Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise
With the turn of the century came a shift in animation. TOY STORY and its follow-ups had proven that computer animation was a viable, successful medium for filmmaking, and before too long CGI had replaced traditional animation almost entirely.
ATLANTIS: THE LOST EMPIRE was among a number of films, including Warner Bros.’ THE IRON GIANT (1999) and Fox Animation Studios’ TITAN A.E. (2000) that combined traditional animation with the cutting edge technology.
Computer Generated Imagery proved to be an easier form of animation in the long run; rather than copy a hand-drawn image frame by frame, a computer-created character existed in three virtual dimensions, allowing the animators to control said character like a marionette, whilst being able to place the “camera” anywhere within the scene without starting from scratch.
As such, if ATLANTIS were traditionally animated throughout, it’s likely that the film would have taken years longer to complete, or would not have been so elaborate in its camera work.
The original treatment for ATLANTIS was written by one Joss Whedon, and it shows in the characters; there’s a lot of FIREFLY in there, and the film’s strong female leads are a Whedon hallmark. Coupled with an artistic style based on the work of HELLBOY creator Mike Mignola, you could be forgiven for not realising ATLANTIS is a Disney movie. Even more so when you think about how bloody it is, and I don’t just mean the actual sight of blood (mostly the hero’s); ATLANTIS may in fact have the highest death toll of any Disney movie, and that’s before the film even gets started.
In any case, I love ATLANTIS: THE LOST EMPIRE. I love its ensemble cast, its Dieselpunk hardware, the level of detail put into the Atlantean culture and its language, and the fact it’s a bit of an underdog of a film, lost in the shadow of bigger, more successful movies of the time.
SYNOPSIS: The great island city of Atlantis is threatened by a colossal tidal wave; amidst the emergency evacuations, the Queen of Atlantis is called upon by the “Heart of Atlantis”, protecting the city’s innermost district at the cost of her own life and countless Atlanteans. The young Princess Kida and her father (Leonard Nimoy) remain safe with the populace that remain, as Atlantis sinks beneath the ocean.
Fast forward to 1914 and Milo Thatch (Michael J Fox), downtrodden cartographer and linguist at the Smithsonian Institution is ridiculed for his research on Atlantis, and his claims to have proof of the existence of The Shepherd Journal, an ancient manuscript said to hold directions to the lost empire. Returning home after another bashing from his superiors, Milo is met by the mysterious Helga Sinclair (Claudia Christian), who in turn introduces him to Preston B Whitmore (John Mahoney), an eccentric millionaire and old friend of Milo’s late grandfather, likewise convinced of the existence of Atlantis and the Journal. To repay a dept to Milo’s grandfather, Whitmore has already financed a mission to retrieve the Journal, and recruits Milo to lead the expedition to Atlantis.
Mole (Corey Burton), an eccentric French geologist; Audrey (Jacqueline Obradors), a teenaged, Puerto Rican mechanic; Dr Sweet (Phil Morris) an African/Native American and the ship’s surgeon; Mrs Packard (Florence Stanley), the ship’s cynical, pessimistic radio operator; Cookie (Jim Varney), the mess cook with questionable culinary skills, and Vinny (Don Novello), an Italian florist turned explosive expert.
Aboard the Submarine Ulysses, Milo briefs the team, but they’re soon attacked by the Leviathan, a monster said to guard the passage to Atlantis. During the battle, Milo realises it’s a gigantic machine, but is powerless to prevent the sub from being destroyed. Rourke orders the crew to evacuate, and is amongst the first to abandon the ship.
Escaping the Leviathan and reaching an underground cavern, the remaining crew have little time to mourn their dead. Guided by Milo as he studies and translates the Journal on the fly – leading to a few near-misses and not earning him any favours with his team – they finally reach Atlantis at the base of a dormant volcano, and are greeted by Kida (Cree Summer), who’s looking pretty good for a woman over 8,000 years old, and is able to speak English – Atlantean being the root dialect of all language on Earth, apparently.
