Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, June 15, 2001

A scene from Disney's new animated film, "Atlantis."

is a gem

Disney takes you on a fresh,
fast and furious journey

By Burl Burlingame

Way down, below the ocean, Atlantis may be, but Disney's new "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" is a definite floater. The Mouse House has cranked out another summertime winner.

Typical of Disney's careful approach, the movie builds on the strength of past successes while tinkering with the formula just enough to make it fresh. We have an orphan with a dream here, a wildly imaginative supporting cast, deep-focus landscapes and brilliant character animation, restrained computer animation that's limited to the things it does best (changing perspective, architecture, vehicles and weather), a plot that's a series of unfolding quests, unlikely villains, empowered women and charming sidekicks and, above all, a sense of lively adventure.

Princess Kida gives Milo a tour of her
undersea home, the city of Atlantis.

We also have no sing-alongs, no fluffy talking animals, no bright colors, no artificial sense of safety (characters do die, or are killed; a crucial distinction) and no direct artistic link to previous Disney films. The look of "Atlantis" owes more to the edgy, cluttered pen work of comic-book artist Mike Mignola than to the creamy lines of Carl Barks.

The movie also owes a fair amount to timeless Disney adventures such as "In Search of the Castaways" and "Island at the Top of the World," which the Mouse House simply doesn't make anymore, having abandoned the live-action franchise for dreck like "The Love Bug."

And choosing Atlantis as the theme is inspired. Despite being known by everybody, nobody really knows anything about the lost empire. Relatively few films have had Atlantean themes, surprisingly. Disney put together a story team (that included Hawaii's Todd Kurosawa) to shepherd the project, and despite a whole pile of writers, the tale is surprisingly clear and straightforward, despite an ending that relies, essentially, on a magical cure-all.

The gigantic ship Ulysses finds Atlantis
in the Disney movie.

Museum cartographer Milo Thatch, voiced by Michael J. Fox, spends his free moments trying to prove the Atlantis theories of his now-deceased explorer grandfather. Through a variety of fast-paced circumstance (revealing Thatch's character, the nature of Atlantis and the scoffing nature of the academic world) Thatch gets a chance to lead a massively financed expedition to find the lost empire.

But everything about the expedition is just too big, beginning with the gigantic submarine. This looks more like an invasion than an expedition. Are the others on the trip there for scholarship or plunder? These include Helga, a tough-talking female helmsman; Commander Rourke, the avuncular team leader voiced by James Garner; demolitions expert Vinny Santorini; dirt-obsessed soils scientist "Mole" Moliere and Dr. Sweet, a muscular, former Rough Riders doctor who sees everything in black and white.

It all takes place in faraway 1914, which gives a steam-engine, heavily riveted Jules Verne groove to the machinery. It also creates a distinctive look for the spinoff toys.

Disney learned its lesson in the homogenized animation of the past and now has separate teams beavering away at each character, so each "actor" moves slightly differently from everyone else. Some of the facial animation is fantastic, still leagues ahead of anything done on computers.

This helps greatly in the rat-a-tat pacing of animation storytelling, in which everything is stylized and told in visual shorthand. You don't dare blink.

If there's a problem with this movie, it's that it's just too rich with invention and characterization, too packed with juice, and it gallops right along breathlessly. Even so, it manages moments of lyricism and visual elegance.

The movie is also made in Cinerama, which is rare for an animated feature and loads an incredible amount of visual detail on the screen. Don't wait for the videotape.

Atlantis: Lost
land or legend?

By Burl Burlingame

Was there really an Atlantis? Most ancient cultures refer to a lost civilization that sank beneath the waves. What we think of as "Atlantis" comes from two of Plato's "Dialogues," in which scholars Timeaus and Critias told Plato's mentor Socrates a tale that is "not a fiction but a true story." To this day, no one is sure whether Plato was being metaphoric or historical.

Various explanations abound for Plato's references.The one commonly accepted by the late 20th century is that the philosopher was actually describing a volcanic catastrophe on the nearby Aegean island of Thera. Archaeological work there in the 1960s shows that a pre-Hellenic community on Thera was indeed wiped out and buried beneath ash and water.

A strict reading of the "Dialogues," however, places the lost continent out in the Atlantic Ocean, which gets its name, by the way, from the legend, not the other way 'round.

Mythical terms like "Atlantis" come from many cultures. In Greek, "Atlas" means "the one who could not withstand the skies." The hero Atlas was the "Pillar of Heaven" who held up the sky, but became overloaded. The skies fell, burying Atlantis.

"Atlas" and "Atlantis" come from the Sanskrit word for Hell, "Atala." Not surprisingly, this translates as "Deprived of its Pillar," "Bottomless" or "Sunken to the Bottom." Atlas is the personification of the Holy Mountain that supported heaven, the god Hindus equate with Shiva. A derivation is Sthanu, meaning "Pillar of Heaven" in Sanskrit.

It all comes around to the same thing. Each ocean has its own lost continent, The Indian Ocean has "Lemuria," from which we get the term "lemur" to describe a prosimian creature living both in Madagascar and across the ocean in the Indies, and the Indonesian word for "ancestor" is -- you guessed it -- lemur!

Mu is the Pacific version. It could be a derivation of Lemuria, or evolved from "Mother" in Hindu Dravida, and Mu-devi means "Mother Goddess." Mu even has some connection to Hawaiian mythology.

So, are we talking about one place or a variety of places? Were there really "lost lands" or civilizations that became lumped together in the public unconsciousness?

All the legends peg the lost civilization at many thousands of years before the present day, or even the day of Plato. According to scientists, about 10,000 years ago, much of the oceans were locked up in the glaciers of the last Ice Age. The world was shallower. Large "continents" existed on the Celtic Shelf (around England), around Indonesia, the shallow islands of the Pacific, and even between Alaska and Siberia. When the Ice Age ended, the oceans rose about a hundred feet or more, claiming these lands as they "sank."

Modern archaeologists, however, don't believe civilization, even a rudimentary civilization, can date back that far.

However, a recent discovery near Yonaguni Island, part of Okinawa, has explorers and archaeologists split. About 100 feet down are the massive remains of what appears to be ancient architecture -- cleanly made, right-angled terraces and stairs.

Is it Atlantis? Or Lemuria or Mu or an as-yet-undiscovered civilization? Many archaeologists dispute that the site -- which covers more than 300 square miles -- is man-made because the geology of the area indicates it was above surface 10,000 years ago, when civilization didn't exist.

So, if there was an Atlantis, it's still at the bottom of the sea. And in our ancient memories.

Do It Electric
Click for online
calendars and events.

E-mail to Features Editor

Text Site Directory:
[News] [Business] [Features] [Sports] [Editorial] [Do It Electric!]
[Classified Ads] [Search] [Subscribe] [Info] [Letter to Editor]

© 2001 Honolulu Star-Bulletin