Tuesday, March 3, 2015


RELEASE DATE: Friday 15th June 2001

Directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise were fresh off production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and decided that for their third Disney animated film they wanted to try something really different. Instead of a fairy-tale or literary adaptation, they wanted to create a brand new story in the style of the big-scale adventure movies like Indiana Jones or Star Wars. This would definitely NOT be a musical, but instead it would convey a mysterious and dangerous voyage into the unknown. This movie was Atlantis, Disney's 41st official animated feature.

You know something very odd about this film's subtitle? Atlantis, as presented in this film, is not an Empire. It has a king. Therefore, it's a kingdom. "The Lost Kingdom." Weird.

The team were determined to make the city of Atlantis have a fully-realised culture, including the creation of its very own written and spoken language. To do this, they worked with Marc Okrand, the same man who had invented "Klingon" for Star Trek.

Originally the opening of the film was to show some Vikings in 997 A.D. who were trying to find the lost city. This scene was completed, but eventually the directors felt that it was more important for the audience to see Atlantis's destruction, so the original prologue was scrapped.

For all of its ambition, Atlantis was not particularly successful. It released alongside Dreamworks's "Shrek," which had an enormous audience, and Atlantis's more mature sci-fi adventurey themes coupled with very old-school animated characters did not appeal to cinema-goers of 2001.

The new opening for the film - replacing the Vikings scene - now focuses on Atlantis before it is sent to the bottom of the ocean. The king covers his daughter's eyes away from the sight of her mother rising into a light in the sky. A gigantic shield covers the centre of the city as the sea crashes in over the top of it.

Cut forward a few thousand years to 1914, where we meet a passionate Atlantis scholar called Milo Thatch, voiced by Marty McFly himself, Michael J. Fox. Following hot in the footsteps of his explorer grandfather, Milo longs to lead an expedition to find the legendary lost city.

The only problem is, no one will fund such a ludicrous and expensive endeavour... That is until a mysterious woman called Helga appears in Milo's apartment one night and takes him to meet her employer, one Mr. Preston Whitmore.

Whitmore presents Milo with the Shepherd's Journal, an ancient text discovered by his grandfather. Milo pleads his case for an Atlantis expedition, and Whitmore surprises him by revealing that it's already organised. The crew is ready to go. All it needs is someone who can read the book, and Milo is that man.

At the take-off point, Milo meets Commander Rourke, the leader of the expedition. Everybody climbs aboard the submarine, and they are off to find Atlantis!

The crew is made up of a group of mixed age and race. Milo is introduced to them all one by one, but none of them particularly warm to him. He is definitely the outsider on this trip.

The mission has barely begun, when the submarine is attacked by a gigantic lobster machine called the Leviathan, which rips the sub apart. Many lives are lost and the survivors jet out on small sized pods.

Using the pods, they find the underwater bubble of air and begin the on-foot trek through ancient ruins, with Milo leading the way.

As the days pass, the crew members eventually start being a bit nicer to Milo, including him in their conversations and meals. A midnight toilet accident sets the entire camp on fire though, and Milo is separated from the rest of the group.

Not long after, the adventurers are themselves discovered by the locals, who welcome them to the city of Atlantis. "There were not supposed to be people down here," Helga says quietly to Rourke. "This changes everything."

The Atlantean princess "Kida" brings them before her father the king, who is not happy to see the visitors, especially since they bring weapons into this kingdom which has gone thousands of years without any intruders.

Fascinated by Milo and his knowledge of languages, Kida takes him on a tour of the kingdom. Milo is shocked to learn that the ability to read has been lost over the centuries. He alone can translate the ancient text to its own people!

What Kida really wants to know about though, is written on a mural deep underwater. She and Milo swim down to see it. They soon come to learn that somewhere in Atlantis there is a powerful source of energy that has kept all of the people alive, drastically slowed their aging, and is likely the power responsible for sending the city to the bottom of the ocean in the first place. When Milo and Kida resurface, Rourke thanks them for the information and sets the plan in motion to steal the power source. Milo pleads him not to, since this would surely kill all of the people of Atlantis, but Rourke is only in it for the money.

