This year marks the hundredth anniversary of the death of Ignatius Donnelly, the Populist congressman who single-handedly resurrected the Atlantis myth. Disney, intent on populism of a different sort, animates an archaeological-quest caper set in antediluvian 1914, but CinemaScope and a broad syllabus can’t convert this imperishable metaphor into acceptable matinee fodder. (They might have known that Atlantis is always about failure.)
The destruction of the city itself is a piece of vividly orchestrated chaos, and the early scenes, in which Atlantis wonk and boiler-room attendant Milo Thatch (voiced by Michael J. Fox) finds himself propelled toward his dream adventure, move at a comic-book clip (a cipher, a dame, the inevitable millionaire). The mercenary crew of the Ulysses, hoping to discover an inexhaustible power source (shades of the Nautilus), is dependably multicultural, ethnic accents firmly in place (“No look at nada!”). At least Santorini, the explosives expert, gets the full Father Guido Sarducci treatment from Don Novello himself.
After a run-in with the nasty, brutish, and long Leviathan (which upgrades the crustacean in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Atlantean one-off, The Maracot Deep, using Matrix movement therapy), the excitement subsides, and New Age blah rushes in: Indiana Jones rewritten by Madame Blavatsky. The crew discovers a lost race—crypto-African beneath peroxide ‘dos and turquoise body paint—ruled by an ailing king (Leonard Nimoy) and Britney-skimpy crown princess Kida (cf. “Atlantis, The Sea Nymph,” Minsky’s Burlesque Show, Chicago, ca. 1951). The natives (cue five seconds of world music) seem prosperous and happy, so it’s unclear why Kida seeks Milo’s help. James Garner’s suitably Rand-y Rourke gets greedy, the ethnics do the right thing (Disney, anticapitalism, discuss), and there is a nice dogfight between Teutonic and ichthyform aircraft, but the bulk of the Atlantis scenes in situ are as involving as a chakra workshop.
By the end of this hermetic miscegenation parable, Milo is the last innocent white man in Atlantis, and parents not up to speed on their Edgar Cayce will snore, as their dear ones ponder the magma shell rising like a soufflé before cracking along blue sulci. At least it’s not a musical.