Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)
Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise
Milo Thatch is a linguist for the Smithsonian in the 1910s, who has been busted all the way down to boiler repairman for his outlandish theories about the lost island of Atlantis. After his latest failed attempt to convince the museum board to back his proposed expedition, he encounters a mysterious woman with a proposition for him. She takes him to meet the eccentric millionaire Preston Whitmore, a former associate of Milo’s grandfather – a famous explorer who ruined his career searching for Atlantis as Milo has done. Whitmore reveals that their shared theories are true, and presents Milo with the Shepherd’s Journal, an ancient diary containing the map to Atlantis. As a favor to the grandson of his friend, he invites Milo to accompany his crew on the first attempt to follow the Journal’s instructions.
On board the submarine built for the expedition, Milo meets the rest of the crew. Led by Commander Rourke, they’re a motley group of international mercenaries that haze Milo pretty fiercely at first before warming to him. As it reaches its destination, the submarine is attacked by a mechanical guardian of Atlantis. The ship is destroyed, but the crew escapes in life pods, and begins to trek through the underground caverns towards their destination.
After several misadventures, they reach Atlantis itself, and discover that it is somehow still populated after multiple millennia underground. Milo befriends Kida, daughter of the king, by speaking their language. By showing her the journal, he also reveals that he can read Atlantean – something that they themselves have forgotten how to do over the centuries. He uses his linguist skills to decipher murals that tell how the power source maintaining Atlantis functions. However, Rourke and the rest of the mercenaries turn on him and Kida, as their mission wasn’t actually one of discovery, but of treasure-seeking.
When Rourke forces his way into the chamber of the power source (called the Heart of Atlantis), Kida becomes possessed by it. Now provided with a convenient way to transport the Heart, Rourke kidnaps her with plans of selling her on the surface. With the Heart removed, Atlantis turns dark and its water source begins to dry up. Seeing this, most of the mercenaries have a change of heart and side with Milo. Rourke abandons them, and makes his way to a dormant volcano to escape. Milo uses his knowledge to bring Atlantis’s tech back to life, and a battle ensues between Rourke and the Atlanteans. Rourke gets blown up, but the volcano erupts, and Atlantis is barely saved by the timely return of Kida and the Heart. The king gives the mercenaries a bunch of gold to return to the surface with, and Milo stays in Atlantis with Kida.
The impetus for Atlantis came from a meeting that directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise had with their producers at a Mexican restaurant in 1996. They’d just finished work on The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and over nachos and tequila they discussed keeping the Hunchback crew together to work on something more action-driven. Taking inspiration from the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ride at Disneyland (which itself was based on a live-action Disney adventure from the 50s), they decided to do a movie based on the legend of Atlantis. In keeping with the inspiration, they decided to break from the then-current trend of Broadway musicals and make a full-on action movie instead. The crew actually made up T-shirts that read “Fewer songs, more explosions” during production.
Joss Whedon was actually the first writer to be picked for the project, having just co-written Toy Story for Pixar. But he soon dropped out to do Buffy the Vampire Slayer instead, and Tab Murphy (writer of Hunchback and Tarzan) finished the script instead. To make the Atlantean civilization more realistic, linguist Marc Okrand (creator of the Klingon language for Star Trek) was brought in to create their spoken language and to train the actors.
To complete the classic adventure movie feel that they were going for, Trousdale and Wise really wanted Atlantis to be presented in anamorphic widescreen. Anamorphic (a 2.4 to 1 width to height screen ratio) had been widely used in classic adventure films such as Raiders of the Lost Ark, but was significantly wider than Disney’s typical ratio of 1.66 to 1. Since all of their existing equipment was designed for the smaller format, using anamorphic would mean adding millions to the budget to purchase all new gear. They managed to get around this by simply narrowing the drawing boxes on the existing animation tables instead, and drawing at a slightly smaller scale than usual. CG was also used to smooth over some of the issues this caused, and some entire scenes (most notably the underwater fight between the submarine and the Leviathan guardian) were 50% or more CG.
