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Atlantis: The Lost Empire – 2 Movie Collection

Walt Disney Feature Animation (May 22 2001), Walt Disney Home Entertainment (June 11 2013), Blu-ray plus two DVD set, 96 mins plus supplements, 1080p high-definition 2.35:1 widescreen, 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, Rated PG, Retail: $29.99

Storyboard:

A young wannabe explorer is picked to lead a mysteriously funded and risky expedition to search for the lost continent of Atlantis…

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The Sweatbox Review:

Of all the three of Disney’s June 11 Blu-ray upgrade titles (The Emperor’s New Groove, Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Lilo And Stitch), Atlantis is perhaps the most derided, even though it offers up a totally different kind of animated experience. It’s also interesting that these three films, coming to disc together on the same date, also represent the “Disney canon” titles of successive years, the first being released in 2000, Atlantis in 2001 and the last in 2002. This timeframe seemed to somehow mark the end of the 1990s Disney renaissance, when the Studio’s films – on a high since the decade’s early one-two-three-punch of Beauty And The Beast’s Best Picture nomination, the commercial success of Aladdin and the record-breaking phenomenon of The Lion King – saw declining returns on the next few features (films that, in retrospect, were probably too seriously minded at trying to be the next Beauty or Lion to succeed in an animation landscape that was becoming dominated by CGI comedies).

Tarzan, in 1999, was arguably the last hurrah of the kind of vibe that had defined the technological, artistic and commercial breakthroughs of the Studio’s past ten years or so, becoming a bigger success than most of the films that had come immediately before. Although hits, the likes of Pocahontas, The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, Mulan and Hercules had proved less successful in the second half of the 1990s, when Pixar’s rise had resulted in Toy Story, A Bug’s Life and Toy Story 2. Disney also had to contend with the growing rivalry of DreamWorks, co-founded by Disney’s previous Studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg, who had spearheaded the creative impetus that powered Disney to its enormous critical and commercial success in the 1990s. The Oscar nomination, but ultimate losing to The Silence Of The Lambs, for Beauty propelled him to find a project that could win the award, the feeling being that it should be a picture with mature intent so that it could be taken seriously as an awards contender.

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By the end of the 1990s, internal politics meant Katzenberg had left the Mouse House, continuing his pursuit with his new company DreamWorks’ take on The Ten Commandments, The Prince Of Egypt and, ultimately, somewhat fulfilling his intention by winning the first Best Animated Feature prize with Shrek. Several films instigated by Katzenberg were still on the drawing boards, naturally, when he departed, and although his departure meant that film one such project, Kingdom Of The Sun, would be retooled as the knockabout comedy The Emperor’s New Groove, there persisted a notion of serious intent at the Studio that wouldn’t really be broken until Lilo And Stitch. Into this atmosphere dropped the idea for an animated action movie…a throwback to the kinds of adventure stories that its filmmakers had grown up watching in the 1950s and 60s, and many of which had been made by Walt Disney himself.

In the late 1990s, there was not much holding the team of producer Don Hahn and director duo Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale back: they had been responsible for Beauty’s breakthrough and, between them, Hahn had followed it up with the enormous commercial success of The Lion King while Wise and Trousdale earned critical praise for not screwing up the Disneyfied take on Hugo’s The Hunchback Of Notre Dame. The breaks were off and what all three had set their hearts on was an epic 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and Swiss Family Robinson styled adventure never truly before attempted in animation on a major scale. In many ways, and despite the resulting Atlantis not quite matching the Disney’s two concurrent Blu-ray releases in terms of box office, the film was a money-spinner for the Studio and, more importantly, sits well alongside these two other films as another true departure.

