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Disney Sundays: Atlantis:The Lost Empire (2001)

         When I was a kid I couldn’t get enough of the classic adventure stories. Treasure Island, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, King Solomon’s Mines, etc. More than almost anything else, they really provoked my imagination and love of stories. So I was super excited when Atlantis: The Lost Empire promised to be Disney’s take on a Jules Verne calibre action-adventure story. Here was a Disney movie tailor-made for me. I saw it once, liked it, and that was it. It was a box office failure, being like its two Disney predecessors very different from what audiences were used to. Was it deserving of its lack of attention?
          Set in 1914, Milo Thatch is a young linguist cartographer working in a menial job at the Smithsonian with a particular obsession with the legendary lost city of Atlantis. But, his expedition proposals have been repeatedly shot down, until a millionaire explorer who was friends with Milo’s grandfather, reveals he’s found the journal that acts as a map to the lost city and is financing a voyage himself. So Milo and a crew of explorers, engineers, and scientists embark on a mission to the deep to discover the lost city and the mysteries it contains.
          This premise I freaking love! It’s exactly what you want in an action-adventure into the unknown. And a lot of the time the movie really lives up to that. Though there’s definitely pacing problems in the opening ten minutes of the movie, the rush of developments did feel exciting and the set-up for Milo’s research which would come into play later, as well as the important part his grandpa played in his childhood I thought was natural (by the way, little Milo is Sherman Peabody). And the action scenes later on are pretty fun and creative. However it still bugs me how early the Ulysses (what a fitting name) is destroyed. They build it up with fanfare, great animation, music, and then destroy it and most of the crew after about five minutes. The survivors mourn…briefly…and then become fixated on Milo’s goofy ineptitude. Even without this poor timing, the use of comedy in this film was a bit jarring. I completely understand the need to inject humour  into such a far-fetched story, but sometimes it felt really out of place when the plot was meant to be serious. Also the constant wipe transitions are very distracting and felt either like I was watching a kids’ show or a Star Wars prequel. Once they reach Atlantis itself though the story settles, only to become a bit too predictable. At least in terms of the general conflict. It’s typical greed at the expense of anyone standing in the bad guy’s way. The nuances of what the bad guy wants though and its place in Atlantean culture is more unique and fascinating.
          The film goes all out when it comes to Atlantian culture. Seriously, the filmmakers actually brought in the guy who came up with the Klingon language to create an Atlantean one. Geez, it’s as if they were betting on a film series or at the very least a spin-off TV show! This is a hell of a lot of commitment for a language and society that may only appear in one movie. But it does aid in the portrayal of this culture as you can identify the roots of other languages in Atlantean, making it feel more real. The culture of the Atlantians is also really distinct through Greek, Asian, and Native American influences, and just the way their society is designed. Their crystalline life gem is a mysterious force that takes on remarkable attributes -the scene where Kida comes to it is exceptional. There’s a lot of supernatural tenets to this society which does lead to a few plot holes (their not being able to read makes no sense). But I find myself overlooking the unusual magical properties because Atlantis itself is so intricate and the visuals so terrific. It truly feels like a lost world and this film deserves the highest praise for that.
          Atlantis also deserves high praise for its characters. They really put special effort into defining these personalities -I think maybe because the filmmakers knew how grand a scale this story was being told on that supporting characters could easily be lost. And it worked out, I was really invested in most of them. Yeah, the scene where they all reveal their back-stories is a little out of place but I really like it. I also love how diverse they are ethnically! With a cast this big the fact you know each of their backgrounds and personalities is really an asset. Milo is a little too dweeby a protagonist, but his endearing curiosity and wonder as well as the fact he’s actually legitimately smart makes him fairly likeable. And Michael J. Fox is pretty good in the role. John Mahoney’s billionaire Whitmore is convincing as both eccentric and caring, in his efforts to do right by his late friend. Vinnie, the Italian demolitions enthusiast with aspirations to open a flower shop is really enjoyable. Don Novello improvised a lot of his lines adding to Vinnie’s sarcasm and cool head. Audrey is pretty awesome -a young tough Puerto Rican engineer with