Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)

The early 00s had Disney re-examining their approach to animation. Their films weren’t the huge hits they experienced in the 90s. Other studios were stepping up their game, mimicking the Disney formula to compete with the animation juggernaut. In addition anime was making inroads with viewers, as Pokemon became a huge hit. Disney decided to switch gears and make an action adventure animated film without any catchy songs, and with a story inspired by Jules Verne instead of the brothers Grimm.

Milo Thatch (Michael J. Fox) is convinced that he can find the lost continent of Atlantis; all he needs is some funding, and someone to believe in his little quest. Well both come his way in the form of wealthy benefactor who needs Milo’s brains to guide his team to the lost world. So Milo joins the mercenary Commander Rourke (James Garner), his femme fatale second in command Helga (Claudia Christian) and a whole host of oddballs and misfits.

After a treacherous submarine journey, followed by a trek through the earth’s crust they find the Atlantis, still around and supporting a civilization. The King Nedakh (Leonard Nimoy) is dying, but that doesn’t keep him from trying to protect his people from outsiders. His daughter Kida (Cree Summer) takes an interest in Milo and his world. But Rouke has other plans for Atlantis and its mysterious power source. If he can bring it back to the surface, he and his crew would be wealthy beyond their wildest dreams. Of course doing that will destroy the kingdom and it’s people. Now Milo must decide if he wants to return home a wealthy man or fight to save Atlantis: The Lost Empire.

Good Points:
  • Some wonderful stylized and creative animation
  • Captures the vibe of classic adventures stories
  • A fine score by James Newton Howard

Bad Points:
  • Some of the comic relief characters are too ridiculous
  • No catchy musical numbers or super cute characters
  • Is more violent and intense than typical Disney fare

Disney executes a fine animated experiment. This is a heck of an adventure movie, with likable characters, amazing visuals and a large scope that Disney had not tackled before. Unfortunately some of positive elements get tainted by overly comic characters like “The Mole”. But the turn of the century design, the intense action scenes and wonderful momentum make this one worth checking out.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 5
Acting: 4
Script: 4
Music: 4
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 4
Total:  4

In Depth Review

This film has a visual scope not seen in most
Disney animated features of the era.

No matter how you feel about Walt Disney’s animation, it is impossible to deny the amazing longevity and legacy of that started in the 1920s. Not too many entertainment (and animation) studios can boast this. I think part of the reason for that longevity is the Disney animation attempting to go in new directions and adapt to changing tastes in entertainment. Obviously Disney himself was a master of innovation and getting the right people together for projects. But the animation studios have weathered some big storms.

By the late 1990s Disney animation had over-tapped their formula. Broadway style musicals with cute animal sidekicks and happily ever after endings were causing audiences to shrug their shoulders at each new animated offering. The studio knew they had to go in a new direction, but seemed uncertain how to proceed. In the end they picked a direction very similar to the one they attempted back in 1985 with The Black Cauldron. They would attempt a non-musical adventure story. Instead of attempting to adapt a well-known and loved fantasy series, they’d use Jules Verne as inspiration. The result is Atlantis: The Lost Empire.

Milo marvels at the production design.
The first thing that strikes most viewers is the visual imagination on display. The design of the submarines and other equipment the expedition uses are well thought out and executed. Yes, there is a little bit of an homage to Disney’s design for the Nautilus from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but for the most part this is an unique look that Disney had never attempted before.

In addition there is the visually impressive and creative designs for the culture and technology of Atlantis itself. It appears to be centered on a more South Pacific (Easter Island) style than the ancient Greek style we usually see in when Atlantis is mentioned. Combined with that look is a technology that reminds me a bit of something you’d see in an anime. In fact, one of the films that Atlantis: The Lost Empire shares a lot in common with is Hyao Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky, another period adventure story with some wonderful flying action scenes.

Helga isn't bad, she's just drawn that way.
Finally you have the character design that also looks backwards in the Disney cannon. It reminded me strongly of The Sword in the Stone or 101 Dalmatians. But a fellow blogger pointed out that it also appears to be inspired by Hellboy and artist Mike Mignola’s style. This is probably because he was part of the production design. This is a fresh look, much different from Tarzan or Mulan, the films that preceded this one.

