Because of the timing of when it came out, I actually didn’t end up seeing our first movie, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, until fairly recently. Atlantis came out in 2001, a year after I had moved to Bozeman, away from my cousins, my old friends, and basically anyone who I would have gone to see a Disney movie with (the last one I saw in theaters was Fantasia 2000 with my dad, and would not see another until Bolt in 2008). I remembered the marketing campaigns, though, with McDonalds Happy Meal toys and the inevitable Movie Surfers sneak previews on the Disney Channel. In a way, I’m glad I waited to see it, because I don’t think I would have appreciated it as much back then as I do now.
Allow me to explain. Even though I was well into my anime phase back then (which, in terms of action and pacing, is what Atlantis most resembles), I’m fairly certain I would have written off Atlantis as just another action cartoon, and not seen it for what it really is: one of the best damn adventure movies to come around in quite some time. Sure, it has its share of flaws and missteps, but if you’re in the mood for a rip-roarin’ flick filled with close calls, epic discoveries, and everything that makes 30’s movie-serials great, Atlantis is a sure bet.
The movie starts literally with a bang, as we witness the titular city sinking beneath a Poseidon Adventure-esque tidal wave. The plot then jumps forward to 1917, where we meet Milo Thatch (Michael J. Fox), a cartographer and linguistics expert from the Smithsonian Institute. Thatch has been looking for an ancient artifact called the Shepherd’s Journal, a book that supposedly reveals the location of Atlantis. His colleagues at the Institute aren’t having any of it, though; Milo’s grandfather spent all of his life searching for it, and the rest of the professors are quite sick of hearing about it.
The resemblance is curious, no?
Milo then receives a (rather sexy) invitation to meet with Preston B. Whitmore (John Mahoney), a reclusive (rather unsexy) billionaire who has found the book and wants to fund Thatch’s expedition. Before you can say “under the sea,” Milo finds himself with a crew, headed up by commander Rourke (James Garner, smooth as silk), a mess of digging equipment, and a tricked-out submarine that is equal parts Nautilus and Enterprise.
All is not smooth sailing, though, and Milo and the rest eventually find themselves stranded underground (the original pitch was an adaptation of “Journey to the Center of the Earth”), and they must find their way there by digging. That they eventually find the place goes without saying, partially because it’s par for the course in these sorts of scenarios, but mostly because it’s the title of the movie.
Something wicked this way swims.
The movie’s second half transitions from Raiders of the Lost Ark terrain into more Avatar territory, with the crew learning about the Atlanteans and helping them learn about themselves (their reading abilities have atrophied a trifle in the 3000 or so years they’ve been underwater). There is also a twist that some will probably see coming, but it helps set up for the climactic and exciting third act (anymore than what I’ve said here I will not spoil, though if you’ve seen Stargate, you might have a good idea of what’s coming).
I eat this stuff up. I really do. I know that this story has been told at least 3.2 kajillion times with different details, characters, and scenarios, but I feel like it’s a durable story, and that it’s surprisingly Disney. Many of Disney’s stories are about self-discovery and following your heart, and Atlantis carries this element swimmingly (bahaha). I think it’s reasonable to balk at the traditional (and some would say unoriginal) setup that Atlantis hinges its plot on, but I love the sense of discovery and Gee Whiz enthusiasm brought to the table by films like these.
I also love the broadly-sketched characters that make up the crew. They’re often defined with one or two attributes (the homesteading cook, the tough-girl teenager, the Jar Jar, etc), and aren’t characterized incredibly deeply, but they definitely lend some color to the picture, and give Milo a chance to express different aspects of his personality. In particular, I’m a huge fan of fast-talking doctor Sweet (Phil Morris), and demolitions expert Vinnie (Don Novello, who uses his Fr. Guido Perducci character to hilarious effect).
Novello was also a writer and cast member on "Saturday Night Live" for a few years in the 70's.
What impresses me the most now vs. how I might have seen it then is the art style. Simply put, Atlantis is a pretty frickin’ movie. The city is an imaginative blend of Aztec-like stone structures and brightly-colored landscapes, and, unsurprising for a movie about an sub-aquatic city, the water effects here look really good. I also like the character designs, who look less rounded than other Disney films at the time and strive for a flat, comic book-style appearance. And the movie is in WIDE SCREEN, which looks damn impressive on a decent-sized TV.
The movie loses a bit of momentum between when the expedition reaches Atlantis and that thrilling third act I mentioned above, and I admit the whole Adventure Formula movie is one that may not necessarily appeal to everyone (and make no mistake, it is definitely a formula movie). However, in just the same way I enjoyed the hell out of Romancing The Stone, “Ducktales,” and both Uncharted games for the PS3, I also had a grand ol’ time with Atlantis: The Lost Empire. It’s been largely forgotten about in recent history, but do yourself a favor and check out this underappreciated gem in the Disney canon.
How I Watched It:
For a brief stint in 1999-2001, Disney released limited edition 2-disc versions of their new movies in addition to the single-disc versions (the only other time they would do this would be in 2003 for Brother Bear; even Princess and the Frog doesn’t have this luxury), and this is how I experienced Atlantis. The picture quality looks great 2.35:1 widescreen, and there’s a feature-length commentary by producer Don Hahn and directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise (for those keeping score at home, these are the same guys who did Beauty and the Beast 10 years earlier).
One the second disc, there’s a feature-length, two-hour documentary on Atlantis, which you can watch all at once or in nine different segments. It’s broken up into different aspects on the making, including inventing the mythology, designing the characters (including collaboration with “Hell Boy”-creator Mike Mignola), and voice work (which, as a fan of voiceover, I always appreciate). Also, for those who are into it, there are art galleries, test footage, and deleted scenes.
For those who are interested in the behind-the-scenes, I would recommend this version without hesitation. This edition is out of print now, but fortunately, because Atlantis isn’t necessarily the most popular Disney flick out there, you can score it used on Amazon for around $11.