Being held at gunpoint, Milo and Kida have no choice but to lead the mercenaries to the power source, a gigantic crystal floating in a chamber underneath the king's throne room. The crystal sends Kida into a trance, levitating her up towards it and then embedding its power within her.

Rourke locks Kida away and leaves Atlantis behind. Some of the other crew members agree with Milo that this decision is unethical, so they are all left behind as well. With his dying breath the king of Atlantis begs Milo to return Kida and the crystal to their rightful place.

Using the local transport, Milo races after Rourke and Helga, who are looking to escape through the shaft of a tall volcano. A fierce battle ensues, and in the chaos both Rourke and Helga are killed. Milo and the other survivors race Kida back to Atlantis before the erupting volcano destroys everything.

With the crystal back in its rightful place and imminent danger on the doorstep, the city comes to life. Giant stone statues create a barrier around the city, shielding it from the torrent of lava. After the danger has passed, Kida is restored to normal and the crystal is free to shine high above the city, no longer sheltered away in a dark chamber.

The explorers all return home to live rich, comfortable lives. All except for Milo, who decides to stay and help Kida restore Atlantis to its former glory.

IRVYNE: I have very mixed opinions on Atlantis's story and characters. I think the directors' ambition was awesome, and good on them for trying something really different. I think most people would agree though, that Atlantis never reaches anywhere near the heights of the Disney greats that preceded it. For one, it has too many main characters crammed into its 95 minute running-time, and as a consequence, hardly any of them enough screen time. Apart from Milo and Kida, everyone else is really just a bit-part. (And Kida only features in the second half of the film)

The motley crew of explorers might be seen as a bit too politically correct or possibly even racist, with the token African-American, the token Latino, the token Frenchman, the token Italian-American, the token Southern yokel... It's almost eye-rolling. But that's from a cynical adult perspective. If you were a kid from one of these cultures, perhaps it'd be cool seeing someone like you up on screen.

Like Mary Wickes in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, one of Atlantis's cast members died before his work on the film was complete: Jim Varney playing Cookie. As sad as this is, I can't help but feel the directors might have indulged this character more than necessary in light of Varney's death. I find Cookie to be quite an irritating character, and completely inconsequential to the plot.

As well as Cookie, the character of Moliere (voiced by Corey Burton) tries way too hard to be funny, and none of the comedy associated with this character actually works.
Michael J. Fox does do some great voice work in bringing the main character of Milo to life. The character is a goody-two-shoes, but he's also a bit goofy and has enough flaws to make him likeable.

The main problem seems to be that the plot is too complex and grand to be condensed into one little animated movie. As a consequence, it feels like the audience is getting short-changed with the story.

I actually really appreciate the style that the directors were going for. Comic artist Mike Mignola was the chief inspiration for the film's "look." Mignola, who had created the graphic novels in the "Hellboy" series, was employed as a production designer, and all of the sharp angles and odd-shaped characters (including triangular finger and toenails!) are credited to his designs.

So I understand that they wanted it to look a very specific way, different to other Disneys. But I just don't really LIKE it that much. In my opinion, there are moments where the art style distracts from the story. There is very little shading on the characters (and where there is shading, it's very sharp) which gives them a distinctly flat look, which while adhering to the comic style of Mignola, seems like a step backwards for Disney animation.

I know that some people love this style and their appreciation for Atlantis stems from its artistry, which is awesome. I just think there are many more nicer-looking Disney films out there.

Disney made a conscious effort to include more C.G.I. than any hand-drawn film up to this point, seamlessly integrating it into the action. They did a pretty good job, since it's not really noticeable where the pencil ends and the mouse begins. 

Songs? What songs? Oh, there is one. It plays during the end credits. A horrible pop-ballad called "Where The Dream Takes You," sung by Mya and loosely based on some of the score's melodies. Bleugh.

Since there are no songs featured in the movie itself, it's up to the score to take control of the emotions and thrills. And in that regard, James Newton Howard's compositions do the job well. Howard utilizes an exotic blend of chimes, gongs and other percussion instruments to convey the culture of Atlantis, and the big bold Hollywood-esque theme when the submarine first dives is probably the film's most memorable melody.

