In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released animated features, one per week.
Atlantis: The Lost Empire was completed by much of the same crew responsible for the surprisingly awesome The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise reteamed to develop a story based on Victorian science fiction, à la the work of Jules Verne, in particular his influential novel Journey to the Center of the Earth. The finished film contains allusions to Verne's work, including a replica of the Nautilus from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but the completed story was cobbled together from myriad sources. The first writer to take a stab at a treatment was none other than current Disney golden child and geek god extraordinaire, Joss Whedon. Whedon left the project shortly after completing his first draft but some of his trademark elements remain in the final product, first and foremost the huge ensemble cast. It is unclear how much direct DNA is shared between the spunky Audrey and her young female mechanic-in-arms, Kaylee, of the spaceship Serenity, but the similarities are striking.
Atlantis: The Lost Empire opens with an action-packed prologue showing the submersion of the ancient city of Atlantis. The sequence is full of mechanized weaponry, sci-fi technology, and onscreen subtitles translating the dialect the fleeing Atlanteans are shouting. This invigorating, bravura introduction starts off in a manner entirely foreign to the general conception of a Disney feature and runs full throttle with it. It is a breathless section that refuses to hold the audience's hand. One has to work to catch up. The sequence is representative of the entire feature, which almost willfully shuns any of the trappings some deem crucial to a Walt Disney Studios' production. There are no songs and no talking animals. The animation style is modeled after the work of Hellboy creator Mike Mignola, who was hired on as a production designer for the film, and the completed picture looks like nothing in the Disney canon.
Following the dense opening section, we get a glimpse of the film's underlying wit when we are introduced to Milo, a scrawny, geeky linguist who works in the basement of the Smithsonian, as he gives his audience of dusty artifacts a brief history of Atlantis and how he--with the work of his explorer grandfather--has discovered the whereabouts of an ancient text that will reveal the location of the sunken city. One clever bit has a cuckoo clock chiming just as Milo finishes his lesson, subtly voicing the skepticism of Milo's findings. Milo is voiced by Michael J. Fox. Fox does an admirable job of presenting the right amount of nerdiness to the character, although as usual with celebrity voice work, the star's persona is occasionally distracting. The rest of the voice cast, which includes James Garner, Leonard Nimoy, and Jim Varney, settles better into their roles.
Milo has been shunned in his attempts to mount an Atlantis expedition by his higher-ups at the museum, but is soon whisked away by a smoldering, sexy dame to a mansion where an eccentric millionaire, who was lifelong friends with Milo's late grandfather, enlists the linguist to finally track down the sunken city. Milo is thrown in with a multi-cultural crew, all with their specialities. There is the African-American-Indian doctor, the French excavator, the Italian demolition expert, and the aforementioned mechanic, who is of Puerto Rican descent. The crew is led by Commander Rourke and his assistant, Helga, the woman who brought Milo to the mansion.
The crew is quickly off on their expedition and the film erroneously tries to jam as many vignettes of their journey into a very short time frame. We get a frantic introduction to the crew, a handful of harrowing escapes from a series of dangerous adversaries, including a wonderfully conceived robotic Leviathan who chases the crew through the depths of the ocean. The sequences would work well on their own, but strung together in such quick succession, they become a bit tiring. The filmmakers unfortunately pile it on way too thick. Happily, by the time the crew reaches Atlantis, the film slows down to manageable pace, as Milo befriends Kida, the civilization's beautiful princess, and learns more of the city's history.
Once in Atlantis, the film becomes a familiar retread of the conquering explorer's pillaging of a wise and ancient people's land. This is the story we've seen time and again in the likes of Avatar and Disney's own Pocahontas and Tarzan. However, there are some surprises along the way, including the reveal that the entire crew that has accompanied Milo to the submerged utopia are ruthless, greedy individuals who are only involved in this job solely for their own financial gain. Many of them see the error of their ways long before the film closes, but it is interesting to spend the first half of the picture getting to know this rag-tag unit of explorers, only to have them all pointing a gun at Milo and kidnapping Kida.
The film is surprisingly mature in a handful of ways. In keeping with the spirit of the prologue, the filmmakers feel no need to condescend to their audience. This is seen in a number of ways, some as small as tossed-off asides like an obscure reference to P.T. Barnum, with no compulsion to explain or contextualize the aside. Meanwhile the villain refers to himself as an "Adventure Capitalist", a phrase that would fly right over the heads of the children in the audience. The film is also surprisingly violent. Most of the faceless, auxiliary crew members are killed in the chase with the Leviathan, their deaths acknowledged by a makeshift ceremony conducted by the survivors. There are scenes of remarkable destruction including a climax that is full of flying bullets, arrows, knives, explosions, lacerations, and for good measure, a beheading.
The film even manages to succeed with some of its crasser elements, with a shocking number of gross-out jokes that are actually funny. Unfortunately, the filmmakers push their luck and after a handful of quality chuckles at the expense of a naked old man and a character analyzing his own vomit, the film doubles down with nothing but diminishing returns. Luckily, the latter half of the picture trades in the laughs for big, bold action and some crazy visual elements, including glowing ancient runes and mammoth, Iron Giant-esque guardians who shield Atlantis from a torrent of boiling lava.
Atlantis: The Lost Empire succeeds much in the way of its production crew's predecessor, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, by pushing the envelope with its visual style, cramming as much exhilarating animation into the frame as possible. It also reminds one of the much-maligned The Black Cauldron which strained at the bonds of the Disney formula and came through as a curious, unique artifact. Also, like The Black Cauldron, Atlantis: The Lost Empire was not much of a financial success. Domestically, it grossed less than its production budget, only recouping its investment overseas. Usually comparing a Disney film to two of its predecessors results in detrimental criticism of the current feature, but when your film resembles two of the more audacious, idiosyncratic works to come through the pipeline, it is a sign of praise. Atlantis: The Lost Empire is far from perfect but it is a vigorous, entertaining experiment. Maybe like the famed city lost to the ages, this film will be rediscovered buried deep under the voluminous detritus of sequels, remakes, and direct-to-video features the studio has churned out in the decade since. There is some treasure deep down there.