Heroes ventured into dark places this week. The Beauty and the Beast production team took us to an undersea civilization, and the director of Con Air gave us a movie version of the video game heroine Lara Croft, who took us into ancient tombs. Both films got some praise for their surface-level spectacle; but critics shot both stories full of holes. We're already halfway through 2001, and we can count on one hand the number of movies that have given us anything but that sinking feeling we've been duped out of another eight dollars.

Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Disney's latest animated movie-slash-marketing blitz, is ITS most ambitious project since The Lion King. It's an undersea adventure hybrid that recalls 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Phantom Menace, and the Indiana Jones films. Hold on to your popcorn … there aren't any cuddly animals or any sappy pop songs (at least until the end credits). Instead, Disney introduces heavy gunplay into an animated feature, and ramps up the adrenaline into its most feverishly energetic animated feature yet. Our hero is Milo Thatch, voiced with youthful enthusiasm by Michael J. Fox. Thatch is a young, slightly naïve linguist obsessed with stories of the sunken civilization. His quest plunges him—and a colorful variety pack of "experts"—through perilous depths until they find the legendary civilization submerged thousands of years ago by a devastating tidal wave.

Most critics agree that Atlantis might be a tad intense for the very young. But everyone agrees that the film contains some of Disney's most memorable, dazzling animation. And some are impressed with the story's ethical concerns. Movieguide claims, "The movie teaches the value of honor, compassion and relationships."

But the religious media took turns throwing rocks at the film's preoccupation with crystals and their "powers." Movieguide complains that the film "borrows from some occult, pagan theories about Atlantis being an advanced civilization powered by special energy crystals which the people worshiped. This gives the movie a confused, pluralistic worldview … another sign of the pluralistic paganism and romanticism of our age." Preview observes that this emphasis on the crystals "could mislead impressionable viewers." Phil Boatwright at The Dove Foundation praises the animators for yet another triumph, but strongly cautions parents: "Many consider the use of crystals as an occultic practice. Due to this spiritually misleading content, I cannot bring myself to recommend Atlantis for all ages."

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But according to Michael Elliott of Movie Parables, this magical element can be seen as a rewarding metaphor. "To look at this element from a positive perspective, there are some analogies that can be made to bring our minds back to reflect upon biblical truths. If we liken the Atlantian crystal energy to the awesome power of God, the shards of crystal which the Atlantians wear about their necks would then represent God's gift of the Holy Spirit which he gives to all who believe." (I don't know about you, but for me that's a bit of a stretch.)

The crystals are a problem for the movie in more ways than one. (I list several things that baffled me about Atlantis in my review at Looking Closer.) These fiery talismans are also just plain confusing. First we are led to marvel at these powerful stones that have somehow protected the undersea civilization. They seem to possess divine powers. But then we discover that the stones can be stolen by the first petty thief to come along, and our heroes must swing into action to try and catch the rock robbers. Why can the stones protect the city but not themselves? Further crystal behavior only confuses the matter. The crystal apparently needs to "take up" an Atlantis inhabitant every time it exhibits its powers. So why do some get to come back while others don't? And then we learn that the stone's abilities come from its collection of the "emotions" of the ancient Atlanteans. Would you take comfort knowing you were being protected by a bundle of emotions? I'd like to be protected by a mind as well as a heart.

Atlantis replaces the simple, applicable lessons of the usual Disney fairy tale with this mystical hooey that, despite its undersea locale, just doesn't hold water. There are other gaping plot holes as well. Yes, I was thrilled by many of the thrilling chase sequences, one of which seems to intentionally outdo the encounter with the undersea monsters in The Phantom Menace. But the many and varied characters are drawn in distractingly different styles, some recalling more sophisticated comic books while others seem unfinished, flat, and bland by comparison. Because of this, and because the pace of the movie prevented me from caring much about any of the characters, I found myself emotionally detached from everybody and everything by the end. Go see Atlantis if you're an animation buff, and you'll get a feast of visual fireworks. Just don't work too hard trying to figure out the story when it's over.

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Note: The news is full of people claiming that successful songs and movies were actually stolen from lesser-known artists. This time, evidence offered online makes an impressive argument that Disney's Atlantis may lean a little too heavily on a Japanese animated television series, Nadia: The Secret of the Blue Water. (Warning: There may be an advertisement at the top of the page that is less-than-honorable.) Coincidence, or plagiarism? You decide.

