Atlantis: The Lost Empire
More Than Second Viewing, 10 October 2010
Rating: 8 Very Good
Atlantis: The Lost Empire, despite being less then a decade old, is already quickly becoming one of Disney’s lesser-known animated pictures. When it came out in the summer of 2001, it received mediocre reviews and a lukewarm reception by viewers. Its box office, while not a catastrophe like Treasure Planet the next year, was more than a little disappointing to Disney’s executives. So the Great Mouse in the Sky decided to bury Atlantis with Disney’s other disappointments. No merchandise, no TV show, no theme park rides, no strange “Disney Vault” advertising. Atlantis, like The Black Cauldron before it and Treasure Planet, Brother Bear, and Home on the Range after it, is already fading from pop cultural consciousness.
And this is a shame, because while Atlantis is not a masterpiece like a few of Disney/Pixar’s other creations, it is a more than worthy effort. Perhaps part of the reason that Atlantis got the reception it did was because it is a very atypical Disney movie. Indeed, Atlantis has much more in common with Japanese animation than it does its corporate forbears. Instead of a coming-of-age story or fantasy romance (although it does have a dash of both), Atlantis is much more of an adventure movie, with a basic plotline that could easily be the premise for an Indiana Jones movie. There are no musical numbers, the protagonist is not a teenager, and there are several genuinely exciting action set pieces. The animation too is atypical for Disney. With characters designed by Mike Mignola (the man behind Hellboy), Atlantis has a unique flavor. Only Hercules’ angular designs bear any real similarity among Disney canon.
Atlantis’ story is not particularly complicated. It begins with the destruction of titular ancient civilization (largely viewed by modern historians as a complete fabrication by Plato), via a colossal tidal wave, the origin of which is never made clear. After the short prologue, the movie moves thousands of years into the future and introduces our protagonist, Milo Thatch, an adorkable linguist and cartographer who works at the Smithsonian Institute in D.C, right around the beginning of the first World War. Milo is obsessed with finding Atlantis, which was the dream of his recently deceased grandfather. Unexpectedly, an old and very wealthy associate of his grandfather contacts him and informs Milo that he is mounting an elaborate expedition to the supposed city, and that he wants Milo on the team. Said team is composed of a wide and occasionally bizarre cast of characters, lead by the no-nonsense Commander Rourke and his equally serious sidekick Helga. Thus begins a journey that includes an encounter with the legendary Leviathan and the discovery that the Atlantean civilization is not quite as extinct as commonly believed. Of course, not everyone in the crew is happy to discover than the ancient artifacts will be a little harder to recover (and sell) then anticipated.
The plot of Atlantis owes a strong debt to Jules Verne; there are element of both 20,0000 Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Center of the Earth here. There’s also a dash of science-fiction flavoring (and a suspicious similarity to the original Stargate movie). Although the expedition’s resources are at early 20th century levels, the Atlanteans possess some very alien technology, albeit largely defunct. Plot originality is not the movie’s strongest suite, but the blend it presents is more than adequately entertaining. A few well-done action sequences (particularly the short but spectacular encounter with the Leviathan) help in this respect.
Still, Atlantis’ strongest aspect, by far, is its characters. The fairly large cast is one of Disney’s best, and indeed stands up well against any animated movie from the last few decades. Part of this is due to Mignola’s creative character designs, but the lion’s share of credit must go to a superlative voice cast. It features a few reasonably famous names (Michael J. Fox and Leonard Nemoy) along with a blend of lesser-known character and voice actors. There is not a weak link among them. Singling any out is difficult, but Fox (as Milo) has the largest role and does a great job. Milo is nerdy but courageous and very likeable. The actors also have a particularly strong script to work with. The dialogue, which can be quite funny at times, is credited at least in part to Joss Whedon. It manages to thoroughly acquaint us with all of the characters, most of whom have at most a couple dozen lines.
Which leads the largest weakness of the film: it is a little too short. Disney’s animated features very seldom hit ninety minutes, which is fine for the musical comedies that Disney is known for. Indeed, both musicals and comedies work best when they are fairly short, because both genres tend to run out of momentum when they start inching towards the two hour mark. The same, however, is not true of adventure movies, which need a little more time to breathe. Atlantis clocks in at 95 minutes including credits, which is ten to fifteen minutes too few. For comparison’s sake, all of the Indiana Jones movies are between 118 and 127 minutes. The closest animated counterparts to Atlantis are probably the Studio Ghibli films, most of which (including the thematically similar Castle in the Sky and the superlative Princess Mononoke) are over two hours.
In particular, the section of the movie that takes place in the city of Atlantis, but before the start of the third act begins, should have been fleshed out (if you’re curious, the third act begins once Milo stops swimming, at least in my opinion). The expedition has an audience with the ruler of Atlantis, and then barely ten minutes of screen time elapse exploring the city. Besides simple pacing issues, adding some time here could address a few plot holes and give the Atlanteans a bit of screen time. Princess Kida especially could use a bit more attention; she has potential both as a stand-alone character and as a love interest for Milo, but is not given much time to develop.
Despite a somewhat familiar plot and truncated script, Atlantis manages to emerge as one of Disney’s strongest (and certainly most underrated) pictures. By virtue of some pleasing artistic design and animation, a large cast of well-realized characters, and an indelible sense of fun, Atlantis should be much better known than it is. Of course, my taste in Disney’s 2D animation is a tad unorthodox. I am the The Emperor’s New Groove guy after all.