In October 1996, four great minds went to lunch at a Mexican restaurant in Burbank, California. By the time Don Hahn, Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise, and Tab Murphy walked out, Atlantis: The Lost Empire was born.
With The Hunchback of Notre Dame recently finished, the crew wanted to stick together for another film—an action/adventure with a little less musical bravado. Inspired by Jules Verne’s science-fiction books, Hahn, Trousdale, Wise, and Murphy chose Atlantis for their “Adventureland” setting, complete with culture, mythology, science, and language. Atlantis: The Lost Empire was released in 2001, performed fairly in the box office, and was generally forgotten in the midst of DreamWorks’ Shrek and Paramount’s Lara Croft. Thankfully, Disney fans have remained at hand to keep the much-deserved love alive for Disney’s Atlantis.
The first Disney film since The Black Cauldron (1985) to be released with a PG rating, Atlantis was an intense adventure, very different from the comical Emperor’s New Groove released the year before. There was destruction, death, violence, extensive amounts of guns, explosions, and nary a musical number in sight. But there was also humor, cohesive cultural design, historical and linguistic fodder, and a beautifully distinctive visual style.
From the beginning, in designing Atlantis, the filmmakers wanted to avoid the expected Greek style-columns everywhere, temples, marble—and instead modeled Atlantis on Southeast Asian and Mayan architecture, focusing intensely on the main Atlantean symbol, hidden like a Mickey throughout most scenes. In addition to the final destination, the crew took special care with the catacombs through which Milo and the gang make their journey; in fact, the crew explored Carlsbad Caverns, soaking in all the little details and pouring it into their animation. While a lot of the inspiration shone through the traditional animation, a significant amount of CGI was involved to create the machinery and larger set-pieces in the film. Although surprising, given the release of Dinosaur the year before, Atlantis was noted to use more CGI than any other Disney-animated feature—and the majority of the CGI is most noticeable in the vehicles of the expedition and the mechanical marvels of the Atlantean world.
Within the traditional animation style used, the ultimate visual design of the characters and people were actually inspired by Mike Mignola, the comic book artist behind Hellboy. Though sharing similarities with Emperor’s New Groove, Atlantis stands out from most of the Disney canon with its character design. There are harsher angles, more triangular and rectangular shapes, and an overall character design that stands in stark contrast to the softer corners of, say, Cinderella. The major shift lies in the overall use of this design; as an audience, we’re accustomed to the villain being the more visually harsh or contrasted. In this case, all of the characters—good, bad, and somewhere between—are designed in a similar fashion. Milo Thatch carries many of the sharp turns and muscular details that Captain Rourke displays, as do Helga, Audrey, Vinnie, Sweet, and even Mole, who (despite being round) maintains the sharp angles in his facial features and fingers.
The original draft for Atlantis, which stood at 155 pages compared to the final 90, was trimmed and cut, speeding up the story and refocusing it on Milo, clever but clumsy. Although we can’t be sure of the original primary focus, we can assume—and thus torture ourselves in assuming—that much more of Atlantis was actually explored onscreen. We see and hear a lot of the Atlantean language, a gorgeous and in-depth creation from Marc Okrand of Star Trek fame (think Vulcan and Klingon), but we don’t learn much more. The film spends all this time building up to Atlantis, the lost city, the “greatest archaeological find in recorded history,” only to showcase hardly any of it, and most of what we learn is centered around the crystal that is so vital to the conflict of the plot.
The climax—wherein Rourke takes the crystal and condemns the city—would be significantly more emotionally stirring if the film took the time to show us, teach us, and connect us more with the Atlantean people. Instead, the action moves so fast and so white-dude-centric that we almost forget there is an entire culture at stake throughout the battle sequence.
