Atlantis: The Lost Empire, quite the departure from the 1990s Disney films, marks its 20th anniversary since its 2001 theatrical release.
This film came ten years after filmmakers Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise directed Beauty and the Beast. At the time of its release, it featured a diverse cast and characters. Perhaps Disney may have been onto something but when all was said and done, it just didn’t earn enough money at the box office. They’re going for an adventure on the level of Jules Verne and depending on who you speak with, they either hit it or they didn’t. In terms of the animation style, they draw on Hellboy creator Mike Mignola’s visual style. Hiring Mignola as a production designer turned out to be one of the best decisions on the film. It’s also a reason as to why Atlantis holds up so well 20 years later!
Milo Thatch (Michael J. Fox) is an adventurer on the level of Indiana Jones and a linguist similar to Stargate‘s Daniel Jackson. It’s 1914 and Milo believes that the key to finding Atlantis lies in a book that can be found in Iceland. Unbeknownst to him, his grandfather already found it. Anyway, he’s trying to get funding and gets turned down by the Smithsonian. Ultimately, the path lies with Helga Sinclair (Claudia Christian) and Preston B. Whitmore (John Mahoney). Before you know it, their on an expedition to Atlantis led by Commander Rourke (James Garner). There’s a diverse crew that joins them:
- Vinny Santorini (Don Novello), a demolitions expert
- Gaetan “Mole” Molière (Corey Burton), a geologist
- Dr. Joshua Strongbear Sweet (Phil Morris), a medical officer
- Audrey Ramirez (Jacqueline Obradors), a mechanic
- Wilhelmina Bertha Packard (Florence Stanley), a radio operator
- Jebidiah Allardyce “Cookie” Farnswort (Jim Varney), a mess cook
There’s a large number of crew that joins, too, but many didn’t make it after the ship got destroyed by a mechanical leviathan. Not long after making their way, Milo encounters Princess Kida (Cree Summer). With the wonders of Atlantis, she’s still very young in appearance. As we learn later in the film, the princess is one of the few royalty of color among animated Disney films. It may have been a rarity in 2001 but it should have happened earlier than the 21st century! Aside from this, we quickly learn that Atlantis isn’t the same culture it once was. They’ve forgotten how to read their own language. The society is not what it used to be BUT because the Atlantean language is the root for many modern languages, they can, thank G-d, understand English.
Rourke, it turns out, has his own agenda and it’s not a nice one. If he has his way, Atlantis will be left for dead. This doesn’t sit well with Milo and soon, the rest of the crew–sans Helga–turns against him. With Rourke and Helga taking Kida with them, it’s up to Milo and the gang to save Atlantis. That’s the gist of the plot in a nutshell.
The major thing that doomed Disney’s 41st animated feature upon its release was that it simply wasn’t a musical. The only major piece of music in this film comes during the closing credits. When one looks at the films released during the 1989-99 Disney Renaissance, music is a big piece of the action. Suffice it to say, the lack of music wasn’t a good thing at the time. Atlantis also didn’t have the comedy that made The Emperor’s New Groove a hit.
Animation itself was in quite the transition period in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Hand-drawn was on the way out while CGI was on the way in. Look at what Pixar was doing. Hell, Shrek was the biggest film of 2001 and placed DreamWorks Animation on the map. When you look at 2001, Pixar and DreamWorks were the big animation rivals. Following Tarzan, Disney–sadly–was an afterthought. Moreover, Atlantis came less than a month later and wouldn’t even be nominated for the first-ever Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. Looking back on it 20 years later, the lack of a nomination was a big mistake. There are things in this film that audiences just weren’t ready to see yet. But at the time, many of us–myself included–were still amazed by what Shrek was doing.
The world of animation may have been changing in 2001 but Atlantis: The Last Empire is a solid action-adventure. Moreover, a live-action adaptation simply couldn’t be able to capture Mignola’s visual style. But if they decide to go that route, there’s a solid blueprint in this action-adventure. Indiana Jones would be proud!
DIRECTORS: Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise
SCREENWRITER: Tab Murphy
CAST: Michael J. Fox, Cree Summer, James Garner, Leonard Nimoy, Don Novello, Phil Morris, Claudia Christian, Jacqueline Obradors, Jim Varney, Florence Stanley, John Mahoney, David Ogden Stiers, and Corey Burton