“Atlantis: The Lost Empire”
Animated, Action, Fantasy
Rated PG: for Action Violence
Review by: Benjamin Ferrarini
It’s one of Disney’s most underrated animated features. Coming out the year after “Titan AE” Disney’s attempt at a similar mix of CG and hand drawn animation was “Atlantis: The Lost Empire”. This is a film that doesn’t get referenced much in Disney’s pantheon. Likewise one of it’s main characters, Princess Kida, is never included in collections of Disney princesses. This is a tragic injustice as “Atlantis” is one of Disney’s most unique films that deserves more attention then it’s gotten.
Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise who worked on the animated “Beauty and the Beast” in 1991 and Disney’s take on “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” in 1996. Kirk Wise also served as director on the english dub of Hayao Miyazaki’s award wining “Spirited Away” in 2001. “Atlantis” boasts an impressive cast featuring Michael J Fox (“Back to the Future”), James Garner (“The Note Book”), Lenard Nimoy (“Star Trek”) and Cree Summer (“Batman Beyond”).
Atlantis is based on the Platonic legend of an island kingdom with advanced technology that was destroyed by the god’s for their arrogance. Set in 1914 the film centers on Milo Thatch voiced by Fox. Milo inherited an obsession with Atlantis from his grandfather who was himself an explorer and adventurer. Milo however finds himself literally stuck in the basement as the maintenance worker for the British Museum. This changes when Milo is approached by Preston Whitmore, an eccentric business man, who knew Milo’s grandfather. Whitmore passes on a book that supposedly contains the way to find Atlantis. What’s more Whitmore has an entire expedition prepared to take Milo and a crew to discover the lost kingdom. What they find however, isn’t what they expect. Though buried under the ocean the city of Atlantis is still very much alive. Milo and the Atlantean Princes Kida form a fast bond in their mutual search for the answers to the mysteries of Atlantis.
Drawing inspiration from writers like Jules Vern “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” is a love letter to classic adventure stories. This is evident from the setting in the early 20th century and the pacing as nearly 40 minutes of its hour and a half run time is devoted just to getting to Atlantis. Then there is the ensemble cast of characters with distinct personalities. This last aspect is one of the film’s most successful and engaging qualities. From Joshua Sweet the expedition’s medic to the eccentric Vinny the demolitions expert most of the characters are well flesh out and well acted making for entertaining interactions between them. Milo’s introduction to the various members of the crew is a good example. But more than that the film allows for compelling character arcs as Milo starts out as an maligned outsider but gradually becomes an important member of the crew. Not all the characters are well rounded as a couple of them have third act reveals that feel too cliché, devoid of appropriate motivation. It’s a problem the plot has as well. While “Atlantis” attempts some unique things with the myth of Atlantis there are other parts that feel obligatory. Plot twists that are motivated by genre conventions rather then earned natural developments. While it’s disappointing it doesn’t break the film. I do want to call out the character of Princess Kida. Kida is the daughter of Atlantis’ King but is also a warrior and guardian. Her curiosity about the outside world draws her to Milo but she isn’t afraid to fight when the occasion calls for it. Cree Summers imbues Kida with a lot of charm, whit and toughness. Kida is one of Disney’s strongest female characters and her absence from any promotional material is tragic.
The CG element in Atlantis are a bit more refined then how they were used in “Titan AE”. There is less of a disconnect between the environments and characters which makes the film feel a little more natural. That is once you buy into a fantastical steam punk-esque world in which the film is set, a world with gigantic submarines, steam powered subterranean drilling machines and self-inflating dirigibles. The lighting and special effects are also top notch further giving “Atlantis” a stylized look that hasn’t really been duplicated in any other Disney film since.
Like “Titan AE” I feel I must also point out “Atlantis” has an amazing soundtrack. The score composed by James Newton Howard, captures the adventurous tone raising the level of several scenes. One of Howard’s pieces in particular ranks among my favorites in any film period. It’s an amazing score that like the rest of the film hasn’t gotten proper recognition.
For all the good “Atlantis” does have a bit of a problem with tone. It tries to be a casual Disney animated adventure with more then its share of comedic moments. At the same time “Atlantis” is a bit more violent then some of Disney’s other films of the time. When the submarine carrying Milo and the crew is attacked a harrowing action set piece ends with only a handful of characters left and a pointed memorial scene marking the deaths of the rest of the crew. While the film handles most of these scenes appropriately within it’s PG rating the conceptual nature of some of the violence doesn’t fit well next to the more cartoony elements.
“Atlantis: The Lost Empire” is a fun adventure film that just so happens to also be a Disney animated film. It hits enough highs to balance some of its lows but more importantly it does something more bold then Disney’s other films from the early 2000s. It’s currently available on Netflix and is well worth a look.
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