Raise your hand if you heard of Don Bluth. It's not such a hard question if you're a movie fan; especially if you like movies where animals talk, song can break out at anytime, and the hero of the film is always someone who just doesn't quite "belong". Still nothing? Up until a few years ago, Bluth was the other animation guy working in Hollywood who would make all those second tier animated full-length features that I believe we are all aware of on some level, somewhere in our subconscious. Let's see. Go to the section of your brain where you store your memories of animated movies….if you're there you'll likely be located in a large blue and white stadium that runs rampant with clock-toting rabbits, arrow slinging foxes, and lions with oversized crowns. This is, of course, Classical Disney terrain where no hand drawn outsiders may enter and live without ridicule, or at least flopping by comparison. Now leave this perfectly beautiful place and go down the block to the poorer, degraded township called Bluthville.
"Oh yeah" you say; now you recognize some of these fellas. There's Fievel Mouskowitz from An American Tail chatting with the princess Anastasia. Across the street is some Land Before Time dinosaurs and a wise guy canine from All Dog's go to Heaven. On the horizon comes traipsing in Bluth's latest casualty, the Titan A.E.. Not a very vibrant place considering the number of brightly colored and squeaky voiced characters running about. Maybe you are saying to yourself, "Hey, I like all those movies", but I will respond to you, "If you like them so much then how come you paid full price for the video releases of The Lion King, Aladdin, and The Little Mermaid and you wouldn't even tape The Secret of Nimh off the TV" (you can always borrow my copy). The point of all this is that in the past when it came to cartoon theatre, Disney had never had reason to fear any rival, until now, and the enemy emerges from within.
Here is the condensed version of the book of SKGenesis. In the beginning there were three gigantic moons orbiting the Planet Hollywood with unique powers each. To simplify - Steven Spielberg, director extraordinaire, Jeffrey Katzenberg, second in command to CEO of Disney's Michael Eisner, and David Geffen of Geffen music (not to be confused with Gefen jarred Gefilte fish) came together to form the now familiar household name DreamWorks Studios SKG (movies include The Peacemaker, American Beauty, and Saving Private Ryan). Back in 1998 DreamWorks began it's march on Bastille Disney by offering up an ambitious computer animated project called Antz, about the life of bugs; so then Disney, in a brilliant counter strategy, released the computer animated project called A Bug's Life which was about ants. How appropriate that this initial battle of David and Goliath would be fought on so distinct a playing field. After all, what better way to decide if the king has been dethroned then pitting two comparable knights in a head to head competition. When the dust cleared and critics, as well as fans, had their say, and while both films did well enough, Disney had retained title as A Bug's Life just about doubled Antz's domestic take and was generally more fun. They had made the better insect movie. Next, SKG struck some gold with the acclaimed, but not to the Disney level, Prince of Egypt, about the exodus from Egypt, where we find three Jews (S, K, and G) putting their yidishkeit over market savvy, but coming out on top anyway (how many hit movies can get away with including Az Yashir into the dialogue?). While this was a victory, the movie was released in January and did not face off against the Disney giant, perhaps still wary of the seasoned professionals. But the triad at DreamWorks were not used to being second-class citizens, so before they would take another whack at competing with the mouse house, they were going to take a serious wind up. In the summer of 2001 they unleashed "Shrek" upon the world.
They went back to the computer animation division, but this time instead of recruiting the un-kid-friendly likes of Stallone, Stone, Woody Allen, and Gene Hackman to voice the creatures as was the case in Antz, they utilized the more upbeat and sprightly Mike Myers to voice a sensitive Ogre, Eddie Murphy to holler and howl as a super friendly donkey, Cameron Diaz to sound out a desperate princess, and John Lithgow to rave as the diminutive Lord Farquad. A benefit for SKG is also that in the 3 years since Antz technology has outdone itself time and again so the visuals of computer animation are near stunning (See Final Fantasy later this summer for "photo-realistic" animated actors).
Shrek has emerged as a behemoth in the summer's race to the 200 million dollar finish line and has already been qualified as a critical darling (not by me just yet). This is a movie that people love and it has been bestowed with the invaluable seal of "fun for children and adult's alike". Animated movies that had failed in the past have either faulted by being too edgy for the kids or too sappy and silly for the adults - just ask Don Bluth. Shrek is amusing and charming and it stands on it's own, but it does not rival Disney's best and I'm not saying it needs to, but that simply is the bar. The word Shrek and classic will never share the same sentence…again. The tale is Disneyesque, but this is done purposely in order to blatantly jeer Disney and it's lore. Many of the jabs at Disney are obvious and generally land above the belt (i.e. Farquad's castle mocks Disney World), some are more subtle (characters associated with Disney like Pinocchio, Peter Pan, and Robin Hood can be seen in compromising situations), and some may have been created by conspiracy theorists (Farquad, who is said to have a big castle to compensate for something, is supposed to be Eisner of Disney). Either way, everything is handled cleverly and even the severest lashes are executed with the brightest of grins, so we must smile along so as not to look like uptight infants. Even Disney needs to take its medicine sometimes.
