In the early ’90s, The Walt Disney Co. experienced a renaissance in feature animation. The Little Mermaid. Beauty and the Beast. Aladdin. The Lion King. Together, those four films grossed just under $800 million in the United States alone. With the release of Atlantis: The Lost Empire, however, Disney abandons its formula of catchy tunes and talking wildlife for enough intense action to warrant a PG rating. Is edgier animation good business? How do the filmmakers—and how will families—feel about the decision to explore this new territory?
A Gamble for Everyone
Recently, several studios have created PG ink-and-paint features with attitude, presumably to snare the maturing wave of children who helped revitalize Disney a decade ago. The results have been disappointing for everyone involved. Studios have lost millions of dollars. Families, on the other hand, have been unpleasantly surprised by envelope-pushing content.
In 1999, Warner Bros. released The Iron Giant, a Sputnik-era tale of a 9-year-old boy who befriends a metal-munching behemoth from outer space. Critics loved it. Audiences stayed away in droves. Evidently teens perceived it as too childish, while parents of younger tykes didn’t appreciate its violence, subtle bathroom humor and nearly a dozen profanities. The film failed to recoup its $48 million budget domestically, grossing just $23.2 million during its entire theatrical run.
Last year, two animated features sharing style and story points with Atlantis landed with much hype, but fizzled short of profitability. The first, DreamWorks’ The Road to El Dorado, followed a pair of brassy con men on their quest for ill-gotten gain. Despite being beautifully drawn, this morally vacuous adventure featured dark spirituality, unusually harsh violence, brief nudity, sexual tension and mild profanities. "We originally thought it would be rated PG-13, so we skewed it to that group," producer Bonnie Radford told the L.A. Times, "but then we thought we could not exclude the younger kids, so we had to tone the romance down." Viewers got fewer profanities and saw less of Chel’s hourglass figure (shown below in her more "modest" attire), yet it was still a far cry from typical ’toondom. Maybe that’s why The Road to El Dorado (which cost $95 million to make) only took in $50.8 million in the States.
The second, Titan A.E., was 20th Century Fox’s attempt to break down barriers with a derivative, yet visually stylish, sci-fi yarn. It earned a PG for rear nudity, intense laser battles and other violence. What it didn’t earn was much money. An investment of $75 million yielded a domestic box-office return of $22.7 million, sounding a death knell for Fox’s animation division. In his review of Titan A.E., USA Today’s Mike Clark asked, "Will early teens, who sometimes put down the cartoons they loved as children, go see an animated feature that seems specifically geared toward 14-year-old boys?" Evidently not.
Those disappointing results don’t bode well for Atlantis, but the filmmakers aren’t worried. "For the industry itself I think it’s concerning because I hate to see any animated film fail," producer Don Hahn told Plugged In, "but selfishly speaking I really believe in the people that we have on our movie." Hahn is also convinced that PG is the right rating for his film. "Moms and dads of young children may want to take a close look at some of the action sequences. They come hot and heavy. We’re making a drama and there are some fairly intense bits to it."
In the past, Hahn has altered scenes in order to stay within the bounds of a G rating. The wolf attack in Beauty and the Beast is one example. The Lion King also went back to the drawing board. But edits were never a consideration here. "We didn’t want to dink with the movie so much that we would take away, at its core, what we found entertaining about it," he said. "It’s a fun thrill ride. To start unraveling that thread on the sweater is something we didn’t want to do."
The Style and Substance of Atlantis
While Disney’s corporate policies and unwise allegiances have left many families wholly disenchanted with the Magic Kingdom, others strategically support only the very best to come out of the studio, hoping to encourage more of the same. With that in mind, will the latter wish to explore Atlantis?
Set in 1914, this visually stunning adventure follows an unlikely hero into a wondrous new world. Milo Thatch (voiced by Michael J. Fox) has inherited an heirloom of obsession—a passion to locate the underwater continent of Atlantis. Lacking money and an elusive shepherd’s journal, the lanky, bespectacled cartographer can no more than fantasize about carrying on his late grandfather’s quest. Then his luck changes. Out of nowhere, an eccentric tycoon produces the cryptic journal and invites Milo to join his fully funded expedition aboard a vessel straight out of a Jules Verne novel.
Almost immediately, the ship and its 200-person crew are decimated by a vicious sea monster. The twenty or so survivors face numerous challenges (including a swarm of pyromaniac fireflies) before stumbling upon the spectacular, yet dying culture of Atlantis. Rich flora. Towering waterfalls. Bizarre wildlife. Curious natives. The city’s beautiful carvings, architecture and landscaping look as if they were designed by ancient Indonesians following a Myst binge.
Milo and his colleagues have little time to drink in the atmosphere. Realizing that the natives need help unraveling a cosmic mystery crucial to their survival, Milo befriends the ailing king’s shapely daughter, Kida. The pair set off to decipher ancient markings, only to discover that their greatest obstacle is a thuggish band of mercenaries planning to plunder the city.
Over the years, Disney’s animators have recreated diverse cultures with amazing precision and style. Here, they’re free to fashion their own lush landscape. That majestic canvas is clearly the best thing about the film. The story, on the other hand, feels thin and familiar. A little dialogue about each crew member’s past replaces any real character development, though Don Novello (Saturday Night Live’s Father Guido Sarducci) steals the show as a deadpan florist-turned-demolitions expert. Other recognizable voices include James Garner, Leonard Nimoy, John Mahoney, Florence Stanley and the late Jim Varney.
So Why the PG Rating?
"We never set out to make a PG film," explained John Pomeroy, the supervising animator of Milo. "But we were always conscious and sensitive to the dictates of the story. Any rating became kind of a byproduct of that."
From the opening scene, in which a little girl is torn from her mother just before a tidal wave converges on Atlantis, it’s clear that the gloves are off when it comes to intense action and impending doom. One baddie, a cross between Lauren Bacall and Lara Croft, is thrown out of a hot-air balloon by her dishonorable partner. Will she grab a tow line and avoid plummeting to the rocky floor below? Nope. Elsewhere, people are punched in the face, shot at, blown up and, in the case of one villain, crystallized and shattered by a propeller.
When characters aren’t battling each other or the elements in explosive flurries of violence (the primary reason for Atlantis not getting a G, along with some mild sexual tension), they’re entranced by a muddy subplot involving an impersonal metaphysical force. "It thrives on the collective emotions of all that came before us," one native states. It also possesses a person of royal blood in times of crisis. This aspect of the film will concern Christians as much if not more than its slam-bang hostility. Atlantean polytheism—which combines elements of Stonehenge, Eastern ancestor worship and New Age crystal power—is an unsettling mystical hodgepodge. Explorers briefly refer to the God of Scripture, Job’s leviathan and the tower of Babel, but this magical force is presented as eminently more potent.
Unlike The Iron Giant, Atlantis avoids profanity. Unlike The Road to El Dorado, there are no make-out sessions or human sacrifices, and its hero has a moral compass (Milo says, "I didn’t say it was the smart thing, but it’s the right thing"). And unlike Titan A.E., no bare backsides. In other words, this cartoon resists the urge to exploit its rating. Still, Atlantis is enough of a departure from Disney’s profitable formula that a failure to outperform these other films may prove once and for all that PG animation aimed at preteens isn’t a risk worth taking.