Everything's hotter under the water in Atlantis: The Lost Empire.

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Everything's hotter under the water in Atlantis: The Lost Empire.

In a year inundated with massive movies, it's a pleasant surprise to note that a truly spectacular adventure has arrived in the form of a Disney cartoon called Atlantis: The Lost Empire. It's a terrific movie, full of Jules Verne-style designs and Victorian charm, a masterfully crafted visual feast presented in Cinemascope. Codirectors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise don't make the hideous mistake of trying to tap into contemporary (i.e., fleeting) fashions or hype, a perspective that may seem to such projects' creators like "staying hip" but actually reeks of cheap condescension in the final product (see Hercules -- or, better, don't). What we have here is not a hyperactive nosedive into staccato, saccharine silliness but a thrilling tale smartly told, with an abundance of wit and invention. It's a classic.

Our hero is one Milo Thatch (voiced by Michael J. Fox), a cartographer and linguist whose brilliance is blighted by the bigwigs who run the museum where he serves as an "intern" (read: boiler room attendant). The year is 1914, the place is Washington, D.C., and young Milo (a tallish blend of Milo Bloom of Bloom County and Harry Potter) struggles with what you might call a teensy obsession. Despite the cruel jeers of his bloated superiors (including a very funny David Ogden Stiers), he seeks to fill the shoes -- and oversized helmet -- of his late grandfather, an intrepid adventurer whose hard-won leads brought him very close to discovering the real Atlantis.

With the plight of the reluctant hero appearing a bit threadbare these days after extensive overuse, it's very engaging to ride along with an ambitious character such as Milo, who's well-rounded, smart as hell and -- brace yourselves -- proactive. Moments after his supervisors chastise him for chasing fairy tales, he is visited in his apartment by a leggy blonde named Helga Sinclair (Claudia Christian of Babylon 5), who makes him an offer he can't refuse. (No, not that.) She leads him to a crotchety billionaire, Preston B. Whitmore (John Mahoney), who offers Milo an irresistible invitation: to seek Atlantis on the expedition he's funding.

Enter the Ulysses, a state-of-the-art submarine far superior to any ships of our current age -- imagine Captain Nemo's Nautilus by way of James Cameron. Helming the mission is Commander Rourke (James Garner), a hardass treasure-hunter with a jaw like a Peterbilt. Immediately sizing up Milo is the mechanically inclined Audrey (Jacqueline Obradors), who offers, "Jeez ... I used to take lunch money from guys like this!" Milo catches flak from all angles, including Helga ("Cartographer, linguist, plumber -- hard to believe he's still single!") and, later, the entrancing Princess Kida of Atlantis (voice-over veteran Cree Summer), who opines to Milo, "You are a scholar -- judging by your diminished physique and enlarged forehead, you are not suited for anything else."

It's not out of place for people to die in large numbers (or suffer acute pain) in a sci-fi movie concerned primarily with geek-o-rama ships and explosions, but here the epic impact is properly leavened with loads of human quirks. Much of the movie's success can be attributed to the historically accurate touches (people kvetching about supernatural weapons being sold to "the kaiser") as well as a functional Atlantean language devised by Marc Okrand, the linguist responsible (to blame?) for Star Trek languages such as Klingon. Speaking of which, a rather raspy Leonard Nimoy turns up here as the morose King of Atlantis, with Jim Varney (now deceased) balancing him out in a saucy performance as Cookie, purveyor of "the four basic food groups: beans, bacon, whiskey and lard."

There's range to Atlantis, and insight, and verve, and that's why it works. It only seems extravagant to heap such praise upon a cartoon until one considers this pivotal line from Preston Whitmore: "Our lives are remembered by the gifts we leave our children." If only more billionaires felt that way and more studios produced such fine entertainment.

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