Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Disney's latest animated epic from directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale (Beauty and the Beast), appears to be doing modestly well at the box office. But given the fact it is a Disney animated movie and that it's popularity is dwarfed by the computer animated Shrek, it is turning into a disaster for both the studio and 2-D cel animation.
The film itself is something of a mess, being an uneasy amalgam of elements from Jules Verne, the Indiana Jones and Star War movies, The Professionals and Aeon Flux, among others. It also seems unable to make up its mind who its audience is, as it uneasily wavers between being kids and adult fare.
Atlantis tells the tale of one Milo Thatch, a Casper Milqtoast-like specialist in ancient languages, who is eager to prove his late grandfather's theories about the lost continent of Atlantis and its mysterious power source. Preston B. Whitmore, an old pal of grandpa, decides to finance an expedition to seek out the lost city. It soon becomes apparent, though, that Whitemore is more interested using Atlantis' power source for nefarious purposes than for the good of mankind.
The film's characters are stylistically all over the place. There's the cartoony Gaetan Mole Moliere who seems out of place next to the realistically seductive Helga Katrina Sinclair. As for Milo, he starts off as a 98 lb. weakling, but unexpectedly starts to exhibit amazing athletic prowess. Then there are the ancient inhabitants of Atlantis who inexplicably are unable to read their equally ancient writings!
Disney boasts that Atlantis breaks the studio mold in that it's a straightforward fantasy-adventure movie without any animals (cute or otherwise). The problem is that no one seems to care.
Once upon a time, Disney could define its terms of engagement. It did not matter if someone else had done something before, if it was a first for Disney it was news. The press usually went along and Disney exploited it for all it was worth. While the Disney reputation still counts for much, especially among a large segment of the public, the glamour and excitement in feature animation is now with Pixar, DreamWorks and 3-D computer animation.
Disney as much as conceded a lack of confidence in the film in April when when it announced large-scale layoffs in its feature animation unit. (See my April 30 commentary for more details.) The film's poor showing is seen as yet another misstep by Disney and CEO Michael Eisner which have led pundits to question its short-term prospects. These include the closing of its disastrous Go.com web portal, declining revenues at its ABC-TV network and the less than illustrious opening of its new California Adventure theme park. This plus the disappointing showing of Pearl Harbor, which Eisner would be the biggest movie of the summer, led to the resignation of Walt Disney Studios chairman Peter Schneider.
While Disney will eventually recover from these setbacks, it is now clear that traditional 2-D cel animation for feature films is dead in the water. No matter how well films like Warner Bros.' Osmosis Jones do, it will become increasingly difficult to get medium or high budget 2-D projects made. Which brings up the matter of the future of Pixar, whose films have consistently outshone those from Disney itself.
For the past few years, one of the most frequent questions I've answered from journalists is, Will Pixar stick with Disney or go off on its own? My usual answer was it would stick with Disney, since no one else could compare in its handling of animation. In the post-Shrek world, I'm not sure what my answer would be. For its part, Disney will now do whatever it takes to make sure Pixar doesn't switch allegiance to DreamWorks or some other studio.
However, the people who are really panicking are 2-D animation artists who now fear for their careers. As Screen Cartoonist President Tom Sito says in the latest issue of The Peg-Board,
2D folks feel besieged on all sides by the digital revolution they neither saw coming nor wanted. Now it's changing forever the business they signed up to be part of. Many of them are afraid they will become silent-film-star has-beens, bitching about how the quality would never be the same. Many others want to bring their skill sets to the digital party, but are afraid of starting over and are worried whether there will be a place for them.
It's unlikely 2-D will die a quick death or even die out, but for better or worse the era of cel animation is coming to an end.
June 26, 2001