Atlantis is an oddity, mainly because it never feels like you’re actually watching something produced by Disney.
For this animated outing, Disney decided to take the action/sci-fi route. After a brief history of how the island of Atlantis went missing, the film jumps to 1914 and introduces us to linguist Milo Thatch (voiced by Michael J. Fox) and his lifelong goal of discovering the lost city of Atlantis. After being turned down, yet again, for research funding for his expedition, Milo is summoned to the home of an eccentric millionaire named Whitmore who was good friends with Milo’s grandfather. Whitmore makes two very important contributions to Milo’s quest: a journal that may contain the secret to Atlantis’s location and ragtag team of explorers, scientists and mercenaries to join him in his search.
Milo is a likeable hero, despite portraying all the stereotypes of a science nerd to a T. Even Kida, the Atlantean princess-turned-love interest, tells Milo: “Judging from your diminished physique and large forehead, you are suited for nothing else.” Milo is not tragically flawed, like Beast, or delightfully charming and funny, like Prince Naveen to come, but from his first introduction, you’re left with the impression that he is a good guy with a dream he desperately wants to come true. And you can’t help but root for him. While the look and feel of the film may not be what audiences are used to from the company, rooting for an underdog hero is undeniably Disney.
The animation, however, is decidedly un-Disney. The production’s design is full of harsh, angular lines and features closer to the animation coming out of Warner Brothers at the time (1999’s The Iron Giant came to mind). In fact, according to an article in the LA Times, directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale were purposefully taking the film’s look in another direction. The pair hired comic book artist Mike Mignola, creator of Hellboy, to design the production as if it were one big comic book. While a neat idea, I think the approach worked against Disney in this case by helping to disjoint the viewer from a brand with which they had come to develop certain expectations. In fact, most of the time the film feels like it’s a poor adaptation of a really cool video game.
Atlantis shares a lot of similarities with 1985’s The Black Cauldron, which is perhaps more indicative of the transitions the company was undergoing during the creation of both of these films. Both are dark, destructive and violent. Along their journey, Milo and crew cross paths with the Leviathan — a massive mechanical guardian to Atlantis. It’s an encounter that guts the expedition’s crew, and many of their somewhat-gruesome deaths appear on screen. Atlantis was also the first since Cauldron to get slapped with the dreaded (to Disney) PG rating — no doubt due to its darkness. (Also, and this wouldn’t have much to do with both films ending up being flops, Atlantis was the first film since Cauldron to be produced in the 70mm format.)
Further proof of the investment the company was making in this film, Disney hired Marc Okrand to create the Atlantean language heard and seen in the film. Okrand is, of course, most famous for creating Vulcan and Klingon for the Star Trek universe. And, in a fun twist, the King of Atlantis, who speaks much of the Atlantean heard throughout the film, is voiced by veteran Star Trek actor Leonard Nimoy.
Despite the considerable investment and effort put into Atlantis, the film was a bust with critics and audiences. Its lifetime domestic gross of $84-million fell short of the film’s $120-million production budget. And, at 49 per cent, the film has one of Disney’s lowest scores on the review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes. Those reviews were not kind. “The characters and story are mere narrative lubricant to get us from one digitally goosed sensory assault to the next,” reads the Toronto Star. Antagony & Ecstasy said: “It is difficult to say whether its greatest failure is in its story, its characters, or its animation.” And the Boston Globe was left wanting more: “It should have been more daring, and gone for the grandeur and even poetic dimension its subject invites.”
The myth of Atlantis has been capturing imaginations for millennia, beginning with Plato over 2,300 years ago. For me, the film did not get off to a good start, with the opening sequence leaving me with a furrowed brow and wondering just what exactly I was about to witness. The film lacked exposition for critical elements, often falling back on the “now something amazing happens to save the heroes” device that more poorly-produced action-adventure movies are known for. It got better as the film went on, though, and I was able to glimpse some of the magic for which Disney is well known. But that’s just it; they were only glimpses when this film needed so much more to make it magical.