What’s fascinating about “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” is that it’s the kind of property that Disney usually produces as a live-action adventure. Not all the dots connect in this 2001 feature, and the reliance on stereotypes becomes a bit annoying, but it’s still as rousing in animation as it might have been as a summer blockbuster.

The plot is a hybrid that combines elements from two Jules Verne novels—20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Center of the Earth, with a sprinkle of Indiana Jones and “Star Trek” thrown in for good measure. The film pulled down a PG-rating because the villain this time around isn’t a wicked queen or stepmother, and the climax doesn’t come with dragons or mythic moments.

PG Plot, PC Characters
The bad guy in Atlantis is a mercenary interested only in profit–and mercenaries have guns. Rourke (voiced by James Garner) captains an expedition financed by eccentric billionaire Preston Whitmore (John Mahoney). When he learns that Atlantis has a fantastic power crystal, he hopes to find it and sell it to the highest bidder in the emerging pre-WWI military industrial complex.

Naturally, he doesn’t care whom he hurts in the process. He gut-punches the King of Atlantis (Leonard Nimoy), hauls off Princess Kida (Cree Summer) in a crate, and tags the hero, linguist Milo Thatch (Michael J. Fox), right on the face, geeky glasses and all. There’s plenty of shooting and violence, because, as co-directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise explain in the commentary, “Atlantis” is an animated adventure-drama, not a cute cartoon. Their operating motto was “Less music, more explosions.” According to producer Don Hahn, they thought of “Atlantis” as a moving comic book, with the chief design influence coming from Hellboy comic-book artist Mike Mignola, who was brought on-board especially for this project.

Driving the plot is the Shepherd’s Journal, a fictional artifact that points the way to Atlantis, an ancient civilization which thousands of years ago sank into the ocean and now exists somewhere near the center of the earth. Milo is obsessed with finding Atlantis to prove his grandfather was right—that it does exist.

Hahn said that the effect they were going for was a kind of “Dirty Dozen journeys to the center of the Earth,” but Disney seems to have gone off the deep end trying to assemble a diverse and politically correct cast of characters that, ironically, seem clichéd: there’s the African-American doctor (Phil Morris) who just happens to have a shaved head and a Mike Tyson build; a feisty young female Puerto Rican mechanic (Jacqueline Obradors) who’s also an amateur boxer and no stranger to hot-wiring vehicles; a caustic geriatric telecommunications expert (Florence Stanley); a dry-witted Italian munitions specialist (Saturday Night Live’s Father Guido, Don Novello); and a character that comes, inexplicably, right out of the Old West–Cookie, a Gabby Hayes-style codger of a camp cook (voiced by the late Jim Varney). Add to this ragtag group a femme fatale fresh out of ’40s detective film noir (Claudia Christian) and an over-the-top tunneling expert (the Frenchman Moliere, voiced by Corey Burton) who has telescoping eyewear and a love of dirt, and by the time this group descends in their submarine and gets past the Leviathan sentry that guards the entrance to the subterranean empire, the Atlanteans almost seem refreshingly normal.

That’s my chief complaint about this otherwise accomplished film, which has stellar art direction and set design.  As Hahn explained, the 10 individuals who formed the creative core of the “Atlantis” team of some 600 workers were also the ones who teamed together on “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and “The Lion King”–people at the top of their creative “game.” And you really have to give them credit for attempting such a grand-scale adventure in animation. For the most part, it works.

Must We Return?
There’s a reason I spent more time discussing “Atlantis” than I will the 2003 direct-to-video sequel. Like Fox, who begged off the project (and was replaced by James Arnold Taylor), I want no part of  “Atlantis: Milo’s Return”—a trio of made-for-TV cartoons that was passed off as a direct-to-video movie. Meant to be three episodes of an aborted series “Team Atlantis,” this one finds Mr. Whitmore visiting Milo and Kida in Atlantis, seeking help. A Kraken has been wreaking havoc in Norway. Next it’s a statue in Arizona that pulls them into the desert to solve a mystery that makes you wonder if the Mystery Machine is idling behind a billboard somewhere. In the third segment, one of Whitmore’s old nemeses thinks he’s the Norse god Odin and steals an Atlantean spear that somehow he’s deluded himself into thinking is his power source. And even more far-fetched than these plots is a contrived ending that defies all logic, especially if you consider that Atlantis was a real place, as described by Plato. It’s a stinker of a sequel that, like the other sequels in the latest round of Disney 2-Movie Collections, must be regarded as a bonus feature.