Atlantis was Disney’s first real attempt to market a movie using the Internet. A Kellogg’s cereal tie-in was promoted with games and downloadable coupons on a website, and games were also produced for early cellphones. The movie faced some pretty stiff competition at the box office, however. It was released about a month after DreamWorks’s mega-hit Shrek, which siphoned off a lot of the audience (and would later win the first Best Animated Feature Oscar, for which Atlantis wasn’t even nominated). It failed to break $100 million in the US, and critical reviews were mixed at best, praising the visuals but criticizing the story and character development.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A linguist is obsessed with and has conspiracy theories about an ancient culture. After the failure of his latest attempt to convince people of his claims, he is contacted by an old rich person with a proposal. After determining that his theories are true, he accompanies an armed group on a mission to investigate his discovery. Once they have reached their destination, they find that there are still people living there, whom the linguist befriends by learning their language and teaching them writing (falling in love with the daughter of their leader in the process). He eventually discovers that the leader of their expedition came with dangerous ulterior motives…
Of course, I’m describing the 1994 movie Stargate, starring James Spader and Kurt Russell. The similarities in the premises of both films is hard to ignore, especially considering that I’ve already written about Stargate for the nostalgia half of this blog. I’m not going to go so far as to claim actual deliberate plagiarizing, but I’m not ruling it out as a possibility, either. It probably didn’t help things that the original screenplay for Atlantis came in at 155 pages (WAY longer than the typical Disney film), and a lot of things that may have differentiated the two got left on the cutting room floor to fit it into the standard Disney 90-minute running time.
Speaking of things getting left on the cutting room floor, that might actually be my biggest problem with Atlantis. The action is for the most part on-point, but where the movie really suffers is in the character and script department. It definitely feels like there should be a two-hour director’s cut out there somewhere with all of the missing character development scenes, especially for the supporting characters on the crew. As it is, we get one or two scenes to define each of them, and that’s it. This is a larger ensemble cast than most Disney movies, and other than Milo and maybe Rourke I never really felt like I got a good handle on any of them.
I also need to admit that it took me a good half of the movie or so to really warm to the character designs. Comic artist Mike Mignola (of Hellboy fame) was one of the primary production designers for Atlantis, and the entire movie bears his rather distinctive design aesthetic. They’re stylized and angular in a way that’s very different from the usual Disney house style, and it took quite a while to get used to them.
I gave the movie some shit earlier about being very similar to Stargate, and that’s true. But it also draws just as much inspiration from Journey to the Center of the Earth, the 1959 adaptation of Jules Verne’s classic early scifi novel. That movie also features a lost city of Atlantis that had become buried underground, as well as an escape up the shaft of a dormant volcano. All that’s really missing are that movie’s dinosaurs.
Between the adventure elements, quirky characters and action-heavy plot, I can definitely see why this movie has become a bit of a cult classic since its release. However, for me Atlantis is undone by a script that shows its edits too broadly, and clearly needed a couple of extra rounds of revision. Since it’s animation, there isn’t a longer Director’s Cut floating around in a vault anywhere. It really feels, though, like it’s an extended cut away from being a great film. I have to judge a film by what is given to us, however, and as it is Atlantis is very much a mixed bag.
Animation: B+ (Unusual design choices aside, the movie does look tremendous in anamorphic widescreen. And the CG has aged better than a lot of Disney’s other attempts from the same time period)
Main Characters: B (I actually like Milo, though his turn from language dork to man of action late in the film is a little too abrupt for me. And I hesitate to call Kida a main character since she’s really only in the second half of the film)
Supporting Characters: B- (Pretty much everyone in the crew is distinct and interesting. I just wish they had more to DO)
Villains: B- (They attempt to disguise the fact that Rourke is really a villain, but come on. He’s the leader of a bunch of mercenaries with an obvious 40s femme fatale sidekick. OF COURSE he’s the bad guy. And one who’s just motivated by greed and nothing more interesting)
Music: B- (No songs, and I don’t remember the score enough for it be rated any higher. I don’t remember actively disliking it, either)