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After seeing Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, most critics know more about Angelina Jolie's body than about the plot of the movie. And the dollars show that moviegoers didn't mind that at all—Croft took the weekend's box office crown. Preview's critic notes, "Part of Lara's appeal for teen males is her exaggerated figure, but she's also a role model for females looking for strong, intelligent, yet feminine guides. The film flirts with the male audience by showing Lara in a shower and later dropping her towel, but women get equal time as [her former colleague] Alex is also seen sans wardrobe." Well, as long as it's fair …

At The Dove Foundation, Phil Boatwright doesn't seem to mind the film's indulgences. "Tomb Raider is a thrilling popcorn movie aimed at a youthful summer matinee crowd. It's loud and silly, but kind of fun. Adults who enjoyed the Indiana Jones films and the first two Batman installments may find … its quick and constant editing and its pounding, monotonous score less than satisfying. But adolescent males, who enjoy seeing a buffed-up woman kicking the tails of bad guys and shooting twin hybrid.45s, will likely find this actioner satisfying."

"Making a movie based on a video game makes about as much sense as writing an opera based on a carnival pastime like whack-a-mole," writes Peter Chattaway at The Vancouver Courier. "While some games come with a bit of a backstory, these narrative touches are usually little more than decoration, and serve no real purpose beyond giving the player an opportunity to breathe between combat sequences. The fight, not the play, is the thing. Alas, despite a budget to rival that of many blockbusters, and despite the efforts of half a dozen writers and an Oscar-winning actress in the lead, Tomb Raider is as soulless and dull as most films in this genre."

Mainstream critics had fun describing how empty this Tomb really is. At The New York Times, Elvis Mitchell calls Tomb Raider "about as much fun as watching someone else play a video game. This is probably the best translation of virtual warfare into a movie, which doesn't mean much in a field that also includes the likes of Super Mario Brothers and Mortal Kombat." The Chicago Sun-Times' Roger Ebert shrugs: "Did I enjoy the movie? Yes. Is it up there with the Indiana Jones pictures? No. Was I filled with suspense? No. But did I grin with delight at the absurdity it all? You betcha." "We think you're better off playing the videogame," says the critic at E! online. "At least there the characters don't speak."

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The Houston Chronicle's Eric Harrison writes, "Movies such as Tomb Raider and Charlie's Angels can be lauded for empowering women—that is, embodying a feminist ideal of strength and independence—while at the same time supplying pimply boys with fodder for hours of lustful contemplation." Huh? Encouraging young boys to objectify women as objects of lust … this is an admirable thing? Harrison does have a point, though, when he compares the works of director Simon West (who also directed Con Air and The General's Daughter) to Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones adventures. "It's ironic that Spielberg, whose 1975 movie Jaws was partly responsible for bringing Hollywood's last Golden Age to a close, should be praised now for the depth of his characterizations and shapeliness of his stories. Tomb Raider [makes] Spielberg's early blockbusters seem like Shakespeare."

Still Cooking

Swordfish, for which we provided a long list of critical lashings last week, proved immune to such complaints, remaining a strong Top 10 competitor. But it did fall behind Shrek, which has become the summer's biggest box office surprise. (See Digest below.)

Evolution also remained in the top ten, providing light lowbrow humor for sci-fi and adventure fans. David Bruce at Hollywood Jesus notes how the movie promotes, if unintentionally, an antiviolence message: "In a truly flower child spin, the film contrasts warlike solutions against peaceful solutions. As it turns out, the heat from the military actions only makes the monster alien bigger. Violence begets more violence." The writer discusses how contemporary mythology tends to portray the "good guys" going up against a variety of evils or "chaos monsters," and how, in a characteristic unique to this age, the evil is not entirely defeated. "It does not matter if current mythology reflects a simple solution (as here) or a complex theological solution … our myths always conclude leaving the back door open for more evil (gotta have sequels). Our mythology reflects the use of effective temporary solutions, yet at the same time, it tells us that we can never truly eliminate our chaos monsters. We have arrived at a place in culture where we realize we cannot save ourselves."