With so many dark scenes I wondered how “Atlantis” would look in HD, and, as I feared, the picture appears a little “soft” in some scenes, while others suffer from mild aliasing with the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer. That said, the Blu-ray is still a strong visual upgrade over the DVD. “Atlantis” is presented in 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The sequel is presented in 1.66:1 aspect ratio, “enhanced” for 16×9 monitors, and it has that slightly unreal color palette that TV cartoons often display.

The English DTS-HD 5.1 audio is strong on both films. When the Leviathan creaks, it feels as if its scraping the hull of your living room. The bass is resonant and powerful, but the mid-tones and treble are also aggressive. Disney really did treat this like a special effects film, and the soundtrack prioritizes the action. Yet, the dialogue doesn’t get lost. I didn’t have to toggle up and down on the volume as much as I feared I might. There simply aren’t as many jaw-dropping effects for the sequel, so the DTS-HD MA 5.1 seems underutilized by comparison.

Additional audio options are Spanish, French, and Portuguese Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English SDH, French, Spanish and Portuguese.

Don’t look for any bonus features on the Blu-ray, because there aren’t any. They’ve been relegated to the DVDs. Too bad, because the “Atlantis” commentary is quite good, but who wants to watch it all over again in standard definition, just to hear the commentary?

Which, by the way, is a riveting blend of humor, behind-the-scenes insights, anecdotes, history, and technical explanations. Most amusing is a storyboard sequence showing how the crew briefly toyed with the notion of having yet another Disney animal sidekick—in this case, a rat that shares the museum basement with nerdy researcher Milo. But it’s just as fun to hear Hahn, Trousdale, and Wise praise sound designer Gary Rydstrom’s uncanny knack of being able to find just the right sound. Need to put some audio to waking stone giants? Drag a toilet seat across concrete and mix it with an asthmatic chihuahua! How do you explain to the studio and investors the concept of a watery civilization near the center of the earth where there’s AIR to breathe? You liken it to a toilet drain/trap! There are just as interesting “serious” moments, as when viewers learn how Lisa Keene devised an entire plausible ecosystem for Atlantis which would explain a waterfall deep underground alongside an active volcano, or to learn how Milo’s “I’m going after Rourke” replaced ten minutes of speechifying based on extensive research on the most rousing movie speeches of all time. But while listening to everyone’s explanations about the crystal, the power source, and the “stone kings” helps remove the wrinkles from a parent’s brow, there are still a number of unexplained questions. Like, why does Kida’s mother disappear into the crystal power source while Kida is only temporarily transformed into crystal herself? Or why do some of Rourke’s men need gas masks, but not all?  And how exactly do those spinning stone tablets representing prior Atlantean kings work? Or the stone guardians? And when poor Helga falls the length of a football field onto the floor of a volcano, how is it that she is still able to . . . . You get the point. And it was a problem Hahn and his cohorts were aware of: If you explain too much to viewers, it starts to sound like a description of an internal combustion engine; explain too little and it becomes confusing; somewhere in between, lies the world of fantasy and magic.

When it first came to DVD, “Atlantis” was available in a bare-bones one-disc version or a two-disc, with more bonus features. This DVD features “The Making of Atlantis,” a 10-part documentary that covers all facets of production (culled from a longer set of features on the earlier two-disc version), four deleted scenes from “Atlantis” and one from the sequel, a “How to Speak Atlantean” throwaway, a surprisingly fun “Atlantis: Fact or Fiction? featurette (7 min.) aimed at little ones. That one deleted scene is the only bonus feature on the sequel disc.

Bottom line:
Once again, a Disney movie is too good to bring down by averaging scores with a lackluster sequel. “Atlantis” is a solid 7 out of 10, while “Milo’s Return” is a 5 at best. Does that make this package a 6? Not in my book. I’m thinking the sequel is just another bonus feature I won’t watch