Film Review: “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” (2001)

Title: Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) IMDb
Company: Disney Animation
Directors: Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise
Voice Actors: Michael J. Fox (Milo), James Garner (Rourke), Cree Summer (Kida), Leonard Nimoy (the King of Atlantis)
Score Composer: James Newton Howard
Length: 95 minutes
Rating (US): “Rated PG for action violence.”
Spoiler-free Synopsis: “A young adventurer named Milo Thatch joins an intrepid group of explorers to find the mysterious lost continent of Atlantis.” (IMDb)
Reason for Watching: Vaguely I remembered seeing it when it came out, and thinking it mediocre. Since then I’ve heard the soundtrack and loved it, being as it is by James Newton Howard, and wanted to give the rest of the movie another chance.
Movie Re-watchability: While not among the great Disney classics, this is still a movie I would readily watch again, primarily for the beauty and energy of the animation itself.
Director Re-watchability: Trousdale and Wise also directed Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, which is among the great Disney classics. My guess is, these guys are re-watchable.
Recommendation: If you’ve the slightest interest, it is worth a watch. It won’t emotionally affect you, or leave you with deep thoughts to think afterward, but it does an excellent job of entertaining.

Key Thoughts

It’s refreshing to watch a movie with a lean hour-and-a-half run time. While I have a soft spot for true epics—like Spartacus, Lawrence of Arabia, Gandhi, The Lord of the Rings—today’s casual movies have grown bloated and overlong, often taking two-and-a-half hours to tell a ninety minute story. Atlantis: The Lost Empire does not overstay its welcome; rather, it takes you on a quick and bumpy adventure where the sights and thrills are delivered with polish and professionalism. If the plot has gaping holes (which it does), and the story lacks depth (ditto), we forgive them because the animation is beautiful and energetic and the characters are fun.

Princess Kida: You are a scholar, are you not? Judging from your diminished physique and large forehead, you are suited for nothing else!

Of course, she's a few thousand years old, but is that really relevant?

Milo Thatch is the perfect Hollywood hero-nerd: conventionally slender and handsome, wears glasses, is an absent-minded but otherwise brilliant professor (in all but title), smiles a lot and sometimes goofily, is clumsy in a manner both endearing and startlingly destructive, likes to ramble quickly about arcane matters which bore everyone else to tears, and in the end gets the exotically gorgeous magical princess. And has the minor triumph of discovering a lost magical civilization, thus justifying all his years of esoteric research and theories.

Gosh, I’m so close to being him, so close. I just need some good looks, a princess, and success!

Milo: Will you look at the size of this? It’s gotta be half a mile high, at least. It-It must have taken hundred- No, thousands of years to carve this thing.
[Vinny sets off the TNT at the pillar’s base, and it falls down over a chasm]
Vinny: Hey, look, I made a bridge. It only took me like, what? Ten seconds? Eleven, tops.

What enlivens the movie apart from its fast pace are the sharply-drawn cast and their snappy dialogue. Everyone’s role is predictable and clichéd, but I smiled at the artifices and relaxed because the protagonists are so likable and the villains appropriately charismatic. The voice-actors are all well cast, and even the celebrities like Michael J. Fox and Leonard Nimoy add to their characters rather than distract from them. Vinny Santorini, the demolitions expert voiced by Don Novello, is my favorite, with the quip above, and this one after seeing the Atlantean flying vehicles that are designed like fish: “You got something sporty? You know, like a tuna?” Everyone gets some fun dialogue. It’s not Joss Whedon (or maybe it is, since he is one of seven credited writers), but it’s a bit more innovative and energetic than your standard Hollywood fare, or even your standard animated fare.

I like the whole design aesthetic, too. The movie is set in 1914, and features a truly nifty Jules Verne-inspired submarine. The scale of the underwater scenes is impressive, with massive sea creatures (actually magic robots built by the Atlanteans) guarding the abyssal caverns that lead circuitously to the hidden city. Our heroes move through these awesome locales by a series of dangerous events and little time for rest or reflection. It’s pure pulp adventure, and lots of fun.

Amateur musician and music-lover that I am, I must always mention the music as well. James Newton Howard is one of my favorite composers, specializing in themes that are elegantly magical. His work here complements the artwork very well, adding the extra layer of depth and mystical atmosphere that the movie’s fast pace sometimes works against. Listen to “The Secret Swim” and the action-packed “Leviathan.”

Princess Kida: We are not thriving. True, our people live, but our culture is dying. We are like a stone the ocean beats against. With each passing year a little more of us is worn away.