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Whereas Groove was an out and out comedy rescuing of a project in trouble, and Lilo And Stitch would mix sci-fi elements into what was otherwise a straight Disney story, Atlantis stands out in the Studio’s line-up as essentially being an animated Jerry Bruckheimer picture. There are no songs, save for a drippy end-credit ballad released for promotional tie-in purposes by the then-hot singer Mya, and the visuals take an altogether different approach, almost aping the Alex Toth type of comic book style of such 1960s television cartoons as Johnny Quest. In fact, and following a trend that had begun by hiring satirical illustrator Gerald Scarfe as a production designer for Hercules as a way for the Disney artists to rely less on the tricks they had built up over the years, the look of Atlantis is largely down to famed comics artist Mike Mignola, perhaps best known for his creation of Hellboy.

Although music is often indelibly linked to the Studio’s films, Disney had tried altering the nature of their inclusion since Pixar’s Toy Story used them as overlaid tracks, not musical cues, and arguably created more depth by going the same route for Tarzan and, eventually, dropping a song component completely for its first own computer animated picture, Dinosaur, whose biggest saving grace, probably, was the terrific score written by James Newton Howard. He’s back again for Atlantis, and would be again for the Studio’s Treasure Planet, making up, along with Don Bluth’s Titan AE, an unofficial “tradigitally” animated trio of similarly themed science-fiction led films. Indeed, Atlantis is really the first time sci-fi has come to Disney’s feature animated movies, notwithstanding Ward Kimball’s crazy takes on space exploration for Walt’s 1950s television program.

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Dropping a musical approach hasn’t always worked out well for the Studio: they’ve tried it before with other movies that broke away from the “Disney style” and it hasn’t always worked. The Black Cauldron marked the end of the original run of Disney pictures, and was a dark, PG-rated attempt at the kinds of sword and sorcery epics that had been big business in the 1980s. An action-adventure approach had also been taken with The Rescuers Down Under in the early 1990s, and although the film remains a favorite with its audience, it struggled to match the success of the original The Rescuers film that had been a big hit in 1977. In some ways, it’s easy to make lazy comparisons with Atlantis: the film was the first to be produced in the anamorphic widescreen process since Cauldron, and the first to be rated PG since that release too.

But making these observations overlooks the uniqueness of the movie itself, which does actually break away from the usual Disney conventions with some style, while also retaining a link with the Studio’s past. With 20,000 Leagues and Swiss Family Robinson proving to launch many copycat productions based on the works of Jules Verne and HG Wells, Atlantis grabs back some of that ground, coming up with an original adventure story that grounds itself fairly authentically by being set in 1914, allowing for some typically fanciful inventions and incredible prototype machinery. Another inspiration was Disneyland’s Adventureland, with the directors wishing to make a movie that could be featured in another area of the park to the Fantasyland films they had previously made (in the event of Atlantis’ perceived failure, Disneyland’s Atlantis-revamp of the classic Submarine Voyage would be cancelled, alongside a planned TV show; its first few episodes would be edited into the direct to video sequel added in this set).

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However, Atlantis is still appreciated by a large audience, mostly down to Mignola’s designs and the completely different approach to a Disney picture than we are accustomed to, and the film received a warm round of remembrances when it became an oft-cited subject of the debate over the originality of James Cameron’s Avatar, with which it certainly shares several striking similarities, from its sometimes blue-skinned Atlanteans to its basic plot of a young human man finding, and then joining, their race and battling against his own kind to keep his discovery safe. It really is the kind of boy’s own adventures that they don’t make ’em like anymore, given a sci-fi spin and a lot of animated action. Holding it all together is a spirited Michael J Fox, who for a time moved into voice acting on such films as Stuart Little and this when the progression of Parkinson’s disease seemed to put the brakes on his movie career.

