By Owen Gleiberman
June 15, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

The hero of Disney’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire is a terrifyingly enthusiastic young museum scholar named Milo who wears giant circular specs and talks (in the voice of Michael J. Fox) with a breakneck alacrity you rarely hear outside of cartoons. On a submarine voyage to find the mythical city of Atlantis, Milo is accompanied by a crew of ”colorful” assistants who babble on in the same tone of tireless jovial zeal; we might be watching 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea starring the cast of Scooby-Doo. The sub reaches Atlantis, a series of ruins in paradise, but with its pristine cliffs and forests and waterfalls, the place just looks like the world’s most ancient biosphere.

Has my eye, seduced by the devious and tactile delights of Shrek, already evolved in tandem with the technological leaps in computer animation? Or is Atlantis simply a Disney dud? A bit of both, perhaps. But it does feel as if the studio’s animators are huffing and puffing to create new marvels out of an arsenal of image tropes — water flowing, lava erupting, earth cracking, a mystical crystal glowing — that we long ago gawked at and digested. Atlantis, with its gee-whiz formulaic characters, is the essence of craft without dream, but the movie, in a strange way, is more personal than the artists who made it realize. Its real lost empire might almost be the day that hand-drawn animation in the conventionally Colorform Disney style could still saturate us with wonder.