Forgotten classics: Disney’s Atlantis

Posted on August 12, 2010 by

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This is a new feature on the site, where I thought it might be nice to go over those films I think have been wrongly ignored. I thought that today we could cover one of my favourite animated Disney films, and one which many people have simply never even heard of, Atlantis: The Lost Empire.

Atlantis came out in 2001, at a time when most people were much more interested in the 3D movies being put out with Pixar. To say they overshadowed Atlantis, and indeed at least two other excellent traditionally animated Disney films, which I will come to in later instalments of this feature, would be an understatement.

Now, Atlantis was the 40th Animated film produced by Disney, and the company’s first science-fiction outing. While not what you might think of as science-fiction (Spaceships, aliens, other-worlds etc, such as would be later seen in Treasure Planet) but was more in line with the earliest science-fiction written by Jules Verne. Set in 1914, on the eve of World War One (And indeed, so far as I know, the only Disney Animated Feature to mention modern warfare, or feature a gun battle with actual bullet0firing guns, and even mentioning the Kaiser himself) it has heavy Steampunk influences, along with a unique animated style which I’ll discuss in a moment. It is also, compared to the general tone of Disney animated features, much darker and more mature (As dark and Mature as it can be with it’s original PG rating obviously, a lot of which was due to the exceptional art design).

Speaking of the Art design, Atlantis used the simple, strong-lined style of acclaimed Hellboy Artist Mike Mignola, which evolved from years of his attempting to finagle a Hellboy: The Animated series out of Disney. His darker, gothic style allowed for a much more vivid realisation of the story, along with diverse character designs and settings. It also, like Treasure Planet and Lilo and Stitch, incorporated 3D elements (As in CGI, not the fad that seems to be sweeping the world again), allowing for greater detail on vehicles.

A lot of research and plotting went into the making of Atlantis, up to and including inventing an entirely new language in the form of Atlantean, and the filmmakers visited museums and toured old army installations. They also traveled 800 feet underground in New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns to observe the subterranean trails that would serve as the model for the approach to Atlantis in the film. When it came to creating the look of the city of Atlantis, the filmmakers wanted to avoid the common conception of Atlantis being depicted as “Greek columns under the sea somewhere”. Instead, they modeled their Atlantis on the architecture of ancient civilizations in China, South America and the Middle East.

The writing was unrepentantly sharp and witty, with nearly ever other line being a quip, pun or subtle joke. Each character had a well-defined and unique personality, expressed even better by the excellent cast of Voice-Actors, including Michael J. Fox (Back to the Future, The Frighteners) as the Protagonist, Linguist Milo Thatch, Leonard Nimoy  (Star Trek, Fringe) as the Atlantean Chief, and bolstered by a supporting cast made up of Disney veterans like Jim Cummings (Hercules, Princess and the Frog). Rourke, the villain, is somewhat forgettable, which is a rarity for a Disney villain, but it doesn’t detract from the film.

The story itself is a delicious blend of Mignola and Verne, and Atlantis and the Atlanteans are excellently designed, as  well as boasting Disney’s first black ‘princess’ in Milos love-interest Kida. That’s right, the fuss they made about The Princess and the Frog was a lie because Disney thought nobody remembered this film. Shame on them.

Seriously. Look at her.

Atlantis: The Lost Empire was, despite the claims of many critics (With the notable exception of Roger Ebert, who loved it) an excellent film overshadowed by other big releases, and it doesn’t have any of that singing business most people associate with Disney animated movies, but which were generally absent in this era. It’s vibrant, golden-age comics feel and more mature tone make it a classic for connoisseurs of steampunk, science-fiction, and Mike Mignola’s Hellboy/BPRD comics.

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Posted in: Movies, Retrospective