They meet with the ailing King, who orders them to leave. Rourke is able to convince him to let them stay for one night, to recuperate and resupply for the return journey. After discovering Milo can read Atlantean, which no-one in the city can, Kida enlists his help in translating an undersea mural describing the true nature of the “Heart of Atlantis”; it’s the city’s power source that provides energy to their now dormant technology, granting the people longevity and healing powers. Milo is unable to locate the resting place of the Heart, suspecting a page is missing from the Journal.
Soon after this discovery, Milo realises he’s been duped; Rourke and his crew are here for the crystal and the power it holds, and are willing to kill to possess it. Rourke proves his resolve by threatening Kida’s life and then grievously wounding the King. Despite Milo’s efforts to stall him, Rourke discovers the Heart of Atlantis on his own. He and Sinclair force Milo and Kida to join them as they descend beneath the city to the Heart, surrounded by stone effigies of the City’s past Kings. While Milo and Rourke argue, Kida is summoned by the Heart, and is transformed into a being of pure crystal, thereby allowing Rourke to place her (and the Heart) into a container for shipment home.
Milo pleads for the lives of the Atlanteans. Without the Heart, the city and its people will die. Milo’s pleas fail on Rourke and Sinclair, but the others stand defiant alongside him. (A notable exception: Sweet, tending to the King – either unaware of what’s happened, or unwilling to leave his patient, even to return home.) Rourke strands them on the island by destroying the only bridge across the chasm.
Milo meets with the King, who with his dying breath explains that the Heart of Atlantis calls upon one of royal blood to bond with to protect itself and the people, having developed a consciousness of its own. Because of his arrogance in ruling Atlantis with the crystal, it became too strong to control and it led to the sinking of the city; sensing a dire threat to the city, the Heart bonded with Kida’s mother, and it has now chosen her. Before he dies, he notes that the crystal needs to be returned not only to save Atlantis, but to prevent Kida from being lost to the crystal like her mother.
Encouraged by Sweet, Milo rallies the Atlanteans; with his guidance, they’re able to revive a number of flying machines, which they pilot across the chasm to battle with Rourke and his surviving troopers, attempting to escape the dormant volcano with a propeller-driven evacuation balloon.
In the ensuing aerial dogfight between the Atlantean craft and a squadron of mini-fighter planes Rourke’s managed to keep quiet, Audrey and Sweet attempt to free Kida while Milo and Vinny provide a distraction. Damaging the balloon and causing it to descend, Rourke decides to lighten the load by throwing Sinclair overboard. With the balloon now ascending, Milo boards its platform but is easily overpowered by the veteran soldier, but a not-quite-dead Sinclair downs the balloon with a flare gun. Enraged, Rourke swings an axe at Milo, hitting the glass in Kida’s container. Taking a shard of energised glass, Milo slashes Rourke in the arm, causing a sudden and shocking transformation. Rourke’s new form is destroyed when it’s hit by the propellers, and Milo is able to get the container out of the path of the crashing escape balloon.
The crash causes the volcano to erupt, and our heroes race back to the city, where Kida’s new power summons the slumbering robotic guardians of the city, who form another energy barrier around the city; the lava solidifies and then crumbles around the shield, and with the Heart of Atlantis restored, the city returns to life. Kida is returned, and wakes in Milo’s arms.
The remaining crew of the Ulysses are thanked by the Atlanteans for their efforts, and gifted with Atlantean crystals and a modest fortune in treasure. Milo elects to remain in Atlantis with his new love, and to aid the Atlanteans in rebuilding their city. Reuniting with Whitmore, a cover story is weaved to conceal the fates of Milo, Rourke and Sinclair, and Whitmore finds a package for him; an Atlantean crystal, a gift from Milo, and the “one little shred of proof” of Atlantis he wished for.