Speaking of white-dude-centricity, and in some defense of the film, Atlantis does boast one of the more diverse character casts in a Disney film. After the primary exposition, wherein we basically only see white dudes, including eccentric rich, old white dude Preston Whitmore (John Mahoney), we are eventually introduced to the hilarious cast: Vinny Santorini (Don Novello), the explosives expert; Audrey Ramirez (Jacqueline Obradors), teen mechanic prodigy; Gaetan ‘The Mole’ Moliere, aptly nicknamed for his digging, drilling, and dirt passion; Dr. Joshua Sweet (Phil Morris), a fast-talking doctor with a kindly heart; and Jebidiah ‘Cookie’ Farnsworth (Jim Varney), the somehow “best-of-the-best” cook with a penchant for beans, bacon, whiskey, and lard. Each character has their own personality, backstory, point of view. And their personal journeys are all fairly sound. Although they don’t have nicely-angled arcs, each character does feel well-rounded and entertaining, with some great quotes from all sides:
Vinny: “BOOM. No more Chinese laundry. Blew me right through the front window. It was like a sign from God. I found myself in that boom.”
Audrey: “Hmm. ‘Bout time somebody hit him. I’m just sorry it wasn’t me.”
Mole: “You have disturbed the dirt! Dirt from around the globe spanning the centuries! What have you done? England must never merge with France!”
Dr. Sweet: “Of course, it’s been my experience, when you hit bottom, the only place left to go is up.”
Cookie: “You’re so skinny, if you turned sideways and stuck out your tongue, you’d look like a zipper.”
And, of course, the star of this show—according to this version of the script anyway—is Milo Thatch. The grandson of another explorer obsessed with Atlantis, Milo is passionate, incredibly clever, and very bad at socializing. As for the voice actor, Michael J. Fox somehow achieves the enviable goal of not sounding too familiar when he talks. It wasn’t Michael J. Fox of Back to the Future fame talking; it was definitely Milo Thatch. Milo is somewhat popular among the obscure Disney heroes as he’s nerdy, wears glasses, is incredibly awkward, and altogether pretty relatable for the more introverted Disney fans. However, he tarnishes his own character in the way he acts toward people less knowledgeable than himself, and it can come off misogynistic at the worst of times.
He puts on a confident act when he fixes Audrey’s engine, which is likely supposed to come from a place of wanting to be liked, but ultimately seems like that’s something she—the expert mechanic—should know and was only included to somehow boost Milo’s likeablity. It backfired. Secondarily, in his relationship with Kida, he tends to look down on her, treating her more like a child because she can’t read her language or properly operate a flying vehicle that no one has flown in probably hundreds of years. Most of his cringe-worthy moments, not the least of which is when he can’t say her full name (um, linguist??), are clearly attempts to display his awkwardness or his wish to belong, but it comes off kind of insulting to the characters on the receiving end; not to mention, the characters on the receiving end are always the bad-a** females.
Kidagakash Nedakh (Cree Summer) is an amazing female character, a kick-a** princess and incredibly poorly treated by the Disney company. According to the Disney Princess Wikia, Kida is not included in the official Disney Princess line-up because the film did poorly, which would (in business-speak) mean that they thought they couldn’t sell enough merchandise with her face on it. Therefore, despite her bad-a**ery and selflessness and curiosity and love for her people, we don’t see her anywhere on anything because she’s not profitable enough for the studio. Kida is not a perfect princess (and none of them are, y’all), but she’s one of the best female role models Disney has ever animated, projecting the idea that a girl can be gorgeous and clever and tough rolled into one. And maybe Disney did make her helpless, needing to be saved by the white dude, but she also sacrificed herself to save her people. She doesn’t marry or kiss the man she just met; she takes care of her people and her culture, creating a kind of friendship with Milo. The sequel—which arguably deserves to be ignored—may say otherwise, but Milo and Kida are better suited to friendship rather than romance (the man can’t even say her full name, alright?! Linguist?!).
One of the most agreed-to-be-underappreciated, Atlantis: The Lost Empire is a science-fiction adventure that doesn’t rely on sweeping musical numbers. Although the script was cut and could have been more substantial, overall, the film is fun and nerdy and stands out from the rest of the Disney canon in a creative and distinct way. The film didn’t succeed in the box office, and it’s a real shame because it could have brought Disney animation in all sorts of exciting directions, allowing for more sci-fi adventures in addition to romantic Broadway-esque musicals.
What do you think about Disney’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire?