For being a lost empire, Atlantis certainly has kept up with technology. This whizz-bang action adventure was touted as Disney‘s foray into “serious filmmaking,” casting aside songs for adventure and action. It was a gamble that didn’t pay off in a world where CGI and live-action films were better mediums for the type of story Disney featured within Atlantis. There’s several missed opportunities here to create a unique world, pre-Avatar, but the script has little interest in characters or plot, skipping along until an action sequence jumps into things. I didn’t enjoy Atlantis: The Lost Empire when it originally hit theaters, and sadly that sentiment hasn’t changed.
Milo Thatch (voiced by Michael J. Fox) is an explorer obsessed with discovering the lost city of Atlantis. With the help of an intrepid group of adventurers the group discover Atlantis and save it from extinction.
The issues with Atlantis stem from Disney’s desperate attempts to please the teenage market, while at the same time creating shiny animation to bring in children. However, each market was already being catered to with far bigger, and more expensive films, glutting the market at a time when a Disney film looked passe and infantile. In the months during Atlantis’ release, both Shrek and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider were in theaters and doing big business, making Atlantis: The Lost Empire the also-ran playing catch-up. Atlantis and Lara Croft have some bizarre associations, predominately in the old-fashioned presentation of an adventure movie and finding a great civilization/conspiracy. The old-fashioned look of Atlantis was designed by Hellboy creator Mike Mignola, and while the appearance of Atlantis is beautiful and lush, it clashes terribly against the blocky, amateurish design of Milo and his crew. The character animation in Atlantis: The Lost Empire makes the xereography process during the 1960s look brilliant! Milo is a series of sharp angles and block shapes with no definition to his features. When the character wears a tank top you can see the lines of his clavicle on top of the t-shirt, turning it into a cheap cartoon drawing created at Disneyland.
The movie is set in 1914, leading me to believe they were going for some type of Victorian steam-punk atmosphere, but it never comes off right. In fact, the animation comes off as a throwback to the Disney sitcom style we saw in Hercules, only the animators ran out of time and crudely finished. I understand the idea of making the humans personalities come out via their body shapes, but the overall effect looks half-cooked. It’s a shock because the Atlanteans are drawn in the regular Disney style of rounded shapes and lush colors. Speaking of the Atlanteans, there’s a pronounced anime style I took note of, particularly in the opening sequence as Atlantis is decimated. I have little knowledge of anime, and yet I picked up on the style immediately. Color me surprised when I read that the creators were accused of plagiarizing from a 1960s anime film, only to have director Kirk Wise say he never heard of it. He might never have heard of it, but considering Disney’s first partnership with the anime studio, Studio Ghlibi would be released the same year, I have doubts on how “uninspired” they were.
I’m going on a lot about the animation only because the characters are as flat as they’re drawn. Because the script is so hell-bent on being about “action,” “adventure,” and “Explosions!” (yes, complete with capital “e” and exclamation point), there’s no room for the characters to blossom and develop a relationship. This becomes entirely unbelievable once the group bands together with Milo, because friendships are never given enough time to take root. The minute the characters sit down for a quiet moment, they’re given 2 minutes of talking only to be interrupted by a ten-minute action sequence. The abundance of action sequence caused me to lose interest because I knew if I missed one another would show up in seconds later.
The rag-tag group of humans include a diverse cast of ethnicities that’s great to see, even if in 1914 there’s no way an African-American would have been a doctor amongst a group of white Americans. That’s a problem with the time period itself; outside of the steam punk look, there’s no historical follow-through on things. Other than brief mentions of The Kaiser and other pre-chewed references to say “We did research,” elements like racism and gender discrimination are ignored. It would be worth it to have made this present day because nothing would need to be altered. The rest of the characters, such as Cookie (voiced by the late Jim Varney) and Packard (voiced by Florence Stanley) are weird 1960s comic relief characters from a sitcom; and our femme fatale, Helga (voiced by Claudia Christian) is a 1940s noir character that talks like Breathless Mahoney from Dick Tracy. Again, a hodgepodge of time periods could have been alleviated by simply being present day. Other than Milo, the only character I felt bonded to in any way was the villain, Rourke (voiced by James Garner). Garner is another perfect villain voice, even if his character is pretty much a terrible, money-grubbing American capitalist that would take on real-world implications post-9/11.
Once the group gets to Atlantis the Atlanteans are defined by the hot girl, Kida (voiced by Cree Summer) and the village elder/father of Kida, King Kashekim (voiced by Leonard Nimoy). That’s it, the entire world of Atlantis is two people. For a culture that we’re desperate to hear about I was disappointed at how little interest the plot has in telling us about this world and its way of life. The only thing we learn is that people are perpetually young? Or that Kida is perpetually young? It’s confusing because the entire world of Atlantis is left swinging in the breeze, undefined. Drop a few action sequences and tell us why we should care about this culture other than it’s special and magical.
If you can’t tell, I don’t care for Atlantis: The Lost Empire. The movie is swirling in a wave of explosions, more interested in mimicking Michael Bay than focusing on Disney’s methods of story and character first. The time period, the characters, and even Atlantis itself, become irrelevant in favor of high-octane CGI fights that seem derivative of other live-action movies. If they were hoping to cash in on the teen market, there’s nothing to excite teenagers and there’s little to invest for adults and children. Atlantis has gained a cult following, but for those who have followed Disney throughout the years, it only highlights the company’s further attempts (and failures) to remain hip and cutting-edge.
NEXT WEEK: Disney goes Hawaiian with Lilo & Stitch
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.