Back in Atlantis, Queen Kida and her new consort complete an effigy of her father, which rises to join the other past kings above the restored city of Atlantis.
1. Never give up on your dreams.
2. Knowledge can be a powerful weapon.
3. Power corrupts.
The Geek shall inherit the Earth. Michael J Fox brings the same quirky outsider routine he’s become known for, and Milo Thatch is a very solid, likeable and believable character, frequently lost in his work as a cartographer/linguist and thrown in over his head by the events of the film. Much like Aladar, it’s his outside perspective of the group he comes to join and his compassion that provide the catalyst for their change of heart.
Scrawny but somewhat athletic (he’s a pretty decent swimmer), he’s hopeless in a physical fight but his determination is to be lauded.
Strong, independent, similar to Pocahontas but with a dash of Mulan and Jasmine, Kidagakash is a very Whedonesque character; slightly intimidating, intelligent and articulate while still retaining the ‘warrior maiden’ characterisation, you can see Kida’s lineage in Buffy, River Tam, even Ripley 8.
Despite her being a princess of Atlantis, and later its queen, Kida has never been part of the “Disney Princess” franchise, despite characters like Fa Mulan and Pocahontas, who aren’t royalty at all, being founding members, presumably because ATLANTIS underperformed at the box office. Just as well; I can’t really see her rubbing shoulders with Snow and Aurora, though I imagine she’d get along with Mulan, being a warrior.
James Garner voices Commander Rourke. An obvious choice for a military man, Garner brings considerable gravity and conviction to the role. He comes across as what MacLeach could have been if he finished school. A career military man turned “adventure capitalist”, and cut from the same cloth as Clayton, Rourke’s treachery and survivalist streak are hinted at from the outset, being the first to dive into an escape pod and throwing Sinclair overboard to lighten the load on the escape balloon. Even when his best laid plans fall to ruin around him, he maintains his determination and sarcasm.
HIS FATE: Fighting (and winning) a fight with Milo on the stricken escape balloon, Milo slashes his arm with a shard of crystal; its energy spreads across his body, turning it to stone. Not that that actually kills him. Instead, the creature that Rourke becomes is destroyed when it collides with the balloon’s propellers, exploding in a fireball. Considering the momentary look of terror on crystal-Rourke’s face, it seems he was still at some level aware of his impending fate.
SIDEKICKS AND HENCHMEN
The ensemble cast of ATLANTIS sort of slide between sidekicks and henchmen, being members of Rourke’s crew and fellow “adventure capitalists”, only to side with Milo when their commander’s greed goes too far.
Harking back to the likes of STAR TREK, the Ulysses sports a diverse multi-ethnic crew, encompassing Native and Latin American, Italian and French, and most of them have their own small story and a reason for us to care.
The only one who stays at least somewhat loyal to Rourke is Lieutenant Sinclair. Claudia Christian provides the voice, while the character lies somewhere between Jessica Rabbit and Susan Ivanova from Babylon 5 (who Christian played for four years.) Much like Kida, she’s a fiercely strong-willed woman and a searing femme fatale. The rest of Rourke’s crew are unnamed and often unfaced, hidden behind helmets and gasmasks, a very Mignolian image.
Having scored DINOSAUR, James Newton Howard returns to provide a strong, bombastic score, reminiscent of the classic adventure movies of yore and the works of John Williams, while integrating tribal, exotic flavour for the second half of the film set in and around Atlantis. It’s here that Howard comes into his own, crafting an ethereal, timeless motif. The mixture of different influences reminds me of Globus, but you’ve probably never heard of them. In any case stirring stuff, sometimes a little overbearing on the visuals it’s coupled to, but points for effort.
The closing song, “Where the Dream Takes You” is rather underwhelming by comparison, a rather mawkish, tender love ballad performed by Mýa, a rather odd and lightweight choice. The song’s mere existence in the soundtrack feels somewhat wrong, seeing as it’s based off a melody only heard fleetingly in the film; one reason it was plonked there as an attempt to boost the singer’s career, much like “Reflection” did for Christina Aguilera.
