51 Days of Disney (Day 41): Atlantis: the Lost Empire

Atlantis: the Lost Empire is a breed of Disney film that we have not seen since the Black Cauldron, a darker film from what we had seen before.

The film opens with a massive tidal wave heading directly towards Atlantis. Guards try to evacuate the city, but it seems like it’s too late. The wave is set to destroy the city, but the Queen of Atlantis is chosen by some magical light to become the shield that protects a portion of the city. Unfortunately for the Atlanteans, it doesn’t protect the whole city and causes that part to sink far underground.

The year is now 1914, and Milo Thatch (Michael J. Fox) is giving a presentation to a group of investors as to why they should fund an expedition to Atlantis to find their power source that is more powerful than any power source currently known to man. Thatch is the head of the Cartography and Linguistics department at the Smithsonian, but the museum doesn’t really like having him around, so they placed the department in the boiler room and he also works as the boiler room operator. It is also revealed that he was just preparing his presentation for the actual group of investors by giving it to a number of items from his office dressed up as people. The investors decided to move the meeting up an hour as so that Thatch couldn’t actually give his presentation. The investors flee at the sight of him, but he catches one of them, Mr. Harcourt (a cameo by David Ogden Stiers), who personally rejects the proposal.

Milo returns to his home that night to find the beautiful Helga Sinclair waiting for him with a proposal for Preston Whitmore, one of Milo’s Grandfather’s old friends, to fund an expedition to find Atlantis. Whitmore gives Milo the Shepard’s Journal, the key to finding Atlantis, and a crew to find the lost city. The crew consists of geology expert Mole (Corey Burton), demolitions expert Vinnie, Dr. Sweet, cook Cookie (Jim Varney), mechanic Audrey, the aforementioned Helga Sinclair, and Commander Roarke. All of these members, plus the rest of the crew, reside on the Ulysses, a highly advanced submarine until the Leviathan attacks. Milo describes the Leviathan as a mythical sea serpent, but in reality it’s a giant mechanical lobster that brings down the sub. Most of the nameless members of the crew perish, but the main characters escape on the escape subs just as the Leviathan destroys the Ulysses with a beam of electricity.

The crew eventually reach the city of Atlantis and find out that the remaining Atlanteans have been alive for over a millennia, all being kept alive through the power source. The King of Atlantis (Leonard Nimoy) tells his daughter Kida that no one may enter Atlantis and leave alive. Kida eventually convinces him to let them stay for one night. Milo and Kida bond, but this is broken up by Roarke revealing his true colors and trying to steal the power source for a profit. Milo must stop Roarke from stealing the literal life force from Atlantis and dooming all of them to death.

Atlantis was originally conceived when Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise, Don Hahn, and Tab Murphy were trying to start a project that would keep the Hunchback of Notre Dame team together. They wanted to make a film based off of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth, but would fully explore the city of Atlantis rather than just briefly touch upon it like the novel does. The team researched the myths surrounding the city as much as they could  so they could fully realize the sunken city and distinguish it wholly from any civilization that we know of. They visited numerous museums and early 20th century army installations to develop the technology that the crew uses to get down to the sunken city in a realistic enough way that it would be believable, but also functional enough to get the crew down. The technology is definitely based off of the existing technology of the 1910’s down to the hand cranks on the trucks.

Atlantis has a very distinctive style from the rest of the animated Disney films. Part of this stems from the involvement of Hellboy creator, Mike Mignola. His distinctive “German Expressionism meets Jack Kirby” art style definitely shows through in the film, minus his trademark heavy shadows, of course. This is especially the case when it comes to the vehicles in the film. The Atlantean vehicles look like they came right out of Hellboy. Mignola did end doing the cover art for the Atlantis the Lost Empire comic book that was released to coincide with the film. Something that really sets the design apart from anything else is the fact that the design team actually created animals specifically for the lost civilization and brought on a linguist named Marc Oakrand, who also developed the Klingon language for Star Trek, to create the Atlantean written and spoken language.

The submarines at Disneyland were initially going to be reborn as an Atlantis Submarine Voyage, but the film did not perform as highly as Disney expected it to. The subs were eventually reborn as the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage in 2007. Disney even promoted the subs returning through various press releases and an Atlantis meet and greet in front of the dormant submarine lagoon, but all of the plans were scrapped. There was also an animated TV show planned called Team Atlantis, but it suffered the same fate as the attraction. A few episodes were actually finished, and became the straight to video sequel.

The film has a much darker tone than the previous Disney films and has a much more mature storyline. Part of this stems from the sheer number of people that die in the film and the fact that at this point in time, Disney was actively trying to move away from the musicals that they had become known for as they stopped being quite as profitable as the company would have hoped. This also started a movement away from stories based heavily off of preexisting works of fiction and a move towards more original stories. This movement was met with mixed emotions from reviewers, some praising the more action packed and fast paced tone of the film. Others did not like the lack of character development within the larger cast of characters.

Personally, I really enjoyed the film. Atlantis: the Lost Empire is a change of pace from the musicals of the Disney Renaissance and I welcome the darker tone of the film. It’s not the greatest Disney film out there, but it did show a different side of Walt Disney Feature Animation than everyone was used to.



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