a heart of gold. Dr. Sweet (with the sweet sweet voice of Phil Morris) is a fast-talking and pretty ingenuous guy who happens to have been a medicine man, being half Native American. As for Mole …his manic energy is impossible not to enjoy though his appearance and personality is just an awful French stereotype. The grumpy chain-smoking Bertha gets some good moments and jokes; and who invited Ernest on this mission? Whatever, Jim Varney in his last film role still makes Cookie entertaining. Combined, they made for a good ensemble who despite some of the plot problems in the later half kept the movie afloat. The scene where one by one they stand by Milo, I really love even though you knew that was coming (it’s worth noting, Sweet was with the king at the time Rourke was planning to leave -clearly he was okay leaving Sweet behind). Regarding the Atlanteans, Kida (another princess left out of the line-up) is pretty great. She has a charming personality, a dedication to her people, but also an interest in the unknown and is much more impulsive than Milo, making them an interesting pair, and an alright relationship overall. Cree Summer’s also good at giving her an accent that isn’t quite specific (and yes that is the voice of Penny Gadget and Elmyra Duff). Having the late Leonard Nimoy as her father isn’t too bad either. The only characters that hold the movie back are the villains. I think because of his design, you know Rourke’s going to be the villain from the start. The fact that he’s excluded from backstory time and is voiced by James Garner is even more confirmation. I don’t mind the mission leader turning on the crew, but his motivations are really uninspired and the logic he uses to back it up is very flawed. And it makes the last act a little less interesting than it could be by going a fairly conventional route. Rourke’s just a stock villain who’s pretty bland and even more so is his first officer Helga. She really could have had more depth to her considering she at times seems reluctant to go along with his plans. But considering she does nothing exceptional in terms of character growth in the last act, she just feels pointless overall. 
          The animation’s mixed as some stuff looks absolutely mesmerizing, while others just kind of cheap. The characters are probably the most noticeable as they’re styled very uniquely from past Disney. They’re much more rigid and angular while at the same very detailed. Most of the time I think it works great, but then that comedic animation can get in the way. Sweet’s first meeting with Milo is really funny and there are a number of other times the movie gets a laugh, but the over-the-top slapstick and elaborate expressions feel a little out of place. It makes the film half-comedy which I don’t think it should be. That being said, the character designs are really good, though a few close-ups on Milo or Rourke for example show that this style is better suited for comics. And would it kill you to give Helga more varied emotions? However the environment looks stunning. The architecture and lighting is right out of ancient Greece and it gives off an atmosphere that really captures the imagination. I love the technology from the geological vehicles and again the Ulysses (seriously, just another ten minutes with it would have been nice!) to the fish cars operated by hand and the crystal life force that powers the city. And the amount of creativity put into the statues and mechanical-biological creatures that inhabit the area around Atlantis is wonderful. In a number of places I’m really reminded of Castle in the Sky, or just the general inventiveness of Miyazaki. And once again it’s accompanied by thrilling adventurous music courtesy of James Newton Howard. It sets the mood wonderfully in the opening, and a number of themes later on do a good job of highlighting significant scenes. I really can’t think of a better score to characterize the exploration of the unknown deep -though “Whale of a Tale” from Disney’s 20,000 Leagues is close. 
          Atlantis: The Lost Empire is one giant tribute to classic adventure stories, particularly the works of Jules Verne. There are definite shades of 20,000 Leagues and Journey to the Centre of the Earth in this film and I love that. But if any Disney film was banking on being a hit and utterly failing, this was it. The character animation isn’t as good as it wants to be, the pacing could be tightened, and the villain and main conflict would surely benefit from something more original and less thematically pedestrian. I get why some have problems with this movie and it does suffer from targeting a specific demographic. Hell when it came out it felt like I was its only audience as no one I knew was really into that kind of adventure story. And so yeah, not relating that well to kids at the time is a crutch. But I do feel it deserves more attention, if for nothing else than the attention IT gave to crafting its world, humanizing its characters, refining its spectacular visuals, and invoking a hell of a lot of creativity!

Next Week: Lilo & Stitch (2002)

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