Enchantment Under the Sea

A while back, Atlantis: The Lost Empireappeared with some fanfare, only to take a dive at the box office and vanish into the brackish waters of obscurity. Now only the toys cluttering the shelves of Pic 'N Save serve to remind us that the film existed at all. It's rather sad, actually.

After the Disney studio's long, pitiful slide into abject irrelevance following Walt's death in 1966, Howard Ashman basically saved their bacon in the early '90s with zingy trifles like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. But with Ashman's death just before the release of Aladdin, the studio attempted to carry on in his style and made a real botch of it; in the wake of the grating, drastically overrated The Lion King(the first Ashman picture that Ashman had nothing to do with), the studio's output became increasingly tired. The musical numbers got ever blander, the sidekicks became ever shriller, and the fart jokes proliferated out of all control. As each picture did a little less well than the last, panic began to rage through the halls of the House the Mouse Built. Finally the Disney folks reached a truly desperate point and decided to try one last big, bold experiment: Atlantis, a cartoon aimed more at parents than their kids. And if this picture didn't bring in truckloads of cash, there would be massive downsizing and retrenching; heads would roll.

Well, heads rolled. The studio's new picture, Lilo & Stitch, is a low-budget, slapped-together, desperate attempt to get the kiddies back in the multiplex. Sadly, it looks it.

As a money-maker, Atlantis was a failure, which is a shame because it really was a promising new direction for the studio. It's a grown-up adventure story, featuring all kinds of wonderfully Jules Verne-ian goings-on at the bottom of the sea and blessedly free of all of the stuff that made so much of Disney's '90s output intolerable. The picture has no songs, no desperate attempts to grind out yet another showstopper on the order of "Be Our Guest" or to recapture the schmaltzy yearning of "Part of Your World." Some girl called Mya (that's not a typo) does croak out a real stinker during the closing credits, but if you dive for the exits as the picture is ending, you'll escape in time. Atlantis is also blessedly free of the farty-poopy humor. There is one rather startling barf joke, but it's a good barf joke, bearing the unmistakable mark of the ubiquitous Joss Whedon, one of the many hands who worked on the script. If the man can slip a barf joke into a Disney cartoon and make it work, I think he deserves some kind of special award.

Viewers of Disney's '90s output were subjected to a succession of hideously annoying, wiseass sidekicks, a phenomenon scientists have termed the Nathan Lane factor. This strange force drove Disney's animators to include a trio of wisecracking gargoyles in the already whacked Hunchback of Notre Dame and was responsible for Rosie O'Donnell in Tarzan. The closest Atlantis gets to such stuff is a spunky, kinda sexy little submarine mechanic riot grrrl voiced by Rosie-Perez-sound-alike Jacqueline Obradors. And she doesn't fart once!

With its notable lack of grating songs, potty humor and bleating sidekicks, Atlantis will probably bore your kids silly; you may want to consider finding a babysitter for the evening. This is a beachside screening, which should give the thing a wonderfully moody air, what with the waves crashing in the distance and all that. It's also probably the last chance you'll have to see the thing on the big screen in a public venue. It may be the picture that finally killed Disney animation, but it's also a rollicking good yarn, and that's a lot more important than delivering another dumptruck full of cash to Michael Eisner's doorstep.

Atlantis: The Lost Empire screens at the Newport Dunes Resort, 1131 Back Bay Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 729-DUNE. Fri., dusk. Free; parking, $7.


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