By Connor Fineran
In the early 2000’s, Walt Disney Enterprises attempted features in its animation department. Hot off the success of the Renaissance in the past decade, Disney sought to try something a little different. Something untold for a nominally family oriented entertainment company. They would attempt a traditionally animated film with…a PG rating!
Well, to be fair, Disney wasn’t new to this kind of thing. One of their previous endeavors was the 1985 bomb The Black Cauldron, which among other issues had a schizophrenic tone. This was back in the 80’s, when PG was today’s PG-13, straddling the line between rollicking fantasy yarn and borderline horror film (it was classified as dark fantasy, after all). Coupled with some less than successful ventures during that time, Disney kept their animated films strictly all ages.
But this changed in the turn of the millennium. Disney decided to take a risk. They produced three films in 2001, 2002, and 2003 respectively. They were Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Treasure Planet, and Lilo and Stitch. Each attempted something different from the standard Disney formula. Atlantis was the company’s first attempt at an animated action adventure piece. It wasn’t the hit the company wanted, raking in $84,052,762 from a $90,000,000 budget (The Numbers) and received lukewarm reviews. After Treasure Planet failed despite being better received than Atlantis, Disney finally found the hit with Lilo and Stitch and proceeded to milk that cow dry.
Atlantis failed because it just didn’t strike a chord with audiences. But why is that? Why did an old-fashioned adventure story with the might of Disney Animation behind it fail? Well, let’s start from the beginning.
A prologue gives us the famous quotation of Plato about the myth of Atlantis and how it vanished into the sea. Immediately after that we have a high-energy action scene with people in hovercrafts flying away from a massive tidal wave towards, presumably, Atlantis. There’s a flying magic orb thing. The people speak in some invented language about escaping some conflict and a little girl witnesses her mom get sucked up into the floating orb thing before the city predictably sinks.
Now read over that again. I’ll wait, go ahead. Did that make any sense to you? No? If so, than you’ve won the comprehension prize, dear reader! This opening sets a troublesome first impression. It’s supposed to draw the viewer in by opening with a bang, but it does nothing to actually engage. All there is to see is Atlantis sinking, which is the most relevant thing to the plot. Otherwise the opening is too bogged down in flashy visuals and a million things being thrown at the viewer with little explanation. Now the pundit would say that this gets the audience energized, tickles the imagination bone, so to speak. I say, well, it’s too focused on energizing. I believe an opening to a film should set the tone and mood. The whole thrust of the plot after this is the search for the city, as if we know about as much as the main characters on the subject. Which is to say, nothing. Showing the magical glowy glowy stonepunk doodads at the beginning robs the mystery from them and makes the audience impatient for when they show up again only to be treated as something new! If part of the fun of the movie is the adventure and mystery of the city, then make the audience anticipate solving the mystery. Don’t show everything cool at the beginning.
The film then skips forward to 1916, introducing us to the hottest nerdy linguist-cartographer-plumber-boiler room guy ever, Milo Thatch (Michael J. Fox). He drops some casual exposition about the plot to come through the form of a proposal to the owners of the museum. Now, that would’ve been clever. It’d show the plot progressing and establish his character as well as showing that he’s determined despite the outlandishness of his claims. But surprise! He’s really practicing in the boiler room! (Womp womp waaa!). After some stuff about him wanting to live up to his grandpa’s memory and the cartoonish museum owners avoiding him, he is approached by a sultry femme fatale (in his own home, no less…) named Helga Sinclair, who tells him that a wealthy old friend of his father’s (and possible lover), Whitmore, has already funded a massive expedition to find the lost city in addition to also finding the one thing that Milo needs to make it to the city: The Shepard’s Journal. This ancient book that points to a previously unknown civilization is essentially a poorly explained Macguffin that only serves as a footnote in an already rushed plot. Seriously, all we’re told is “it’ll lead to Atlantis” and that’s it! There’s far more detail about its creator and history, but that’s apparently not important.