Howard apparently approached the score like that of a live-action film, and it shows. Listening to it in isolation, you can hear a good, very stereotypical action movie sound. It works well for the film it was made for, but Atlantis certainly won't be remembered for its music.

I would love to say that Atlantis is a classic, but sadly it's not. It came and went through cinemas and video stores in the early 2000s, and I don't think many people have given it a second glance since then. Good on them for trying something different, but unfortunately in this case it didn't really pay off.

MALEFICENT: On rewatching it, I do like Atlantis much more than I remember liking it in the past.

WENDY: I thought I hadn't seen this movie before, but I was wrong.

IRVYNE: Must have been really memorable the first time you saw it then!

PASCAL: I hadn't seen it before, but I have to say, it doesn't capture my attention as much as some of the other Disney movies have.

WENDY: There is a nice sense of wonder to it.

SHENZI: Yeah, it's a cool adventure story. Almost a bit Indiana Jones-ish.

WENDY: I thought that too. And the big lava escape at the end reminded me quite a bit of the Cave of Wonders in Aladdin... And just a little bit of Avatar.

IRVYNE: A LITTLE bit?? Now, in all fairness, Atlantis beat Avatar by about 8 years. But you're absolutely right, when I first saw Avatar I couldn't believe how much the story ripped off both Atlantis and Pocahontas.

MERRYWEATHER: Well I saw Avatar first, so I was amazed at the similarities.

IRVYNE: Yep. Basically Pocahontas + Atlantis + Space + Pew Pew Pew = Avatar.

WENDY: Helga is a little bit over-sexualised, don't you think?

IRVYNE: Come on, this is 13 years after Jessica Rabbit!

WENDY: Just saying...

PASCAL: There's some off-screen nudity when Milo first meets Mr. Whitmore as well! Also, I noticed a reference to Barnum - Rourke says "P.T. Barnum was right." - which is very exciting to me, because I just saw the show!

IRVYNE: That's right, he's referring to Barnum's catchphrase that "there's a sucker born every minute."

MERRYWEATHER: I like it at the start of the film where Milo says he's going to find Atlantis and the clock goes "Cu-koo!"

MALEFICENT: I think the volcano makes it way too easy for them to leave. They had to go so far underwater to find the place.

IRVYNE: The writers had to get them out of there somehow! At least now the main characters know where the volcano is, it should be easy to go back and visit if they ever want to say hi.

MALEFICENT: I like all the different characters, especially Milo.


IRVYNE: I've got two favourites. One is Mrs. Packard. She's fantastic. So deadpan. So uninterested in everything they're doing.

MALEFICENT: I love her too! "We're all gonna die."

IRVYNE: The other one that I love is Vinnie, the Italian explosives guy. Apparently most of his lines were adlibbed in the recording studio. The character does have that very unscripted feeling to everything he says.

WENDY: I like Audrey, she's the token tomboy.

IRVYNE: And she has astronomically huge lips.

SHENZI: She looks like a Bratz doll!

IRVYNE: Do you think it feels a bit forced that they have the token Italian, the token African-American, the token Frenchman, the token Latino?

PASCAL: Just like Captain Planet!

WENDY: Also, Helga is very possibly German.

MERRYWEATHER: She has blonde hair and she wants to sell Atlantis to the Kaiser. She's totally German. But I like Kida better.

IRVYNE: You never hear about HER as a Disney princess, do you?

SHENZI: No! You totally should!


IRVYNE: She and Princess Eilonwy can start up a petition! Mulan's allowed in the club, and she ain't no princess. What about Princess Kidamaschnaga, huh??

PASCAL: That might be the reason she's not a Disney princess...

SHENZI: "Mummy, buy me the Kidamaschnaga doll!"

WENDY: I don't understand why the crystal releases her at the end. Her mother got sucked into the crystal, and it kept her for good.

IRVYNE: Hmmm... Interesting point. Perhaps the crystal realises that Kida is now the queen. The king's dead, and she's the only one that can rule.

MERRYWEATHER: She can rule along with Milo, who's the only one who can teach them how to read again. I can see why he would want to stay. He had no real life back home.

