Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) – The 41st Walt Disney Animated Feature – Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise – Starring Michael J. Fox, Cree Summer, James Garner, Don Novello, Corey Burton, Phil Morris, Jacqueline Obradors, Claudia Christian, Leonard Nimoy, Charles Ogden Stiers, Jim Varney, Florence Stanley, and John Mahoney.
Question: How can a movie with story help from Joss Whedon, art design from Mike Mignola, and direction from the guys who did Beauty and the Beast go wrong?
Answer: By aiming too low.
ATLANTIS: THE LOST EMPIRE is a highly enjoyable animated feature, but it is not close to being one of the all-time great animated films from Disney. Refreshing in the context of other Disney films due to its absence of song-and-dance numbers and talking animals, and its inclusion of a sci-fi plot, ATLANTIS’ goals aren’t quite high enough to elevate it beyond “popcorn flick.”
And there’s nothing wrong with that. Other than a momentary grinding to a halt of the overall plot about halfway through the film, ATLANTIS moves fast and looks great, but nothing that happens is unexpected and other than Milo Thatch, the film’s nerdy academic protagonist (voiced by Michael J. Fox), none of the characters ever become anything more than what they are the moment we’re introduced to them.
I suppose a kid experiencing this kind of story for the first time might be thrown by Commander Rourke turning into the film’s bad guy, but his money-driven motives are evident from his first scene. The only real question about who sits on which side of the Milo vs. Rourke fence is Preston Whitmore, the millionaire funding the expedition, and an old friend of Milo’s grandfather, but Whitmore doesn’t go on the voyage and so it really doesn’t matter.
Like his grandfather, Milo wants to find Atlantis, and like his grandfather, Milo’s obsession is costing him his career. Whitmore has the Shepherd’s Journal is his possession with instructions from grandpa to pass it on to Milo when he’s ready. Lucky for us, his being ready coincides with the start of the film. Whitmore pairs Milo up with Thaddeus Thatch’s old expedition crew, who are all created using the Chris Claremont Guide to Assembling Rosters because they all do something different and they all come from someplace different and they all talk with different accents. (Except for the white Americans. You can have a few of those.) The expedition includes:
1. Mole, the French geologist who’s obsessed with dirt,
2. Audrey, the Puerto Rican mechanic,
3. Sweet, the African-American/Native American doctor,
4. Santorini, the Italian explosives expert,
5. Wilhemina, the monotone-speaking old white lady,
6. Cookie, the Confederate cook,
7. Helga, the sexy blonde, and
8. Rourke, the old military man.
There’s nothing wrong with casting a wide racial and ethnic net, of course, especially when the film makes an effort to not prop up a bunch of old Hollywood stereotypes. Good for Disney. The problem is that these are all characters who have limited depth (with 8 secondary characters that’s not a surprise) and exist basically to be a quirk more than a character. It would have been to the benefit of the film if they’d dumped Cookie and Wilhemina and gave a bit more screen time to developing Audry, Sweet, and Santorini so their decision to side with Milo instead of Rourke would have had a bit more bite to it. Wilhemina and Cookie seem to exist solely to provide the humor that a Disney animated film usually gets out of a seagull or teacup and that humor is completely unnecessary.
As it plays out, we know they’re going to side with Milo because even though they’re mercenaries, they’re also all incredibly likable. Other than Helga and Rourke, none of them are mercs because they love money, but because they need money to fulfill some familial dream. Santorini wants to re-open the family flower shop and Audrey wants to open a garage and because of this, we know they’re not going to side with Rourke and kidnap the Atlantean princess/power source and bring it back to the surface to sell to the highest bidder. When the film relies on trying to wring tension out of the obvious choice, it creates a drag on the film’s momentum.
If nothing else, the makers of ATLANTIS know they’re doing an action movie and continually push the plot forward. The film moves at a breakneck pace, with only the obvious choice segments serving as road bumps. ATLANTIS moves too fast, in fact, in getting to Atlantis because once we get there the film starts walking that lame, tired “let’s get a white guy to be a better native than the natives” plot. The Atlantean civilization sunk thousands of years ago and every one of them has forgotten how to read their language, but Milo can. When Kida (Cree Summer), the Atlantean princess/love interest is chosen by the power source for protection, is taken away by Rourke, the King (Leonard Nimoy) tells Milo it’s up to him to save the day.
I guess I should be thankful there’s no competing male figure for Kida’s affections around so we can blessedly skip the “tribal male warrior is a dick to the awkward white outsider until the awkward white outsider proves himself worthy of the warrior’s respect by engaging in lots of tribal stuff and saving the warrior” plot (if only James Cameron had done the same in a very similar movie that made lots more money). We do get a dollop of the “white guy outsider shows tribe how to be better tribesman” bit when Milo teaches the Atlanteans how to fly their fancy technological flying ships, but the film doesn’t dwell on it.
ATLANTIS is at its best when it’s an action flick. The visual look of the film is incredibly cool. With Mike Mignola providing some early conceptual work, the characters and tech have a decidedly non-Disney vibe. Characters look sharp instead of soft, and I’m a complete sucker for sci-fi stories set in the late Victorian age through the 1950s that envision the future. That era has such a rich style and was bursting with such a creative energy that its ready-made for modern artists to go back to as a foundation for their conceptual designs.
There’s two great battle sequences that highlight this retro-future look. The first is between the expedition ship, the Ulysses (think Nemo’s Nautilus) and the Leviathan, an Atlantean ship that protects the entrance to the sunken city. (Atlantis is now located in a large pocket beneath the oceanic floor.) It’s almost too fast-paced and it’s definitely soaked in a bit too much blue, making it a bit hard to follow the action if you want to see the ships that are doing the fighting.
The second scene is the ending, which pits the Atlantean aircraft (think of the speeder bikes in Return of the Jedi designed by someone with a fish fetish) against the pre-World War I military equipment of Rourke’s expedition. There’s a hot air balloon at the center of the fight and plenty of genuine thrills throughout the sequence, even if it’s a bit silly that Milo, mid-battle, is shouting out orders like he’s been doing this his whole life.
It’s all cool looking and fast-paced but there’s not enough beneath the surface of the characters to make you really care about them. Milo is the only character you get to know, but he’s such a do-gooding “I’m just in this for knowledge” academic that he becomes a one-note character and one-note characters become annoying when they’re in almost every scene of the movie.
I hadn’t seen ATLANTIS: THE LOST EMPIRE before and honestly had no idea about Whedon or Mignola’s involvement until the Never Wrong told me about it. It certainly doesn’t feel Whedon-esque and it doesn’t look like a Mignola comic, but then, it doesn’t feel or look like a Disney film, either. This film will definitely go on the “buy” list, though, and I’ll probably end up watching this movie a bunch from here on out. It’s one of the rare Disney films that feels like it was made specifically for me and my feelings about ATLANTIS are similar to my feelings about Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. Ryan isn’t close to being Spielberg’s best film, but it’s absolutely one of his most watchable movies.
ATLANTIS is closest to the Indiana Jones movies, of course, and it’s about on the level of quality/enjoyment of the The Last Crusade – plenty enjoyable when you sit down to watch it but not so memorable you run out and tell everyone about it. Which is actually kinda nice because you forget that it’s good so you don’t watch it over and over again, which makes it a pleasant surprise when you run across it somewhere down the line.
One thing I really like, too, is the credits. Disney doesn’t just do the typical MILO THATCH – MICHAEL J. FOX style of credits, but puts Fox’s name alongside the animators who created the character. Cool move.