My main complaint boils down to the fact that Atlantis: The Lost Empire features too little of Atlantis itself. The only scenes that take place in the city proper are in the King’s courtyard or a place or two at its outskirts. I wanted to explore the island, its culture, and the ways the Atlanteans have survived the millennia. Exciting glimpses are given to us by the design team: a towering central mountain ringed with Mayincatec-style buildings, lush terraces, and stone vehicles that fly by magic. But the plot itself is all about explorers and their loyalties/greed/self-respect, and has little to do with Atlantis or its wonders. Relatively few of the legendary people are actually seen, despite our heroes frequently walking through the bustling city’s center, and none beyond Princess Kida and the King have any dialogue or personality. To be fair, it makes sense that Atlantis would have a small population; we are told that they have lifespans of hundreds of years, and with only one underwater island on which to live probably do not reproduce much (although some children are seen). Still, Atlantis is all artwork and no personality.

After all, at one time the built robots like this.

Some other elements annoyed me. For instance, the mercenaries take over Atlantis far too easily. The Atlanteans are shown with some weapons, and Kida clearly has lightning quick reflexes and a willingness to kill; after the mercenaries reveal their violent purpose, she jumps on one of them and whips out a knife, and is only prevented from slitting his throat by Commander Rourke shooting the knife out of her hand. And yet the mercenaries are able to walk through Atlantis with guns displayed, the princess captive, with apparently no one noticing until they get to the king’s dais. I’d expect Atlantis to have an army. An army with flying vehicles. Kida couldn’t get her vehicle to work because she misunderstood one little part of the instructions. Ergo, the flying vehicles are not disabled, and Atlantis likely has a defense army that can use them. So where are they?

Seek, and ye shall find the Big A.

Also, no good reason is given for why the Atlanteans themselves have not found the Heart which powers them. Rourke finds it so easily: in the pond before the king’s throne is a symbol, and if you stand in the center of the symbol, the ground lowers like an elevator to take you to the floating Heart of Atlantis. Are we to believe that in ten thousand years no Atlantean ever stood on that spot, even by accident? And how could they forget such an important detail of their city’s livelihood? Must they be that dumb? And speaking of that, why is it so easy to get to after all? It’s barely hidden at all.


But these complaints are ultimately inconsequential, belonging as they do to some other, more serious, movie in my imagination. True, I may have preferred a more deeply mythical atmosphere, like Hayao Miyazaki might have given it, to the slapstick gags that the Disney company loves so much. But that’s not what the filmmakers chose to make. Instead, Atlantis: The Lost Empire is a fast-paced kids’ adventure with beautiful animation and a happy helping of wit and personality.

Movie Review: “Peter Pan” (2003)

Movie Review: “Peter Pan” (2003)

Title: Peter Pan (2003) IMDb
Director: P.J. Hogan (based on the play by J.M. Barrie)
Lead Actors: Jeremy Sumter (Peter Pan), Rachel Hurd-Wood (Wendy), Jason Isaacs (Mr. Darling/Hook), Richard Briers (Smee), Ludivine Sagnier (Tinkerbell)
Score Composer: James Newton Howard
Length: 113 minutes
MPAA Rating: “Rated PG for adventure action sequences and peril.”
Spoiler-free Synopsis: Fun and emotional adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s famous play, wherein the three Darling children get whisked off to Neverland to have adventures with Peter Pan, the magical boy who never grows up.
Reason for Beginning: Peter Pan has been one of my favorite stories since childhood, on a level with Robin Hood and King Arthur.
Reason for Finishing: It engaged me exactly the way the story is supposed to. It’s also a surprisingly effective tearjerker.
Movie Rewatchability: Higher than I initially thought. A day after watching it for this review, I found myself bored and decided to watch the movie again. I enjoyed it every bit as much as before, and would eagerly watch it again.
Director Rewatchability: Hard to say, since no story is quite like Peter Pan, but I like his directing style. He doesn’t try to impose upon this very traditional British fairy tale an inappropriately modern sensibility, in theme or in style.
Recommendation: If you like the story of Peter Pan or have any interest in modern fairy tales, you will find this movie interesting and highly enjoyable. If you are a romantic at heart, this movie will satisfy. In fact, I think it may be the best screen adaptation of Barrie’s story yet, at the very least on par with Disney’s excellent version. I say this having seen the original stage play, though without having read Barrie’s book based on it.