All the Atlantian technology, as well as the mechanical devices the expedition uses required some unique sound design. The did a great job with this, giving Atlantis some amazing sound effects and putting viewers squarely in this lost world. But Atlantis: The Lost Empire was one of the most action packed Disney animations I’ve seen. There’s gunfire, explosions and swooping and diving air machines. The finale battle scene is really immersive, and I remember how impressed I was, when I caught this in theaters.

Because there were no Broadway style musical numbers, the film’s score takes a greater importance. James Newton Howard was brought in to provide this music, and his work here is very impressive. It’s got a big orchestral adventure sound to it, very much like what you’d hear in a live action adventure film from the same era. The score carries the movie extremely well, and works wonders during the scenes without dialogue and the travel montages. A nice end title song works well enough and won’t be confused with something penned by Alan Menkin any time soon (whether that is good or bad is left up to you to decide).

Comic relief overload!
The voice cast for Atlantis: The Lost Empire is really good. Michael J. Fox is recognizable as Milo, but he does a fine job with the role, adding that touch of naïveté that the part requires. When he gets tough by the end of the movie, you feel he’s earned it. Garner seems to be having fun as the gruff and dangerous Commander Rourke. Claudia Christian is smoldering as the femme fatale, and certainly adds to her sexy character design. Nimoy gives the King Nedakh plenty of gravitas and world-weariness to the part. And Cree Summer makes for a solid heroine who will do what she must to save her people.

The supporting cast does a good job too, considering they have such a wide variety of oddball characters to voice. Don Novello as Vinny and Jacqueline Obraors as Audrey are certainly the most likable of the group, and provide some solid laughs with their performances. Jim Varney as Cookie, Corey Buron as “The Mole” and Florence Stanley as Bertha… well your mileage may vary there.

"I'm sorry Milo, but your comic book collection
just doesn't impress me."
That brings me to the script. As a straight up adventure move Atlantis: The Lost Empire delivers the goods. All the story beats you expect in this kind of movie, especially one inspired by Journey to the Center of the Earth and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea are present. But they are handled with confidence and skill. Milo makes for a unique lead character in the Disney cannon, because he is really a nerd. He loves archeology and research, and is really out of his element with these rough and tumble explorers. But he grows as a character, when Atlantis and Kida start to mean more to him than just an objective. It is a believable character arc, and one that makes us root for him, even in the face of the more mercenary characters.

My biggest issue is the over-reliance on the comic relief characters. First of all, there are too many of them. If the script had kept it down to Vinnie and Audrey, it would have been fine. But tossing in Cookie, Bertha, The Mole and even Sweet (Phil Morris) who doesn’t have much of a character at all, just makes the whole film seem cluttered with extra voices, subplots and cheesy jokes. I found “The Mole” to be particularly annoying and baffling. How was this guy supposed to be funny? I wonder if the screenwriters felt that if they made this too serious they would lose viewers. But I think the thrills and adventures carry the film just fine. All the “laughs” end up diluting the whole thing or worse, stopping the script dead for another “Cookie can’t cook” joke.

One of many amazing action sequences.
There is also another elephant in the room when it comes to Atlantis: The Lost Empire. I already mentioned the visual links to Castle in the Sky. There is an anime television series from the early 90s called Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water that shares some of the same plot points and visuals styles with this film. Anime fans were crying foul the minute this move came out. Yes there are similarities between these three. Yes Atlantis feels heavily inspired by anime style of action and editing at times. But that is a good thing. It was a fresh approach that Disney was able to take in and work in their own way. Besides, all three share the same basic DNA with an older style of storytelling – namely Jules Verne and Edger Rice Burroughs. Too call Atlantis a rip off is too harsh. It is inspired by the older works, and takes elements it can use and revamp into it’s own movie. Castle in the Sky and Nadia did the same thing.

The final execution of the film is impressive. Directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise keep the whole movie moving forward briskly. Even the stumbles around the comic relief end up being just blips on the journey. Action scenes are handled extremely well, with everything being very clear and yet with a frantic intensity that isn’t often seen in Disney animation. They also work some moments of wonder and awe into the film, to really give the culture of Atlantis some time to shine. Like Milo, we see this as more then a treasure hunt at the end.

