For fans of the brand, the Disney Renaissance is a period of unbridled creativity at the House of Mouse, cemented by legendary projects like 'Beauty and the Beast,' 'The Little Mermaid' and 'The Lion King.' While I have just as much love for that era as anyone and respect it's place in history, the more fascinating period to me is the post-Renaissance era of the early 2000's.
The very condensed version reads as follows: 2D animation was becoming too expensive (at least in North America), 3D animation was gaining traction within the industry, and Disney was finding themselves against more and more competitors, including Dreamworks and former Disney animation head, Jeffrey Katzenberg. As such, while Disney's acquisition of Pixar was nothing less than a runaway success, the early '00s were still a weird decade for Walt Disney Animation, seemingly throwing a bunch of things against the wall to find out what would stick in the same way as their Renaissance-era fairy tales.
*(If you want some further reading, highly recommend these articles, they do a better job than I could).
'Atlantis: The Lost Empire' was one of those projects and might rank as one of the studio's biggest risks: a 2D project inspired by 'Hellboy's Mike Mignola of all people that was meant to lean more adult and wasn't a musical. Did it work? Well it was the same week that 'Shrek' release and we all know that film's legacy, do the math. But somewhere in the last 20 years, 'Atlantis: The Lost Empire' started to gain a cult following amongst Disney fans, with some even calling it a lost classic, misunderstood by audiences at a cynical time in the industry.
I had never actually seen the movie (it escaped my curious childhood eyes), so while everyone else was doing pieces on 'Indiana Jones,' I thought I'd check out the other big action-adventure anniversary this month. Does 'Atlantis: The Lost Empire' live up to that cult classic status? Mostly yes, particularly because, aside from maybe 'Treasure Planet,' there isn't really a Disney film that feels like this. While I totally concede that the film doesn't stick the landing on a lot of it's ambitions (and there's certainly plenty of it), the sense of scale, mystery and unique worldbuilding, combined with a loveable cast of characters make it a legitimately fun ride.
In 1914, Milo Thatch (voiced by Michael J. Fox) is a linguist studying dead languages, especially that of the long-lost civilization of Atlantis. Milo's search is often disregarded by his fellow professors until he receives a message from Preston B. Whitmore (voiced by John Mahoney), an enigmatic millionaire and friend of Milo's late grandfather. Whitmore reveals he intends to fund an expedition to the supposed location of the lost city after receiving The Shepherd's Journal, an ancient journal that seems to confirm Milo's theory.
Led by Commander Rourke (voiced by James Garner), Milo sets off on the journey with a ragtag group of mercenaries, including the mechanic Audrey (voiced by Jacqueline Obradors), the explosives expert Vincent (voiced by Don Novello), the medical officer Sweet (voiced by Phil Morris), and the eccentric geologist Mole (voiced by Corey Burton). After a series of obstacles, the crew do in fact find Atlantis, safe in an underwater volcano, as well as Kida (voiced by Cree Summer) and her father, the Atlantean King (voiced by Leonard Nimoy).
Kida enlists Milo's help in deciphering the mystery of the Heart of Atlantis, a magical device seemingly responsible for the Atlantean's extended lifespans and written in ancient Atlantean, which many of the citizens have long since forgotten, but that Milo has been researching. As Rourke and his team begin to reveal their true priorities, Milo and Kida must race against time to ensure the survival of Atlantis and it's people.
For it's understandable downsides, 'Atlantis' more than makes up for them with a sense of rollicking fun to it. Directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise are constantly introducing new things from ancient metal beasts to enchanted crystals, allowing that sense of mystery and adventure to keep growing. The film has a firm grasp on where it wants to take it's story, with those oh-so-classic themes of exploration, exploitation and self-worth that stories like this can bring. Plus, on a technical level, it's pretty admirable with its mix of animation styles, James Newton Howard's excellent music and excellent character designs.
Speaking of those characters, Milo is a great protagonist and is certainly framed as the moral center of all of this, but the supporting characters are just as great. Every one of them looks and acts distinct, they are instantly memorable and all have fantastic quotes to them (Vincent in particular stands out in that regard). Sure, they have to play along with the story, but in the smaller moments we do get, 'Atlantis' finds itself at it's most endearing, maybe the reason I would recommend this the most.
Of course, there's also the Atlantean princess, Kida, and this is where the film's mythology comes into play. With a pseudo-magic resource system and an entirely new language developed by Marc Okrand (the guy who developed Klingon for 'Star Trek'), the film's second act thrives on dissecting the mystery of this culture, of which Kida is our main insight. She is powerful and certainly has legitimate agency, but also comes with her own sense of conflict. She wants to relearn what her people have lost to save them, but there's a hint of trepidation: what will she find, can she trust Milo and his team, will they make the same mistakes as their predecessors?
Those ideas are certainly interesting, but unfortunately, the film doesn't quite know what to do with them. 'Atlantis' thrives on its mystery and yet doesn't really want to delve into it beyond some action tropes to get us into the third act. The mystery of the crystals and Atlantis' lost history is fascinating and yet the film is more focused on just delivering the bare minimum. The film could've added more to this, exploring the culture and those questions that Milo and Kida face and it just doesn't want to.
Even more annoying is it's sense of misguided framing for the story. Yes, Milo and Kida have wonderful chemistry together and the film does go to solid lengths to show how capitalist exploitation and greed can go horribly wrong. But am I the only one who finds it a bit distracting to frame the story of a lost indigenous culture against a lone good (white) guy trope in Milo? Something about that decision, and the film's insistence on aiming to families to tone down the metaphor, just does not sit well with me, even understanding the intentions behind it all.
At the end of the day, I'm glad 'Atlantis: The Lost Empire' exists in the form it does. It's a reminder that, even with misguided corporate intentions, Disney can still churn out some really unique stuff when they want to that is also really fun. Sure, the story, themes and even the mythology don't quite mesh together, but the sense of adventure and cavalcade of characters mostly make up for it, especially for what it was demanded to be at the time.
All these years later, cult classic status seems appropriate for 'Atlantis,' only sparking the imagination with what it might have done at a less tumultuous release window. The results, though not up to what it could have been, are still worth the ride and a revisit amongst the Disney pantheon.
Overall, I give 'Atlantis: The Lost Empire' 8/10.
'Atlantis: The Lost Empire' is currently streaming on Disney Plus and available to rent on Amazon Prime, Apple TV Plus and Google Play
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