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Peter T. Chattaway at The Vancouver Courier echoed critics who found Evolution a weak descendant of director Ivan Reitman's previous hit, Ghostbusters. "There's one major problem with Evolution," he explains. "It isn't funny." He also takes issue with the character portrayed by Orlando Jones. "So many of his punchlines rely on the color of his black skin, you begin to feel a tad guilty for laughing at them. What does it say about a film when its most consistently funny jokes are the ones about race? And what does it say about a film when it mocks racial stereotypes, and then indulges in them anyway?"


Our ongoing Shrek debate has become the hottest issue we've yet discussed here at Film Forum. This week I could hardly keep up with all of the e-mail in my box. Many of you were quick to defend the movie from the accusations made by Eric Metaxas, writer for VeggieTales, whose essay "Happily Ever Ogre" appeared recently in Books & Culture. A few of you, on the other hand, defended Metaxas. There were good arguments on all sides.

Here is a brief sampling of a few of those letters. (Identified writers have given permission for their names to appear.)

BEWARE: If you have not seen the film, these letters contain spoilers about the film's surprising conclusion.

  • Christopher Atwood was excited about Metaxas's essay, calling it "a breath of fresh air, written by someone who seems to really understand what fairy tales are about. As sensitive interpreters have always recognized, marriage and 'happily ever after' in fairy tales are about more than marriage, they are about the soul's receptivity to God. Endings like Shrek's ridicule the yearning for perfection, for true union, for eternal sinlessness which is found everywhere and always and which the Gospel holds out to us as a fact. In the resurrection we will be like the angels, we will be radiant without stain or wrinkle, and the bride of Christ will shine with the glory of God and with a brilliance like a precious jewel. No thanks to DreamWorks for trying to shut out one of the stray beams of true light and persuade us all, like the Green Witch in The Silver Chair, that this world is all there is or ever has been or forever will be, and that the immortal soul is a myth."
  • Mike Cordle, father of four and a 12-year veteran of mission work with New Tribes Mission in New Guinea, writes, "We all loved the movie. Movies are a big part of how we 'escape' from our host culture. We missionaries watch lots of them." He was thrilled to see Princess Fiona transformed back into her true self, as an ogre, rather than remaining under the "spell" of Barbie-ish glamor. "[As we approached the moment] when I knew we'd find out what Fiona's true appearance would be … I was literally getting a sick feeling in my stomach as I was expecting the disappointing, typical poof into 'beauty.' I was very delighted when she did not 'change.' Actually, she did change … much like the Mel Gibson character in The Man Without a Face. By the time we got to the end of [Man Without a Face], we no longer saw the 'ugly' burn on his face. We only saw him as a man of integrity and appropriate male beauty. That's the exact sort of change I saw in Shrek and thus couldn't stop myself from singing with all the wonderful fairy tale figures at the end of the movie. Sorry, though I really do love the VeggieTales, Metaxas is wrong this time."
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  • This unconventional ending also pleased Michael Crites, an assistant pastor: "I particularly appreciated the ending of Shrek. For once, one's future happiness was shown to not hinge on the superficial. I don't mind at all that my children be told that a person's character (inner beauty) is what really matters."
  • David Spor defends the film's skewering of Disney clichés on grounds that it is merely being true to its genre. "Though its humor was at times gratuitously crude, the movie was fundamentally a satire. It's supposed to be characterized with 'unalleviated puncturing,' to use Mr. Metaxas's phrase. Finding the 'unalleviated puncturing' of a satire tiring is rather like complaining of the 'relentless seriousness' of a drama or the 'incessant humor' of a comedy." He adds: "Far from reflecting the 'brave new moral' of the moderns, it turns an old movie prejudice against the plain and the ugly on its head and reaffirms the Christian notion that man's appearance has nothing to do with his value (see James 2:2-6). In being transformed permanently into an ogre, the Princess finds the form of true love, the form of the one who truly loves her."
  • Lori Cossens confesses, "I and my husband, both once geeky teenagers who are still not Ken and Barbie, cried several times throughout the movie. Our 12-year-old son, much the better adjusted and rather handsome, did not. He did appreciate the movie, however, and liked the fresh, honest approach."
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  • Mark insists, "Shrek's message is a breath of fresh air. The idea that girls/women need not be 'hotties' to succeed in life is very welcome."
  • "I tend to agree with Metaxas," argues Kathy Van Stralen. "The fact that Fiona stays ugly and is loved by Shrek doesn't say she is loved and beautiful on the inside, it says that she is only loved by another ogre. I think DreamWorks simply found delight in puncturing our fairy tale memories."
  • But Bonnie L. suggests Shrek is being truer to ancient fairy tales than even Disney. "I agree with those who feel that Fiona as a beautiful ogress finding true love with the ogre was a wonderful ending! Further, fairy tales as we currently know them … first from Hans Christian Anderson, then Bowdlerized, and then from Disney … have all had all the 'juice' taken out of them and become prettified. Shrek was more in spirit with the originals."
  • David L. Carson takes an entirely different approach: "Too many Christians believe that salvation instantly makes them into fairy-tale characters with no problems or warts. Few churches show believers how to patiently grow, warts and all, into Christ. One day He will return to finally give us 'love's true form.' Until then, maybe we could learn to put aside the beauty masks and learn to be real about the ogre inside us all."
  • Youth Missioner Jay Phillippi began his letter exalting the virtues of Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber, the VeggieTales characters who encourage moral behavior in youngsters. Then Phillippi argues that Shrek "falls in love with the inner Fiona" and asks naysayers, "What part of that message offends? I think Mr. Metaxas needs to have a little talk with Bob and Larry."