As a huge Fox fan and, of course, of Back To The Future, it’s great to hear him again in a lead role, and his Milo Thatch (“Carrots! Why are there always carrots?”) is a terrific combination of brains and, when the time comes, unexpected brawn. He’s joined by a “dirty dozen” of character actors, all of whom have their little “specialities” in the cast, including James Garner, Leonard Nimoy, David Ogden Stiers, Claudia Christian (as a very risqué femme fatale of the kind that probably had her part in the film’s rating), John Mahoney, veteran animation vocalist Corey Burton in a rare credited role and Jim Varney, also of the Toy Story series, here giving his last performance. These characters are great fun, although at times one may wish they had been given a little more to actually do

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For if anything is amiss in a big action movie like Atlantis: The Lost Empire, it’s the lack of much big action. Sure, there is intrigue, there’s danger and there are a couple of stand-out action moments in the Leviathan attack (in which the crew’s Ulysses submarine, making a reminiscent link with Captain Nemo’s vessel in 20,000 Leagues, is destroyed) and a final race against time, but production revisions meant the loss of several other big creature battles that would have undoubtedly livened things up a little more. On the flipside, the ensemble character cast and prolonged trip from our planet’s surface to the ocean floor and further excavation through the center of the Earth to find Atlantis itself allows for some real rounding of the personalities and a chance to get to know them, something you don’t usually get to see in animation everyday.

Thank-goodness for these elements, as well as the assured way they are handled by the vocal performers and their animators, since Atlantis: The Lost Empire could feel awfully long without something to keep the interest going in the characters quest. Even then, the film is mostly engaging on a visual scale while the sometimes pedestrian story slows enough to make one wish for another action moment to come along. The world of Atlantis is well realized in a combination of research and art design but the sometimes hokey spiritualization of its people (headed up by Nimoy as a doomed King) can feel a little laid on too thick to want to bother about caring about. Talk can be good, but not in such a visual medium as animation, when things that couldn’t be done in live-action should be the main order of the day.

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I do sound as if I have taken a bashing to Atlantis here, but genuinely I do believe it’s a unique feature in the “Disney canon”. It does have its weaknesses but on seeing it again in this impressive HD rendering, I’m reminded of its strengths too. It’s true that it’s not really a film that younger kids will appreciate, even given the old-school yarning and Saturday morning adventure cartoon feel of a bygone age, but I’m guessing that adults who saw it as kids will find a new admiration here, being able to go with the characters with a bit of nostalgia to help them along. On the flipside, the action moments, when they come, are very well done and remain a huge part of the enjoyment of the movie, being dramatically staged and again impressing my now older and probably more appreciative eyes.

Going for the Star Wars crowd with its May opening proved to be an elusive goal, and although the idea of an action – animated or otherwise – movie opening in the summer isn’t anything new, I wonder if the film would have stood more chance in Disney’s more usual Thanksgiving period where it wouldn’t have been up against the kind of live-action pictures it sought to emulate or, indeed, a certain little movie called Shrek from Katzenberg’s DreamWorks. Traditional Disney animation would still score another triumph with Lilo And Stitch just one year later, but Atlantis: The Lost Empire would prove to be Disney’s final creative gamble and visual experiment; just three more films would be released in the classical medium that had built the Studio before John Lasseter would attempt to revive it for just a couple of efforts. In many ways, Atlantis’ extensive use of CGI foreshadowed exactly the kinds of film that it would compete with and ultimately lose its audiences to, but it’s actually a much better film than you might have heard or even remember.

Is This Thing Loaded?

Originally announced as coming earlier in the year, I wonder if this is why Atlantis: The Lost Empire has escaped the curse of the concurrently released The Emperor’s New Groove and Lilo And Stitch (which contain a few scant extras on their bundled in DVDs only) to actually retain much – but by no means all – of the material to be found in the extensive 2-Disc Collector’s Edition DVD set from shortly after the film’s theatrical release. That’s on top of also finding room for the G-rated direct-to-video sequel Atlantis: Milo’s Return, running 80 minutes and originally released in 2003.

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Well…and I thought The Hunchback Of Notre Dame II was bad! Not really as much of a sequel as much as it is the kind of Saturday morning cartoon the original movie was visually referencing, Milo’s Return is the pretty pathetic remnants of the planned TV series Team Atlantis, canned after the movie didn’t find the audience that was hoped for. A true DTV sequel, The Shards Of Chaos had been on the boards, but was likewise cancelled, leaving the first three episodes of Team Atlantis almost complete and with nowhere to go. Planned as a semi-follow-up to Disney’s unexpected television hit Gargoyles and aimed at the same audience, Team Atlantis would feature a “creature of the week”, which Milo and his Atlantean Queen wife Kida would explore and, if need be, destroy.