Milo and Kida alone in a lost world.
Atlantis: The Lost Empire is a rip-roaring adventure film. It provides some amazing visuals, intense action and a wonderful film score to support what you see on the screen. As far as Disney’s experiments in animation go, this was a resounding success, much better than the clunky and half-baked Black Cauldron. It is a shame that the film wasn’t more popular with audiences and critics. It is also a shame that Disney over-corrected their approach to the adventure film with Treasure Planet, which adds even worse comic relief and has some really bizarre tone problems. Disney animation would end up collapsing on itself. It wouldn’t be until Pixar’s John Lasseter would come on board that things would be corrected. Still Atlantis stands as a worthy achievement during a challenging time in the studio’s history. 


  1. This is one of my favorite obscure (for Disney) movies. I actually like some of the comic relief characters (notably Audrey & Vinnie), but you're right in that they can be distracting. I'd love to read a full review if you have the time, since it's rare I find someone who doesn't dismiss it outright.

    1. You got it Mela. I'll shoot to get that up later this month. :) Thanks for reading!

  2. I know this wasn't a big financial winner for Disney (who was the intended audience?) but I give Disney credit for trying something different. It is imaginative action-adventure if nothing else.

    1. Yeah I really think they could have done something interesting in this vein. It's a shame it didn't meet their expectations.

  3. I like this film a lot, esp. the fact that the entire look of it comes from Mike Mignola's style of artwork (HELLBOY). Such a shame that it wasn't a bigger hit.

    1. Wow, now that you say that, I can see it. I also reminded me of the older Disney style from "101 Dalmations" and "The Sword in the Stone".

  4. I've not seen this one, and I don't think I've even heard of it. I'll have to add it to my Netflix queue. I also added recently An American Tale, which I'd never seen. I like a lot of that older animation from Disney.

    1. Yeah definitely check it out. It doesn't deserve the bad rap it gets. Wow, "American Tail" really takes me back. My sister loved that movie. Has a great musical score by James Horner, and the animation is very impressive for its day.

  5. I really enjoyed Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water. It's true they are similar, but aren't they both inspired by Jules Verne. Have you seen Nadia? I think it's an incredible series!

    1. Hey Julz. First off, thanks for reading and commenting! You know, I haven't seen Nadia in many years. I saw the first 8 episodes or so back in the late 1990s when it first came out on DVD. For some reason the series didn't hold my interest. I liked the first four episodes or so, but I found Nadia herself to be pretty annoying. I had also been really overhyped by a friend of mine who called it one of the greatest anime series of all time. Well, that is a high marker for anyone to live up to. I really should give it another chance, because I really love that animation studio and the director. I'm also less snooty than I was back in the 90s, so I'm a bit more open minded about that kind of thing. If I do get a chance, I'll be sure to post my thoughts on this blog. Thanks again for reading!

  6. Helga never much a chance as a character here. In the end she gets FORGOTTEN!!!?????about, they never right SAY she is dead(although she's actually crippled really). A much better written scene for her would be her being treated by Atlantean healers and her trying to explain to Kida as to WHY greed blinded her. She would been with the rest of the crew and the end Whitmore scene. The best idea BLUE WATER had that could really been used that was the fact that the world being threatened by an undersea menace basically an rouge Atlantean who would be traced to back to Atlantis and it would still have ALL OF THE CREW as good guys. It have given the story that the best reason to also keep the submarine and the dumb idea that the crew need to be "evil because of greed" WOULDN'T be used. Heck I can possibly see DISNEY in the far future doing a reworking of this film in such a way that people may think of it as a new storyline(it would have songs, we give an ACTUAL good reason to care about the atlantean people, given a better understanding of the crew(beyond just dumb greed),a better lead character make it Kida(who may not know she is from Atlantis) or even a reworked version of Helga Sinclair, both sound better then doing Milo once again and DROPPED THE CRYSTAL AS A PLOT POINT!!!!

    1. I agree that they could remake this movie and with a much tighter script really make something great out of it. Hell, they currently in "live action remake" mode at Disney. I bet they could make a great live action trilogy out of this. I like your idea of Kida becoming the main character who doesn't know she is Atlantian.

      Still this film has some really great points to it. A shame it never quite comes together as well as it could have.

      Thanks for reading and posting your thoughts!