The turn of the millennium was a rocky road for Walt Disney Animations believe it or not. The issues away from the cinema screen began several years ago with high tensions at the top of the company. Accusations of Jeffery Katzenberg taking too much credit for earlier productions to who should take the CEO spot after Frank Wells’ tragic death in 1994 made the future a very tense one for the company. This was also the time when Katzenberg was forced to resign from the company as well as founding DreamWorks SKG. These tensions unfortunately leaked into the production of the company’s products, and for a long time, there was a sense that Walt Disney and Dreamworks were engaged in a slugfest of one-upmanship. It affected the studio badly and hit the breaks on the short revival the company had been building.
However, many have argued that during this period, Walt Disney Animations did put out some quality products, they were just overshadowed by the clear competition between Dreamworks. There’s certainly a case that could be made with films like Lilo & Stitch and Treasure Planet, but the one film that can most certainly be seen as an underappreciated gem is that of Atlantis: The Lost Empire.
Released in 2001, Atlantis: The Lost Empire tells the story of Milo Thatch (Michael J. Fox), an aspiring linguist that is a laughingstock of the museum he works in for his proposal to find the lost city of Atlantis. He is requested by Mr. Whitmore, a friend of his late grandfather, who gives him a journal that could be a guide to finding Atlantis. Mr. Whitmore reveals he has been planning an expedition and preparing a crew to find the city. Following many obstacles, Milo and the crew find Atlantis and its people. Milo befriends the emperor of Atlantis’ daughter Kids (Cree Summers) and together rediscover and solve the mysteries of the civilisation, including something called “The Heart of Atlantis”.
So what makes this film a Disney diamond in a very rough seas of Walt Disney Animations? One could point to how impressively interesting Atlantis is as a fictional society. Once Milo and Co. find the lost city, every passing moment is spent understanding the city, how it’s people live, it’s culture and history, even its food. It all amounts to a world that you want to know more about and further explore. I’d describe the feeling like traveller’s high, the feeling when you travel somewhere with a completely different culture to your own and you get sucked into wanting to experience it for yourself.
I’ve reviewed and given my thoughts on a lot of films and a common talking point is how good the main character of a film is. Atlantis: The Lost Empire doesn’t follow that formula. Don’t get me wrong I think Milo Thatch is a great character and Michael J. Fox does a great job in voicing him. However this is one of those uncommon moments for me when I think the side characters are actual stronger and more memorable than the main characters. They seem to have a much larger personalities than the leading linguist. You have a tough teenage mechanic Audrey (Jacqueline Obradors), a snarky demolitionist in Vinny (Don Novello) and of course the French geologist Mole (Corey Burton) with a weird obsession for dirt and digging just to name a few. Each of these side characters have their own unique background and because there personalities are so big, you almost want to look further. With Milo, even though he’s still a great character, we get his whole picture early on leaving us nothing else to discover.
The animation for Atlantis: The Lost Empire was animated for a widescreen format, which of course helps in getting the audience mesmerised by the look of Atlantis. This may go unregistered, but something you will clock immediately is the art style of the film. Taking inspiration from Mike Mignola’s style in the comic books series Hellboy (Mignola himself was also hired as a production designer), the style is much, much different from Disney films that came before it. The design is sharp and angular, characters faces will often have jagged points to them and distinctively shaped. It doesn’t exactly look the most expensive, but it is distinct. The style has also developed a bit of a cult following over the years.
One more bit of dedication to this film and the world of Atlantis in general is that Disney even created an entirely new language for this film. Marc Okrand, who was previously famous for developing the Klingon language for Star Trek was brought in to create the Atlantean language. This attention to the linguistic elements of the film are paid a lot of attention to, in the film we learn that the Atlantean language is based on root dialect and in a separate scene, when Milo and Kida are examining Atlantean writing, Milo reads it in a zigzag pattern with his fingers.
Atlantis: The Lost Empire is by no mean the best Walt Disney Animations film, there are plenty more rewarding of that tile, however I don’t think that I seen so much effort in any other Walt Disney Animations film to make its presented world so extensive. You often hear that a minor factor in any successful film is being released at the right time. If that is the case, then Atlantis: The Lost Empire was released at the wrong time. If this was released during the so-called Disney Renaissance, I have no doubt that this film would have been an instant and memorable classic. This is the best example of a film that should have been way more appreciated than it is today, it’s the very definition of a sleeper hit.