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In a year inundated with massive movies, it's a pleasant surprise to note that a truly spectacular adventure has arrived in the form of a Disney cartoon called Atlantis: The Lost Empire.

Gushing aside, let us now consider the Atlanteans, the mythic race that codirectors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise (both of Beauty and the Beast and The Hunchback of Notre Dame) may have let off the hook a little too easily in their treatment. According to various sources of lore -- including philosophers, scriptures, and the occasional raving nut case -- the Atlanteans were a powerful but often unpleasant people. Some accounts have them conquering most of the Mediterranean by means of warplanes; others suggest belligerent use of laser beams. They've even been accused of experimenting with genetic engineering to develop a slave race. In other words: pretty robes, nice temples, bad neighbors.

This screenplay by Tab Murphy (who also penned Disney's animated Tarzan) does indeed include various tastes of the Atlanteans' pushy imperial attitude, including the "planes" and the "lasers." (This production being from Uncle Walt's studios, however, the indentured subhumans have been tastefully omitted.) Otherwise, perhaps due to the intervention of the five other writers credited with this story (the directors, Bryce Zabel, Jackie Zabel, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer scribe Joss Whedon), these mysterious folk are painted mostly in angelic, luminous hues. As far as the civilization's alleged crimes and karmic cataclysm are concerned, we are given little more to chew on than a shrug and an "Oops... sorry!"

Fortunately this overly simplified approach to these "magical people" doesn't impair the emotional and visceral charge of Atlantis. It's a terrific movie, full of Jules Verne-style designs and Victorian charm, a masterfully crafted visual feast presented in Cinemascope. Unlike many animated projects of late, the movie doesn't make the hideous mistake of trying to tap into contemporary (that is, fleeting) fashions or hype, a perspective that may seem to such projects' creators like "staying hip" but actually reeks of cheap condescension in the final product. (See Hercules -- or better, don't.) What we have here is not a hyperactive nosedive into staccato, saccharine silliness but a thrilling tale smartly told, with an abundance of wit and invention. It's a classic.

Our hero is one Milo Thatch (voiced by Michael J. Fox), a cartographer and linguist whose brilliance is blighted by the bigwigs who run the museum where he serves as an "intern" (read: boiler room attendant). The year is 1914, the place is Washington, D.C., and young Milo (a tallish blend of Milo Bloom of Bloom County and Harry Potter) struggles with what you might call a teensy obsession. Despite the cruel jeers of his bloated superiors (including a very funny David Ogden Stiers), he seeks to fill the shoes -- and oversize helmet -- of his late grandfather, an intrepid adventurer whose hard-won leads brought him very close to discovering the real Atlantis.

With the plight of the reluctant hero appearing a bit threadbare these days after extensive overuse, riding along with an ambitious character such as Milo, who is well-rounded, smart as hell, and -- brace yourselves -- proactive, is very engaging. Moments after his supervisors chastise him for chasing fairy tales, he is visited in his apartment by a leggy blonde named Helga Sinclair (Claudia Christian of Babylon 5), who makes him an offer he can't refuse. (No, not that.) She leads him to the enormous mansion of crotchety billionaire -- and yogi seminudist -- Preston B. Whitmore (John Mahoney), who presents Milo with a very special gift and an irresistible invitation: to seek Atlantis on the expedition he's funding.

Enter the Ulysses, a state-of-the-art submarine far superior to any ship of our current age -- imagine Captain Nemo's Nautilus by way of James Cameron. Once Milo is introduced to the crew members, who greet him with a mixture of puzzlement and cynicism, the story could have slipped over the edge of bombast, a problem that plagued the otherwise enjoyable Titan A.E. last year. No such worry, for screenwriter Murphy and scads of gifted animators have provided us with a core crew that is -- admittedly -- a polychromatic Benetton spread of demographic research but the interaction among which crackles all the same.

Helming the mission is Commander Rourke (James Garner), a hardass treasure hunter with a jaw like a Peterbilt. Immediately sizing up Milo is the mechanically inclined Audrey (Jacqueline Obradors), who offers, "Geez... I used to take lunch money from guys like this!" In fact the ever-steadfast Milo catches flak from all sides, including Helga ("Cartographer, linguist, plumber -- hard to believe he's still single!") and later the entrancing Princess Kida of Atlantis (voice-over veteran Cree Summer), who opines to Milo, "You are a scholar; judging by your diminished physique and enlarged forehead, you are not suited for anything else."

Given the buoyant spirit of Atlantis, one might not expect the movie to work so well with mortality, but it does. It's not out of place for people to die in large numbers (or suffer acute pain) in a sci-fi movie concerned primarily with geek-o-rama ships and explosions, but here the epic impact is properly leavened with loads of human quirks, which render it all the more effective. For instance, presented with the horror of the sea monster called the leviathan, the explosives expert Vinny (Don Novello) deadpans, "I would have a white wine with a creature a-like this." One laughs, one flinches, and it's one successful outing.

Much of the movie's success can be attributed to the richness of its research and development, which includes many historically accurate touches (people kvetching about supernatural weapons being sold to "the Kaiser") as well as a functional Atlantean language devised by Marc Okrand, the linguist responsible (to blame?) for Star Trek languages such as Klingon and Vulcan. Speaking of which, a rather raspy Leonard Nimoy turns up here as the morose King of Atlantis, with the late Jim Varney balancing him out in a saucy performance as Cookie, purveyor of "the four basic food groups: beans, bacon, whiskey, and lard."

There's range to Atlantis, and insight, and verve, and that's why it works. It only seems extravagant to heap such praise upon a cartoon until one considers this pivotal line from the Whitmore character: "Our lives are remembered by the gifts we leave our children." I only wish more billionaires felt that way and more studios produced such fine entertainment.

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Gregory Weinkauf

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