ATLANTIS is a much more adult film than you’d expect from Disney – quite a reversal of the juvenile hijinx of THE EMPEROR’S NEW GROOVE, but it does have some lighter moments; Milo’s inherent awkwardness with, well, everyone, is the root of some of the humour, but that’s mostly dropped when things get serious in the third act. The Ulysses crew are a constant source of mood lightening material, most of it verbal. It’s hard to pin down one specific moment, but one or the other of them is always there with an observation or a one-liner, while Mole provides the physical stuff.
Being much darker than your average Disney film, ATLANTIS is surprisingly heavy-handed with its dealing of death and injury. When the Ulysses is attacked by the Leviathan, we see crewmen dropping like flies. Not only are they swatted aside by the colossal gate guardian, but we witness Audrey closing an emergency bulkhead with at least three men wading frantically towards it, without any apparent remorse. Considering Audrey is in her teens, that’s a surprisingly dark moment for any film, let alone a Disney.
When the film shifts gears, as Rourke and his crew show their true colours, there’s a notable shift, and everything becomes a lot more serious. Rourke thinks nothing of beating the elderly King into submission, an injury that later claims his life. As the layers of his deception fall away, we see Rourke in a much starker light. His sudden and quite violent transformation and demise pack a punch, and the subsequent escape from a raging river of lava threatening to engulf the city has some tension.
ATLANTIS has been interpreted by some as a study of religion and anti-capitalism; the Atlanteans’ entire culture is threatened by Rourke’s “American imperialism”, his immoral pursuit of wealth extending to his almost casual murders of King Nedakh and Sinclair. One could also comment on the social decline of the Atlantean culture; having lost the knowledge of their technology, and even their ability to read, the people slowly regress to a hunter-gather society, regaining their “sophistication” only with the help of the “modern” outsider. Some have commented on the segregationist nature of the film’s ending, as the remnants of the Ulysses crew return to the surface, rich beyond their wildest dreams but sworn to keep Atlantis’ discovery a secret; is this to maintain a separation between the two highly divert cultures, or is it to preserve the Atlantean way of life; if Rourke was willing to murder everyone in Atlantis for its power source, what else would befall the city if knowledge of its technology became public?
Besides all that, Milo’s heroism lies in his strength of character, the strength he finds in himself to stand up for what he believes to be right, not only to Rourke but to the heads of the museum that lambaste his research.
Running against SHREK and LARA CROFT, ATLANTIS grossed over $186 million worldwide, a disappointment in the eyes of the producers. A planned spin-off series was quietly cancelled, though plotlines from three episodes of Team Atlantis were reworked into MILO’S RETURN, a direct-to-video sequel released in 2003. Likewise, a planned ATLANTIS-themed revival of Disneyland’s Submarine Voyage attraction was scrapped; it was re-opened in 2007 with a FINDING NEMO makeover.
The film landed in hot water when comparisons were made with Japanese anime NADIA: THE SECRET OF BLUE WATER (1990-91) and Studio Ghibli’s 1986 film CASTLE IN THE SKY, both of which shared ATLANTIS’ inspiration from the works of Jules Verne. Some critics also saw parallels with 1994’s STARGATE; the similarities in the plot and between Milo and STARGATE’s Daniel Jackson.
Disney never formally responded to any claims of plagiarism, but it’s not uncommon for an American or European film to coincidentally mirror one from Asia, or vice versa. Consider DREDD and THE RAID; both of which have remarkably similar premises, but were written and produced entirely separately and without prior knowledge of each other. Considering its status as an “unloved” Disney film, I doubt anyone still cares.
ATLANTIS: THE LOST EMPIRE is, however, one of my personal favourite Disney films, and one I really enjoyed revisiting for THN.
FINAL SCORE: 38/53
NEXT TIME: LILO AND STITCH