Atlantis: The Lost Empire (Collector's Edition)

Voices of Michael J. Fox, James Garner, Corey Burton, Claudia Christian, Phil Morris, Don Novello, Leonard Nimoy, John Mahoney, Jacqueline Obradors, Florence Stanley, David Ogden Stiers, Cree Summer, Jim Varney. Directed by Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise. Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 (anamorphic). Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS (English), Dolby Surround 2.0 (French). Two DVDs. 95 minutes. 2001. Walt Disney Home Video 23835. PG. $39.95.

The year is 1914, and the dreams of young researcher Milo Thatch, as obsessed with the legend of Atlantis as was his late grandfather, come true when he's asked to join a team looking for the lost continent. The journey begins in an improbably advanced (for 1914) submarine—the similarity to Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is unmistakable. After a series of hair-raising adventures, our motley crew of explorers, following guidance from an ancient book inherited by Milo from his grandfather, finds the lost civilization. But instead of ancient ruins, they find a populated city. Atlantis, it seems, was spared from destruction thousands of years ago by enchanted crystals, and those same crystals safeguard it still. The plot thickens when we discover that several members of the exploration team have more on their minds than mere archeology.

Atlantis: The Lost Empire is the most un-Disneyish animated feature from that studio since, oh, The Black Cauldron—and for more reasons than just its PG rating (for intense action and, perhaps, a secondary character who smokes incessantly). It forgoes cute songs and cuter animal sidekicks. As the above description might suggest, its storytelling appears to have been strongly influenced by Japanese animé, though in contrast to animé's frequently choppy visuals, Atlantis' fluid animation is typical of the best Disney productions.

This brave departure from Disney's usual formula is not entirely successful. The action-adventure elements, muddy metaphysics, and uneasy comedy result in a mix that doesn't quite gel. The technology available to the exploration team would have been a better fit had the film been set in 1941 rather than 1914—a story change that could have been easily made in pre-production without major disruptions to the plot. The fantasy blends uneasily with science-fiction elements, and the comic relief is uneven. It's almost as if Disney wanted to make a straight-up action-fantasy/sci-fi epic, but backed off a bit to enhance the film's appeal to the studio's perceived target audience of children under 10.

But with the single exception of the character drawing, which is too angular for a story that aims (apparently) for greater realism than typical animated fare, the visuals in Atlantis are striking. While the style looks like conventional cel animation throughout, many of the backgrounds and effects were apparently computer-animated. The mix is very nearly seamless; the CGI work has been carefully designed to replicate hand-drawn frames (unlike, for example, in Titan A.E., in which the two techniques clashed). The scope is enlarged significantly by the use of a full widescreen aspect ratio of 2.35:1—unusual in animation. (The only other recent Disney animated release to use this ratio was Pixar's A Bug's Life.) The resulting action set pieces are spectacular, and the scenic "photography" is enhanced by breathtaking "tracking shots."

All of this is captured beautifully in this two-disc, widescreen Collector's Edition. (A standard release, which includes both pan&scan and widescreen versions of the film, is also available.) Disc 1 includes the film in a striking anamorphic transfer that won't disappoint you. The image is crisp, the colors vivid, and there are no obvious digital artifacts. Even more amazing is the sound: open, detailed, and dynamic in Dolby Digital or DTS, with outstanding bass and active surrounds.

James Newton Howard's heroic score sounds considerably better on DVD than it did in the theater (Hollywood's El Capitan, one of LA's premium venues) where I first heard it. Bright, loud, and edgy there, it sounds nothing like that here, where the superb recording work of engineer Shawn Murphy is vividly evident. The same composer-engineer team provided the stunning music for last year's Dinosaur, and while Atlantis' score is not quite in the same league, it nevertheless adds a great deal to the film's impact.

This superior sound goes a long way toward explaining why I had mixed feelings about Atlantis until I saw—and heard—it on DVD. While it's still far from my favorite animated feature, I now better appreciate its considerable strengths, including the extensive collection of extras. Disc 1 offers a commentary track from producer Don Hahn and directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise—the directing team responsible for Disney's Beauty and the Beast and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (the latter, in my opinion, the most under-rated Disney animated feature of the '90s). This commentary can be listened to in standard or in audio-visual form, in which the participants break into the flow of the film with asides that describe how certain sequences were produced. There's also something called a "DisneyPedia" on the "Fact or Fiction of Atlantis."

Disc 2 is loaded with more than two hours of information that can be accessed in three different ways. I used the "Tour" form—essentially a two-hour documentary on the making of Atlantis, and one of the best such features I've seen. What's more, virtually all of it is in the 16:9 (anamorphic) format—almost unheard-of with DVD extras. Not only do the film clips in the documentary look great, but many of the talking-head shots are strikingly crisp and three-dimensional. The downside is that I was so distracted by the superb image quality that I sometimes missed what the participants were saying and had to back up and listen again!

Other extras include abandoned sequences (one of them fully finished, the others in storyboard form with soundtracks), storyboards showing the original conception (slightly different from the final version), and several trailers.

Atlantis: The Lost Empire is not a great animated feature, but it's a good one. If its style intrigues you, Disney apparently has more to come. Next fall, look for the theatrical release of Treasure Planet, a science-fiction/fantasy retelling of Treasure Island.