Key Thoughts

The difficulty with any adaptation of this story is simply how well-known it is. There are no surprises in the plot or characters. The story was old when Disney animated it, and many generations have now grown up with that one as the definitive version. (Some people have expressed a strange fondness for the 1960 TV movie starring Mary Martin, a fondness which I do not share.) And then came Steven Spielberg’s Hook (1991), which tried to be both a sequel and a reimagining of the classic story. Despite the number of faults and miscalculations in Hook, we must credit Spielberg with really trying something new and original with the old story. It has its own charm, its own magic, and has claimed a special place in my heart. But to the point: did we really need another version of Peter Pan for the modern era, especially one that plays the story so straightforward and traditionally?

This beautiful picture needs no caption.

I think we did. For one thing, the wonderful boy is finally played by, of all things, a young boy! While Disney’s Pan was voiced by 16 year-old Bobby Driscoll, I think this is the first live-action movie to feature him played by an actor of the correct age and sex. Without this, the story’s themes of youth and not wanting to grow up wouldn’t work nearly as well. Also, while I certainly don’t think a fantasy movie needs great special effects to be successful, this one really benefits from art direction that takes good advantage of the technical wizardly available in 2003. And lastly, what really makes this version unique is how it addresses some of the more sophisticated and serious themes inherent in Barrie’s story. This movie is actually about something.

Smee: Captain, the ice is melting, the sun is out, and the flowers are all in bloom…
Captain Hook: He’s back.

What sort of boy is Peter Pan? The kind whose coming causes winter to flee and flowers to spring into bloom, whose sorrow causes the clouds to curl and the seas to wail, and whose sheer joy causes the sun to rise after a long night. I found it interesting that, in this very English story, Pan is played by an American, Jeremy Sumter. Some British viewers might not like this, perhaps, but I think it serves to subtly set him apart from the other children. Sumter’s more American acting style helps with this as well, being sharper, wilder, and maybe a little more tempestuous than the more gentler British style of his costars. Now, I’m using the terms “American” and “British” very loosely here, and very subjectively – I’m not a student of acting styles and can only go off my gut instinct here. But I like Sumter’s portrayal. He can crow in joy (so that verb really feels apt), wail in despair, and steel himself in heartbreak, and we believe it. He’s easily offended, but quickly forgives. Death holds no horrors for him, but loneliness is unbearable. He knows endless ways to fight and escape the pirates, but can’t acknowledge his own emotions, which are begging him to let them grow into maturity, to usher him into adulthood.

Peter: [forcefully] I want always to be a boy, and have fun.
Wendy: You say so, but I think it is your biggest pretend.

When speaking of bright and pretty actresses the term “luminous” is probably far overused to the point of cliché, and yet I find it really does describe Rachel Hurd-Wood’s performance as Wendy. She simply lights up the screen whenever she’s on it. Another reviewer’s cliché, I know, I’m sorry. But how else to say it? Her smile makes you smile. Her disappointment makes you want to immediately stand up and fix whatever is wrong. Peter Pan is the blood racing through this story’s veins, and Wendy is the pounding heart. She is entranced by Pan, but we also see her realizing his immaturity and longing for him to be able to grow up, even a little bit, so they can be on the same level. While Wendy doesn’t initially want to grow up, she realizes that it’s the healthy thing to do, and that there are other, different joys to be had as an adult, even if she doesn’t fully understand what those are.

Their innocent romance is the center of this movie, as it hasn’t truly been in others. I like how the movie manages the theme of growing up through romance without letting the subject devolve into a discussion of sex. There’s a brief scene near the beginning which lightly acknowledges that some people might interpret the story with sex as a theme, but I think the point of that scene is to highlight how sex is actually irrelevant and inappropriate to the story at hand. It’s about the beginnings of romantic love, which is a completely different thing. The kiss is simply the most visible and intimate method by which that love is communicated innocently and chastely.

Kisses in this story possess great power, as Slightly says below, even when it is the thought of one more than the actuality that counts. Near the beginning, Mrs. Darling says that Mr. Darling will need her special kiss to have courage to face the bigwigs of the bank in light of his recent humiliation. Peter’s “kiss” (actually an acorn) on Wendy’s necklace saves her from Tootles’ arrow. Tigerlily’s long kiss of victory inspires John with superhuman strength to pull the lever and save the whole group. And finally, of course, Wendy’s kiss brings Peter back from despair and defeat, and makes him impervious to Hook’s threats and insults. Despite his denials, Peter really does have a “crush” on Wendy – it’s even revealed that of the stories she tells, the ones he likes best are the romances ending with a kiss. Because of the movie’s gentle treatment of all this, it ends up being quite romantic, while maintaining its innocence.

Hook: Come on, fly to the rescue! Then I’ll shoot you right through your noble intentions.