IRVYNE: Not to mention that by staying, he doesn't get drafted into World War I!

WENDY: It's cool how they created this entire culture for Atlantis. They only show a little bit of it in the movie though.

IRVYNE: I've always felt that the structure of this movie is very strange. When I first saw it I was expecting the JOURNEY to Atlantis to be the main part of the movie, and when they find the city that would be kind of the end. But they reach Atlantis literally half way through the film, so it almost feels like two different stories. I reckon it might have been better if it HAD been two movies, and they could have fleshed things out more; had things happen on the journey, got to know the characters a little better, and - as you said - spent more time exploring the culture of Atlantis in the second half. For a story of its size, the 95 minute running time seems very rushed. The creators credit Star Wars and Indiana Jones as inspiration, but not only were each of those movies 2+ hours long, they were trilogies. They could never be condensed down into 95 minutes.

MALEFICENT: And when everybody dies, they just light a couple of candles and move on, never to speak of them again.

IRVYNE: Did you also notice, there's a huge group of people who DO manage to make it to Atlantis, but they're all faceless drones with masks on. It's only the main characters who make a stand and stay behind. Apparently no one else has any kind of moral dilemmas.

MALEFICENT: It is nice to have a completely original story in a Disney movie. Most of them are based on existing books or fairy-tales, but this one is brand new.

IRVYNE: Since you're the villain aficionado, what did you think of Rourke?

MALEFICENT: He's not a nice man, is he? Villains are usually my favourite characters, but I don't really rate Rourke. To be honest, I'm not much of a fan of army-type villains in any movie. And Rourke isn't a devious villain at all; he's more brawn than brain.

IRVYNE: I think his villain status is way too obvious too early in the film, so when the big reveal happens, it's like, "Well yeah, I knew he was going to be the bad guy all along. Look at the smirk he always has on his face!" It would have been cooler if the villain was someone else completely unexpected... like Mole!

MALEFICENT: If Helga turned out to be the bad guy, I would have been more impressed.

IRVYNE: I think she's one of the best-designed characters in the movie, but she's really not given much to do. I would love to have seen more of Helga. Hmmm... that didn't sound too good, did it...?

MALEFICENT: Well the film certainly looks very pretty.

WENDY: It's got a very different design to the previous Disney movies. They look like caricatures instead of people.

IRVYNE: Yeah. Very abstract, with lots of sharp angles.

MERRYWEATHER: The proportions are all a bit strange as well, like their toes, and their triangular fingernails.

MALEFICENT: I love the artstyle. I really do. I love Hellboy, and Atlantis just looks like a moving graphic novel. Even when there's a swirl design it's all angular. I also love the design on the submarine.

SHENZI: The water doesn't look very waterish.

MERRYWEATHER: I'm sad there's no songs for us to sing!

SHENZI: That's probably why we haven't connected to it as much.

PASCAL: Yeah, that might be why this film doesn't hook me in.

IRVYNE: You could have sung along to the song in the credits... but I wouldn't blame you if you didn't, because it's rubbish. So on the scale of things, how would we rate Atlantis? High? Medium? Low?

WENDY: It's not low...

SHENZI: I'd say medium. It's an interesting enough story.

IRVYNE: I agree. It's not bad. It's fairly enjoyable. But it's definitely not Disney at its best.

PASCAL: Not even close to the top for me.

IRVYNE: I was thinking while I watched the movie - and it's probably about my 5th or 6th viewing since 2001 - I reckon it would have worked really great as a live-action film. Would they have had adequate special effects back then? Probably not.

WENDY: Is it worth a live-action remake do you think? Do you think it would be better?

IRVYNE: If it was done well, sure. If the characters were more fleshed out and it had less tokenism. If perhaps it was made into two or three movies so it could really be a full adventure, I think there's a lot of potential there. I admire the directors' ambition, I just don't think they chose the right medium.

WENDY: I don't think it's particularly memorable, do you?

MALEFICENT: No, I think it's most forgettable, and it's not one I've ever wanted to own on D.V.D.

IRVYNE: I don't think there's anybody who would say, "Oh, Atlantis! That's my favourite!"


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