Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)

You have to give people credit for trying.

In the early Nothings or thereabouts, there were a number of animated American Feature films aimed at an older audience, which all featured Science Fiction and Fantasy elements.

These were all rather obviously inspired by the growing Anime boom, and included such films as Titan A.E., The Iron Giant, Final Fantasy, and Disney’s two heroic attempts, this film and Treasure Planet.

Neither film did the business Disney wanted — and both were fairly expensive.  So it wasn’t too much of a surprise that they put an end to the experiment.

But I have a real soft spot for both films despite their flaws, and Atlantis remains one of my favorite American animated films.

The storyline is classic — almost pulpy — more Edgar Rice Burroughs perhaps than Jules Verne:

Milo Thatch, the grandson of a famous explorer, gets a chance to complete his grandfather’s dream: find Atlantis.  But his Grandfather’s oldest friend has found the important clue Milo has been looking for and he equips an incredible expedition to find the underwater passage to the lost city.

Only things don’t work out the way they are planned, the mighty steampunk submarine, the Ulysses, is destroyed by a massive war machine — and, far more remarkable, there is a civilization still alive at the bottom of the sea…

While Disney had toyed with combining hand drawn and CG animation before in films like Tron, Hercules, and The Great Mouse Detective, Atlantis gives us incredible CGI vehicles and buildings which have the same look as the hand drawn elements.  The match isn’t exactly perfect, but it is still surprisingly close.  Not many films did it as well at the time and only a few have done better since.

The Ulysses itself is an incredible design with lovely steampunk cast iron and lots of glass.  It seems a shame that it didn’t stick around for very long but then I suppose they would have had to spend a few more millions if it had.

Frankly, some of the humor is rather childish, with plenty of fart jokes thrown in for good luck — and I believe before Nickelodeon made that sort of joke standard on children’s TV.  It’s a bit overdone and doesn’t fit well with the rest of the story.

We also have a somewhat more extravagant version of the classic Western hero’s six shooter which never runs out: the expedition suffers one disaster after another and yet keeps coming up with more soldiers and wacky steampunk gadgets which somehow conveniently survived the initial shipwreck and the disasters which follow.

After all, every expedition to a lost underwater city has to have extra collapsible flying machines, right?

However, the big goof, the giant floating statue sized goof, is the idea that, as the Atlantean language is the mother tongue of modern languages, this means Atlanteans can speak English, French or Italian flawlessly.

It doesn’t work that way, folks!

Hellboy’s creator, Mike Mignola, gets credit for the character designs.  I’m not sure how much he actually did as there’s a strong, Disney-fied quality to them.    I do have to wonder who designed the oversized hands with big, blocky square-tipped fingers: they look great but are a bit awkward at times.  They remind me a bit of Mignola’s work, which seems plausible to me because, as a cartoonist with no previous animation experience, he wouldn’t as concerned about how hard it would be to animate them.  

The Characters’  quirky designs and odd-ball personalities have a certain charm to them, thanks largely to a great cast who gave stellar performances.  Michael J. Fox is excellent as Milo, as is Phil Morris as Sweet, who belts out his lines with remarkable assurance, and James Garner as the tough Captain.  However, Moliere is just too unreal and, despite excellent performances, several of the characters are rather stereotypical, like the gossipy telephone operator, the tough girl mechanic, and Jim Varney’s old time Western trail cook.

And, let’s face it, the entire cast of Atlantean people is straight out of the stock Hollywood “tribal people living in Harmony with Nature (now with extra facepaint!)” which we saw in so many Nineties movies.

But that doesn’t stop Leonard Nimoy from giving a commanding performance as their king.

Which leaves us with the femme fatale, played by Babylon 5‘s Claudia Christian.  She is perhaps the best animated character in the film, hard and sexy, like she came out of an old Film Noir.

You  won’t find anyone like her in an Anime film.

Or for that matter, in any other Disney animated film.

This leaves us with one of the most uncomfortable elements of the films — Milo’s romance with Kida.

I mean, she’s thousands of years old, Milo.  How likely is it that’s going to work out?

And what would a girl thousands of years old see in any ordinary mortal, no matter how cute — or brainy — he is?…

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