The comedy here is on the "to each his own level" with pratfalls and fart bubbles for the kids, and relationship woes and a donkey's erotic dreams for us adults to snicker at. A kid's movie that realizes that the fact that parents are along for the ride, is a true commodity and has a better chance to succeed. The humor is divided between inside jokes about Hollywood and the expected visual slapstick, but while the loony appearance of the film does not hurt the emotional theme, it prevents the sensitive portions from really taking off. Eddie Murphy gets the extra credit award for working his ass off (yes, I get it) in creating a memorable and original character, while detention goes to Myers for recreating his Fat Bastard accent and wringing few laughs from such a bizarre looking ogre.
Although, at this point, I can't imagine Disney topping the money or the public adoration of Shrek with their new animated summer installment, I do give them tremendous respect for coming out with a film that can make SKG look a bit over zealous in stereotyping Mickey and Co. Someone may have tipped off the people at Disney regarding what DreamWorks had in store for them, or else timing could not have been better for the release of the all out action/adventure Atlantis: The Lost Empire.
Unlike all the "by the numbers" Disney movies that Shrek intends to belittle, this Disney outing is one of a kind. There are no songs amidst the action, any loopy dog or bird joining in on the adventure for comic relief, and no wise old sage who holds all the secrets of life…wait, there is that last one. What this movie does surprisingly have is some of its sexiest female creations ever (and that's saying allot - have you ever thought about Jasmine in an inappropriate way?) An animated blonde, pistol-packing soldier and a thong-wearing Atlantian princess with some slick white hair will certainly raise an eyebrow. Also shocking, is the amount of characters that perish along the way. Scores of soldiers are blasted into fiery graves during some frantic and explosive air battles that look like a cross between scenes from Star Wars and The Matrix. No one ever died on GI Joe!
As I have said, when it comes to animated movies, Disney is the bar at which to measure all others, and that certainly includes their own products. After seeing spectacular epics like Tarzan, it is difficult to properly appreciate the mediocre, but entertaining Atlantis. The lead is named Milo and he kind of looks like a Milo and acts like a Milo. He's the one that "doesn't belong" because he truly believes that he can discover the lost city of Atlantis, a figment of Greek mythology, which Milo's grandfather came close to finding. Of course, at first, he is the laughing stock of the intellectual community. Finally, he gets the funding from a mysterious old friend of his grandfathers.
Don't be put off by the commercials and adds for this film which make it look like grave business, there is plenty to laugh about…that is if you find grave business and grave, cynical characters funny. The characters are drawn in a throw-back manner to the more square cut molds of Disney's earlier works like 101 Dalmatians and it is a bit jarring, before you get used to it. There is only one character for the kids; a French digging expert who acts like a poorly trained house pet - he will be the character most annoying to you and the one that does not fit in with the rest of this affair. For better or worse, this is a generally serious movie with real themes of greed, loss, and the search for things you know are out there, but are untouched yet. Taking account of what I have just said, let it be known that the existence of Atlantis, it's power, it's people and creatures make not a shred of sense and the writers of this story don't really care about trying to explain them.
The voices are done by the lead, Michael J. Fox (who I could do without here, but why kick a guy when he's down), James Garner, and Cree Summer whom I hope none of you remember from A Different World (When you see Dwayne Wayne, tell him I say "Hi"). Everyone involved, especially the supporting cast, does admirable jobs at filling out this movie but I can't imagine any of these guys being made into costumes for Disney World. Kudos to the people at Disney for trying something new, but I like my Disney movies like I like my women - animated, lighthearted, and with little animals running around and saying witty things to each other.
Some people claim to not like animated movies. These are the folks who will commonly be heard responding disparagingly after being invited to the latest Disney flick by commenting, "Isn't it a cartoon?". Well, No, it isn't a cartoon. You who say this - have no depth, scope or vision. It shows a narrowness of mind when you would dismiss a potential wonderful work of art like the aforementioned Tarzan, simply because the elements of the film existed only in the imagination. Animated movies can have wonderful stories, rich characters, as well as some of the sharpest dialogue in film today- and don't forget that the ability to draw, as opposed to physically setting up a shot, allows some spectacular treats for the eye. Admittedly there are some dogs out there, but my wish is for you nonbelievers to give some of the classics a chance, before you disregard them. A reminder that Disney's Beauty and the Beast was nominated for best picture upon its theatrical release a few years back and they don't give out Best Picture nominations to any dumb movie…well sometimes. Anyway, I say see both of these just to get a taste of a little something new- These little something news, will undoubtably, make light of a little something old. And to sum it all up and to make it real easy for everyone to understand - Shrek is sanctimoniously Jewish while Atlantis is uncannily Goyish.