Sure they have problems and aren't anything near masterpiece-status, but they deserve more.

Atlantis: The Lost Empire - C+
Treasure Planet - B-

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