Disney’s 41’s Animated Feature also happens to be their first venture into science fiction. As such, it featured a lot of big names in the Sci-fi genre behind the movie. Michael Jay Fox from Back to the Future voices the main character. Leonard Nemoy voiced the emperor of Atlantis. Joss Wheden was attached to the writing at one point, although he says that not a shred of his writing made the final cut. It’s one of Disney’s few movies built in 70mm anamorphic widescreen format, at the same aspect ratio as Raiders of the Lost Arc to resemble classic action movies. And Atlantis was ambitious. They even created an entire language for the movie, by the same guy who developed the Klingon language. That’s kind of awesome.
I remember how a lot of advertising went into this movie. They advertised each character in the crew searching for Atlantis, proudly talking about what they’re good at. I remember commercials all over the place. I even remember my cousin playing an FPS game on the computer based on the movie. And I remember not caring one bit for any of it. This is when I was trying to completely ignore what I thought of as kids’ movies. I was all about action adventure movies like Star Wars and Indiana Jones, which is amusingly enough what Atlantis was aiming for, but I just unfairly looked down on animation at the time. I even ignored Pixar for a few years. It probably didn’t help that not long before this movie came out, I saw my first ever R rated movie.
Funny story about that – it was at a church camp weekend. I’m not as bad with it now, but as a kid I could only take so much of people around me. I needed my alone time every now and then or I’d lose it. My dad understood this very well and showed me a room where I could just be alone for a bit and watch a movie. One of the older kids happened to bring a few, including Cliffhanger. I’m pretty sure I watched it three times that weekend. But that’s enough of a side-track. Let’s talk about Atlantis: The Lost Empire.
The movie released in June of 2001, and while it wasn’t a monster hit, it performed decently with $186 million. The budget isn’t entirely clear, but it was somewhere in the range of $80 to $120 million, depending on where you look. Critical reception was mixed, with a 49% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and an average score of 5.5/10. Most critics praised the visuals but criticized the characters and plot. Lots of them appreciated the attempt at appealing to older crowds, something that Disney doesn’t always try to do. Regardless of the movie’s quality, I applaud them for being ambitious with this one and trying something new.
With that said, I agree with the critics. It’s a very technically impressive movie and the visuals are beautiful, but that’s about all there is to it. The characters are all archetypes. Nobody really goes through any character arcs – they just react to what the others are doing. Michael Jay Fox’s character, Milo, is a nerdy scholar who’s fascinated by the idea of finding Atlantis. He’s socially awkward but a genius on multiple levels. He would be a fine lead if they did anything with his character, but he kind of just exists.
The mercenary leader, Lyle, just wants their mystery power source to make money, and he doesn’t care who he hurts to get it. You can see him turning into the villain long before they even find Atlantis. Princess Kida is kind and open minded, but boring. She doesn’t show all that much emotion, and you don’t feel any of the romantic chemistry between her and Milo. It doesn’t help that they barely spend any time together outside of learning the city’s secrets. Vinny the Italian explosives expert who’s got almost all of the amusing lines because his voice actor ad-libbed everything, and they pretty much never used any of the recordings where he actually read his lines straight. He is easily the best part of this movie, even if that doesn’t say much. The rest of the characters are so forgettable that they’re not even worth mentioning, despite their strange quirks.
The story is about as predictable as it gets. After Milo is rejected by his peers, he’s hired by Lyle, who used to work with his father, to lead them to Atlantis. Somehow on the way they lose most of the crew and equipment, leaving just the characters Disney advertised. They find the city, Milo learns some of its secrets, and Lyle wants their power source. If he takes it, pretty much everyone in Atlantis will die. There’s a big underground battle, Atlantis is saved and Milo decides to stay there. It’s very much by the numbers and it’s told straight.
The writing isn’t anything special either. The movie is clearly trying to separate itself from Disney movies of the past with more adult themes and a dark story. Yet at the same time there’s a moment before the battle where Milo shouts,
“Alright this is it! We’re going to rescue the princess. We’re going to save Atlantis, or we’re going to die trying.”
Yeah, that line alone spells out that this is still a Disney movie. A for effort though. Also I like Michael Jay Fox. He’s got great comedic timing and he is good at selling dramatic moments, but he’s got very little charisma. He just sounds kind of lame as the leader of an army.
I’d be remiss to talk about the movie without mentioning Jim Varney. Jim is known for playing characters like Ernest, Sling from the Toy Story movies and playing Jed in the Beverly Hillbillies movie. In Atlantis, he plays a chef. He was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1998 and succumbed to it before the movie’s production finished. Although he saw character sketches based on his performance and loved it, he’d never see the final product. There seems to be a lot of stories like this in Disney’s animation canon, where actors voiced a role but passed on before the movie released, and it’s always sad and tragic. Atlantis: The Lost Empire is dedicated to him.
The animation in this movie is fantastic. There’s a heavy dose of CGI mixed in with the hand drawn animation. In fact this movie uses more CGI than any previous Disney movie, to the point where it kind of looks like it’s half and half. This allows for plenty of 3d views of the lost city, ancient yet high tech vehicles flying around in the final battle also rendered in 3d, and explosions that at times look kind of real. Body language and facial expression are good enough that if the writing was better, this could have been a very dramatic movie. The visual style is heavily based on comic artist Mike Mignola of Hellboy fame, and he assisted in designing the characters. The final shot in the movie in particular was described as the most difficult shot in the history of Disney Animation at the time. After a second look, yeah, it’s a very impressive shot.
The music is also good. The soundtrack often feels big, and it goes for an inspirational mood. But visuals and sound alone don’t make for a good movie. Most of the cast tries, but they can’t make the writing interesting. There isn’t enough downtime for dramatic moments to happen. There aren’t any characters so much as character archetypes. The story is bland and predictable. This could have been an amazing movie, but instead it’s just forgettable. Kids may enjoy it, as may those who enjoyed it as kids, but don’t bother with this one if you’re 13 or over.
Next up is Lilo & Stitch, the last movie I’ve seen before a stretch of 7 movies I’ve never seen before starting this blog series. After that it’s Treasure Planet, which for years I thought was just a sequel to Atlantis: the Lost Empire. It’s not – it’s Treasure Planet in space. From what I’ve heard, the next three after that are the worst Disney Animation Studio features ever.