Then there were several readers who were distressed that this debate was going on at all. They recommended that we all just "enjoy the movie instead of judging it and talk about something that will really affect the way someone thinks about the real world."

To that I would say, for many of us, close analysis and debate are part of the enjoyment of moviegoing. If we are to "test all things," as Scripture charges us, and if our minds are to dwell on all that is "of good repute," we need to sharpen our critical skills for any occasion. Sure, we run the risk of becoming snobs, and thus it is important for us to balance our opinions with compassion, humility, and the willingness to listen to others. This is a discipline of discernment, an exercise in developing "the mind of Christ." Do you swallow whatever anybody serves you? Is it "judgmental" to read the ingredients before you snack?

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A final thought: In wrapping up this three-week Shrek-a-thon, I'm beginning to wonder if this debate might not be caused by a simple misunderstanding. I actually agree with Metaxas—fairy tales like Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaidcan be seen as powerful allegories of the human spirit longing to be "changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye," transformed into the unblemished perfection that God has designed for us through his grace. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien made similar arguments, getting to the spiritual truths underlying many lasting fairy tales. We long to be lifted from our sins, made new.

But I don't think Shrek is attacking fairy tales … I think it is poking fun at the way they are told, especially by Disney. Disney does not only supply us with stories … it delivers images. And the relentlessness of Disney's images has a powerful and detrimental effect on our culture. While the fairy tales tell one truth, the imagery of Disney movies is having its own influence. Generations have been raised seeing Disney's approximation of a physical definition of beauty that is usually white, slender, Barbie-and-Kennish. (And Disney isn't alone. Advertising in all its forms, network television, fashion … you name it. The media sell us every day an idea that your beauty is defined by your appearance.) This has come to feed our obsession with judging a person's value by their conforming to a certain "type." I don't think Jeffrey Katzenberg of DreamWorks would tell you that Beauty and the Beast is a bad story. He just wanted to tell a different one, with a different lesson. Disney's The Little Mermaid illustrates the longing to be made new and reunited with the Bridegroom. Shrek illustrates our need, as broken creatures, to love each other for more than just our physical appearance … to learn to see each other through the eyes of love. I received another letter just as I finished this column. The writer says, "What did God say to Samuel? I think it was, 'Man looks on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart.'"

CORRECTION: Last week's Film Forum included a reader recommendation of the film Central Station, which was referred to as an Argentinean film. It is actually a Brazilian film.

Next week: No, I haven't forgotten about your movie recommendations. This week's column has run long, though, so we'll be sure to include some of them next week. We'll also check out critical response to The Fast and the Furious and Doctor Dolittle 2. (Don't worry … only one week until Spielberg arrives to try to save the summer.)

Related Elsewhere

See earlier Film Forum postings for these other movies in the box-office top ten: Pearl Harbor, Moulin Rouge, The Animal, What's the Worst That Could Happen? and The Mummy Returns.