*sneer, smirk, gnash gnash*

But where would this story be without Captain Hook? One of the best villains in all children’s literature, he is played here by Jason Isaacs, who brings a similar teeth-gnashing menace and snobbery as he does in the Harry Potter movies, but with considerably more dark comedy. He’s really fantastic in the role, taking it seriously while playing it with gleefully psychotic villainy. He is truly fearsome, but also convinces as the essentially lonely and depressed character that Hook is. It’s a delicate balance, but one that Isaacs nails perfectly. When Hook finally douses himself in Tinkerbell’s fairy dust and begins to float into the air, he exults, “It’s Hook, he flies! And…he…likes it!” And later, thinking he has the victory, he gloats that Pan will die alone and unloved, and then pauses with a sad glint in his eye, whispering, “Just like me.” He’s younger and more physically aggressive than many other Hooks we’ve seen, which only serves to increase his menace. You know he can easily overpower Peter in a contest of simple brute force, and thus their duels are tense as Peter flies and flips impishly just out of reach of the pirate captain’s slashing blades.

Slightly: [examining the thimble Peter gave Wendy, thinking it was a “kiss.”] I remember kisses, let me see. Aye, that is a kiss. A powerful thing.

Mr. and Mrs. Darling face the bankers together.

Other side characters are well-represented here. Isaacs, as per tradition, plays Mr. Darling as well, and is awkwardly warm (rightly so) in the role of the timid banker who has sacrificed so much for his family. Olivia Williams glows as Mrs. Darling, who sympathizes with her children while trying to gently explain to them the depth and nature of their father’s love and courage. Smee is played by the twinkly-eyed Richard Briers, who in my mind will always be Tom Goode, and is appropriately cheerful and goofy, while viewing his evil captain with a simple-minded, but wry optimism. John and Michael are the little gentleman and cute kid respectively and effectively, and Tigerlily is a fun, wild creature with a charming crush on John. The Lost Boys are also well-cast. I admit, part of me has always wanted to be Peter Pan and live with the Lost Boys, flying over forests, living in a tree house, and fighting pirates. I like the innocence and open-heartedness of their brotherhood, and how in many ways they do display maturity that many adults lack. In an honorable and manly action, Tootles accepts responsibility for shooting Wendy out of the sky. Slightly is sort of Peter’s lieutenant, and has some of the best lines (as above). Importantly, they are believably innocent, rather than hip and cynical as in the movie Hook.

...and straight on 'til morning.

The art direction is quite beautiful, combining the effect of a lavish pop-up book with modern techniques. The children fly to Neverland through a space filled with planets that hang large and colorful like otherworldly balloons to the “second star to the right,” all setting a perfect fairy tale tone. London looks magnificent, as if taken from Dickens, cleaned up and polished to a warm glow, while Neverland itself blooms and boils with life. Action scenes have some cartoony physics in places that seem appropriate, and the camera maintains an appropriate distance from its subjects, without going too far for the epic look. Action is comprehensible and immediate both, as it should be!

All this is aided by James Newton Howard’s score, which practically leaps from the screen and throws you into flight with the characters. It is full of equal parts joy and magic, gentility and robustness. Dancing and fairy-like, if you will. You can listen to some of it here.

On a more academic level, I think the story of Peter Pan is a true fairy story, in the Tolkien and George MacDonald sense. For all the fun and jokes and whimsy, the magic itself is taken absolutely seriously. Physical laws are turned upside down, but moral laws are upheld. Neverland is an escape from the real world that, properly experienced, prepares one to return and face the real world with renewed vigor, wisdom, and clarity. As MacDonald advised, the story does not “give” me these things to think about, it does not hammer them into me, but rather it causes me to think them for myself.

I am sure I am not the only one who, as a boy, longed to be Peter Pan and live forever in Neverland. I still want to fly like him. There is always a tragic, melancholic tint to the end of his story. By refusing to leave Neverland and grow up, he denies himself true love and the true potential which he has. I do not think Neverland would be the last magical world Peter would find, if he had the courage to leave it. As an adult, there are plenty of wonders to discover and exult in, if one looks with the right eye and mindset. As the Professor himself said,

Children are meant to grow up, and not to become Peter Pans. Not to lose innocence and wonder, but to proceed on the appointed journey: that journey upon which it is certainly not better to travel hopefully than to arrive, though we must travel hopefully if we are to arrive. But it is one of the lessons of fairy-stories (if we can speak of the lessons of things that do not lecture) that on callow, lumpish, and selfish youth peril, sorrow, and the shadow of death can bestow dignity, and even sometimes wisdom. (Tolkien 15)

Tolkien, J.R.R., “On Fairy Stories”
Most screencaps from MovieScreenshots