After meeting the token (and very marketable) teammates who are memorable merely for how quirky they are and not much else, the adventure begins, not unlike 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. And that brings me to one of the genuine positives of this film: The visuals. Fans of the comic book Hellboy will no doubt notice the geometric, heavily shadowed appearance of the backgrounds and characters, which tends to be a calling card of Mike Mignola, the creator of the book. In fact, he worked as a concept artist for this film. The blending of 3D animation with 2D manages surprisingly well, considering the release date. In addition, the film tickles the steampunk’s fancy with the various vehicles used by the expedition team (That awesome submarine and giant drill, anyone?) and the vistas of Atlantis are breathtaking. A highlight sequence is the crew’s sub being attacked by the Leviathan, a giant robotic lobster that shoots lasers from its face! And it kills most of the crew!
Because it’s a family film.
Yeah, that’s kind of a problem as well. The tone is inconsistent. One minute, we’re supposed to be laughing at the cartoony antics of the weird geologist Mole (get it? Cause he looks like a mole!), and the next there’s an action scene of literally hundreds of people dying onscreen! Some characters have relatively realistic designs, while earlier in the film there were characters with overtly cartoony designs. This confuses the tone for what’s meant to be a semi-serious adventure story. For example, The Iron Giant maintained a consistent tone with its visual style because every character resembled a human and acted human, which helped to contrast the fantasy of the giant alien robot. Yeah, I know Atlantis is about finding a lost city, but this is an issue whenever Mole shoves his stupid mug on camera (he’s quotable, though).
I guess that leaves me to the characters. Or rather, the pieces of cardboard that act as our characters. Just because a character out of nowhere decides to tell the audience everything about their motivation doesn’t count for shit if that character has shown nothing else besides that. There’s a scene in which all of the principal characters discuss their reasons for joining the expedition, but it’s handled in the clumsiest way. This should have been a culmination of things, a crux in which we learn what all these characters really want. Instead, it’s an afterthought, a ploy meant to fake depth because we know absolutely nothing about them up to this point. And by knowing them I mean they barely exhibit anything outside of that one quirky characteristic they have. Even Milo falls into this trap. He’s so bland and uninteresting that Michael J. Fox’s performance and his animation makes him charming, but virtually nothing about him registers as remotely engaging. His character never really changes or grows a new trait through hardship or challenge, he just happens to be the smartest white guy in the room and score! You get the hot princess, the throne and the magical glowing rock thing with vaguely defined powers.
This extends to the other characters. The film tries to pass them off as quirky and fun, but that wears out its welcome the minute the film drops any semblance of motivation from them. That is, the aforementioned exposition scene never pays off and the characters are left to change with what the plot needs them to at that point. Even Kida, who was sold as a major player in the film, shows up for the second half of the movie with little to do than be the “curvaceous warrior princess”. Oh, and did I mention that Rourke is the villain? Yeah, he’s one of the first of the crew introduced, and anyone with a brain could figure that he’s evil. His motivation’s incredibly flimsy too. Just because you’re out to do something because “money”, that is not a complete motivation. That’s incredibly shallow. Where are your other reasons? Why are you suddenly super evil? Why wasn’t this set up earlier in the film? It makes him (and by extension the rest of the cast) one note and lacking in any depth, no matter how tiny.
And what about a billion things that are never adequately explained? Why are there giant bugs underground? Why are there weird creatures living in Atlantis? What the heck does the giant crystal thing do? How the hell does Atlantean somehow serves as a root dialect for Latin, French, and English?! That’s not how language works.
Ultimately, Atlantis is shallower than the oceans that drowned it. Such wasted potential, such a lack of attention in important areas! This could have been Disney’s attempt to make a slightly more literate adventure film, one that harkened back to pulp adventure with historical and mythological references for the older crowd. But instead, we got something that felt hacked down and gutted because no one knew how to balance all the disparate elements. At times, the old school flavors shine through, evoking an adventure picture that’s a mix of Indiana Jones and Jules Verne. But the film sadly can’t hold itself together and ends up lukewarm and confused. This needed a few more drafts before it was ready for production. It’s a good thing Treasure Planet ended up surprisingly better, considering the odd premise.
I like this movie. Everything I’ve said? Yeah, I mean it. But this is an example of a studio taking risks. They tried something new, and while they didn’t put their best foot forward with it, I can at least applaud Disney for wanted to do something away from their usual brand. It didn’t pay off, but this one gets an A for effort any way.