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Naturally, cutting together three of these kinds of episodes makes for a very episodic “movie”, even if additional animation was completed to best tie the episodes together as well as creating a more suitable ending than just leaving it open in anticipation of a following week’s story that would never come. However, it’s not just the episodic nature that is Milo’s Return’s downfall. Saddled with a dull title for a start, and without any establishing logos that suggest this is a authentic production, the opening is cringe worthy in its execution, as if it had been ripped from the pre-title explanation of what we were about to see in a 1980s cartoon series, complete with a returning Cree Summer narrating a clunky introduction as Kida by way of forging some continuation from the end of the theatrical movie.

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While some other voices also reprise their roles (Mahoney and Burton to pick just two), the sub-par level of execution extends to James Arnold Taylor’s step-in for Fox as Milo, doing his best to mimic the actor but only just capturing a little of the flavor, while the animation, while it may actually suit the flatter Mignola comic book style, fails to bring anything to those designs in the way the feature artists more than managed to do (indeed, whenever I see The Lost Empire, it never fails to impress me that the animators gave such believable movement to what were striking but two-dimensional designs). I was hoping that there would at least be a little of interest in the storyline(s), but even here I didn’t find anything to hold my attention.

Globe trotting around like the underwater equivalent of Mystery Incorporated, there are one or two twists and turns: in the first story of a Kraken creature who is believed to be controlled by a local magistrate (Clancy Brown) but is actually the one in control, or the last encounter with lava and ice beasts out to submerge the entire world by way of Ragnarök, there is a little excitement to be had, if only on that same Saturday morning level, but the central episode, which features Thomas F Wilson as a guest voice, isn’t anything special at all and suggests more than anything how uneventful an actual series might have been, albeit one produced in the 16:9 widescreen format and so at least looking a bit respectable.

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I can’t be as harsh on this as I was with Hunchback II, since the intention here was never to make a stand-alone movie, and to salvage anything out of three unrelated television episodes and make anything cohesive out of it at all is a minor triumph in itself. As such it probably doesn’t deserve its reputation as the worst of the Disney “cheapquels” (that dubious honor is Hunchback II’s all the way!), but it shouldn’t be seen for much more than what it is either. A lame excuse to pad the running time out is clear from the extremely spaced out and slow to crawl credits (which again note Mignola as a visual contributor), which also credits Walt Disney Television Animation and not the DisneyToon Studios, which explains a lot!

Thankfully, the inclusion of a pretty dire “sequel” isn’t the only thing offered as a bonus, and although the additional material is all presented in standard definition, there’s a huge amount to plough through – the pleasing result of The Lost Empire coming right at the end of Disney’s toon boom and receiving the deluxe two-disc DVD treatment before those lavish kinds of sets would disappear not long afterwards. Disney’s Blu-ray updates usually rest on the final past release of the movie in question, but luckily the producers of this disc have delved into the two-disc edition rather than the single disc that was also put out, taking the Treasure Planet option to present a healthy portion of that material here.

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Topping things is a light and fresh Audio Commentary with Hahn, Trousdale and Wise, who follow up their warm and intelligent (but never too far from a joke!) remarks for Beauty And The Beast and The Hunchback Of Notre Dame with wit and plenty of information covering everything from initial concepts through to final animation. The DVD set’s first disc was pretty much dedicated to the film, but it did also pioneer the use of seamless branching to incorporate a “visual commentary” that would insert snippets of video between the filmmakers’ audio comments – these elements (including a couple of Deleted Scenes, development clips and art galleries including Mignola concepts totally around 20 minutes of material) are sadly missing, but the rest of the second discs’ content has been transferred to this new BD.

This includes the incredible, extensive documentary The Making Of Atlantis, clocking in at two hours! Originally part of a “tour” through the production’s process and offered as individual featurettes, this Play All presentation is more akin to the comprehensive account to be found on the Beauty And The Beast Diamond Edition BD, and covers everything in much detail, from a Tour Intro that I think has been lifted from the start of the visual commentary, and The Journey Begins, which looks back at the origins of the film and how it was launched as an attempt to keep the Hunchback crew together, to Creating Mythology’s blend of research and fiction, and Finding The Story, naturally extending that process into the film’s plotline.

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The developmental angle continues with Designing Atlantis, exploring the film’s production design, while Setting The Scene, The Voices Of Atlantis and Creating The Characters delve deep into the environments, visual creation and eventual vocalists of the film’s cast, speaking to animators and actors alike about their takes on each and every one of Atlantis’ many personalities. At this point, we’re only just past being half-way through, so there’s still lots to see: Digital Production looks at the integration of CGI models and props (unfortunately forgoing a good few minutes of tests and flyarounds), while Music And Sound completes the film by adding these elements to the finished product, and Atlantis Found makes a suitable epilogue as the film is premiered and the filmmakers reflect back on the immense journey they have undertaken.

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Each of these sub-headings also linked to further content on the DVD, mainly in the form of extensive still galleries that Disney refuses to update for their Blu-ray offerings. This is most frustrating in that it requires a revisit to those older sets, but that’s what they’re there for, right, and I guess they then do retain some “exclusivity” and reason to hold on to them. Yes, it would be much more convenient to have all the supplements in one place, but Disney clearly doesn’t think so and I can’t see them starting now. It’s pretty cool to at least have this documentary and, although it often covers the same territory as the commentary and does feature a substantial amount of development art, this is about a definitive account of an animated production as one could ask for and does invite a new appreciation for what the filmmakers set out to accomplish and what they achieved.

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On top of the documentary, a handful of other featurettes are also included from the film’s single disc edition: How To Speak Atlantean plays like a jokey educational film from the 1950s, with linguist Marc Okrand, who also created Klingon for Star Trek, demonstrating the film’s new tongue for a couple of minutes. Atlantis: Fact Or Fiction takes the DVD’s interactive vignettes about various legends and aspects of what is known about the mythical city and presents them as one featurette, running over six minutes and being quite interesting even if the kid-angle makes everything sound like Atlantis could be discovered by one of them in their back yard!

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Picking up where the documentary leaves off, Publicity offers up a trio of Theatrical Trailers (two teasers and one full preview, losing a fourth and poster gallery from the DVD) and four Deleted Scenes include the switched-at-the-last-minute, fully animated Viking Prologue (an opening idea that would be borrowed for the DTV film) as well as three storyboarded sequences that would have introduced more beastly peril for our intrepid explorers to do battle with: The Squid Bats, The Lava Whales and The Land Beast, adding up to around 16 minutes’ worth of abandoned material. The film’s sequel gets a Milo’s Return Deleted Scene, too, but it’s hardly worth it: a Baby Kraken Sequence that runs just thirty seconds and only features a couple of seconds of alternate animation.

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On the included DVDs, Atlantis’ disc is sadly not a replication of the first platter from the Collector’s DVD, instead being a replication of the film’s original single-disc issue from the same time. It does include the Audio Commentary on a THX-approved widescreen transfer, but unfortunately not the visual version with the added 20 minutes of clips and stills, and also contains the Viking Prologue, How To Speak Atlantean, Atlantis: Fact Or Fiction and two Digital Models clips (offering flyarounds of the Leviathan and the Ulysses), as well as a now redundant but strangely quaint “fullscreen” 1.33:1 pan-and-scan cropping of the main feature that predictably loses all the handsomeness of the widescreen framing. The film’s sequel DVD contains just a lame Search For The Spear Of Destiny set-top game and the thirty-second Deleted Scene.

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Case Study:

Ostensibly appearing like the rest of Disney’s June 11 titles on the front with a “3 Disc Special Edition” tag along the top, I suspect that Atlantis’ overall package was actually completed some time ago, before the Studio decided to drop extras from the 2-Movie Collection Blu-rays and only retain what was on the films’ original DVD discs, also bundled in, to begin with. If that’s the case, then it’s not such a rosy outlook for any upcoming double feature sets, and we can only hope that future updates to Disney’s classics don’t lose their extras altogether! Here, though, the packaging retains the table/chart on the back of the pack, listing the contents to be found on the set’s three discs as well as the discs’ aspect ratio specs – something unbelievably missing on the concurrent Groove and Lilo And Stitch releases.

In a nice move, and in keeping more with the treatment given to The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, the designers have again wisely played down the sequel’s inclusion, quite understandably, and use one of The Last Empire’s moody theatrical posters for the sleeve’s front, giving precedence to the original film with suitably glossy gold lettering while Milo’s Return silver is flatter and not as emphasized. One thing that does betray the way these titles seem to be rolling out as quick as can be, however, is that in an attempt to line up the central A with the power of Kida’s crystal, the princess herself finds her head cut off by the BD logo at the top of the cover, while the COL of 2-Movie Collection is slapped across her face. Not a great way to treat one of your leads or show up the subtle artwork – and the As still don’t line up anyway!

Ink And Paint:

As with any of Disney’s catalog BD upgrades, the images are the reason we should be at all interested, especially given that so many of these 2-Movie Collections keep dropping satisfying extras to include their less satisfying video sequels as a bonus. Atlantis fares better than most in retaining its documentary but luckily this doesn’t have any impact on the main feature’s presentation, which looks suitably stunning. While the film’s initial DVD was among the first of the Studio’s 16:9 presentations and looked great for the time, it’s been updated here to look great in HD for 2013, and thankfully the colors retain their natural Earthy tones and haven’t been boosted falsely.

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The image is potentially a little too sharp for the animation style (or could it be that some edge enhancement is trying to make things look cleaner?), but then the flat designs of Atlantis’ comic book approach and the rounder renderings of the now more obvious CG elements never did always mesh convincingly well. But this is a very filmic transfer, retaining the ’Scope-style cinematic approach in its framing, contrast and lighting: compare it to the much less visually rich DTV where everything looks plain and the dated HD video transfer only shows up the hamfisted television animation even more. It looks clean enough, but there’s not much to be said for Milo’s Return in any capacity.

Scratch Tracks:

A fantastic action-adventure track that doesn’t sound dated and still impresses today, Atlantis: The Lost Empire is as much big fun as the movie is! Dialogue is anchored and audible, while the music score comes majestically to the fore when required and effects spots are supported by terrific bass that gives real force to the many pyrotechnics. There’s not much more to say than that: this is a top-grade track that has fun with its multi-directional abilities, while again the video sequel lags in being able to bring anything more than is needed to the speakers. Front-heavy and lacking in any real depth, Milo’s Return can count Don Harper’s music as a stronger point than most but the mix, probably because it was being completed only so as to not throw finished work away, doesn’t add any real punch to what is an adequate-only track that can’t match the explosive dynamics of its predecessor.

Final Cut:

Don’t throw out your Collector’s Edition DVDs! While Atlantis: The Lost Empire pleases greatly by including the comprehensive two-hour documentary and a sliver of additional extras, that original DVD set contained so much more in the way of still galleries, animation tests and further explorations of the animation process. Carrying over much but by no means all of it here should be enough for those coming to the title for the first time to learn about the film’s production and, coupled with a stellar transfer for the main feature and the begrudging but suitable-enough inclusion of the TV series’ first three episodes in their video sequel guise, this has to be one of Disney’s better Blu-ray upgrades. Not one has been the definitive archival presentation of any of the Studio’s animated films, but this comes closer than most and provides for a good context in which to enjoy the underrated feature again.

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?


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