Judge Clark Douglas once lost a cheeseburger in a swimming pool. The cheeseburger has not been seen since.
Atlantis is waiting…
"Looks like all our chances for survival rest with you, Mr. Thatch. You and that little book."
Facts of the Case
Milo Thatch (Michael J. Fox, Homeward Bound) is a young expert in the field of linguistics who has been doing feverish research on the lost city of Atlantis for years. Of course, most people are convinced it's just a myth, but Milo believes he has found definitive proof of its existence. Soon, the scrappy linguist finds himself being asked to guide a group of fellow explorers to find the fabled city under the sea. The journey is an arduous one, but the payoff is more than worth the effort: it seems that Atlantis not only exists, but is still a thriving society. Unfortunately, Milo quickly learns that the other members of his team may have some less-than-noble plans for this mysterious ancient civilization.
And then there's a movie called Atlantis: Milo's Return, in which a bunch of stuff happens that is of no particular consequence.
I always feel a little melancholy when I watch Atlantis: The Lost Empire, a film which stands as a monument to one of Disney's most interesting and financially disastrous attempts to expand its identity. The idea for the film was conceived when Don Hahn, Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale were working on The Hunchback of Notre Dame (one of the studio's most dramatically powerful features). They wanted to retain their team and work on another adventure; one which would break away from the Disney template. There would be no talking animals and no musical numbers; it would be a rip-roaring action-adventure which would use the limitless format of animation to create action sequences which couldn't be easily achieved in the realm of live-action. Throughout production, the crew wore T-shirts bearing the words: "Atlantis—Fewer songs, more explosions."
It seemed like a good idea, and it still seems like a good idea revisiting the film today. Though nobody's going to rank Atlantis: The Lost Empire above classics like Sleeping Beauty or The Lion King, it's a delightful sci-fi adventure which feels like a Disney adaptation of a non-existent Jules Verne novel. Even so, audiences failed to respond to the movie and critics were generally lukewarm. It marked the start of a major slump for the studio, and Disney's second attempt at doing the same sort of thing (the reasonably entertaining Treasure Planet) flopped even harder. As such, it's no surprise that Disney is giving the expensive film a standard-issue Blu-ray release (and pairing it with its wretched straight-to-DVD sequel) rather than releasing a swanky Diamond edition.
Still, all of that aside, Atlantis: The Lost Empire remains a pleasure to watch. It gets a lot of things right: it has a decent story, a cast of likable characters (particularly Fox's timid Milo, James Garner's confident Commander Rourke and Don Novello's explosion-loving Vinny Santorini) and a handful of rollicking action sequences which are still pretty impressive. Above all, it offers absolutely gorgeous production design courtesy of the great Mike Mignola (writer of the Hellboy comics). The movie is such a pleasure just to look at; offering a level of visual splendor which compares favorably to most of Disney's recent output. It's hard to say why the public failed to respond: perhaps they were turned off the by the lack of musical numbers, or perhaps they felt that 2D animation was a thing of the past, or perhaps they preferred the snark of Shrek (released around the same time) to the gung-ho sincerity of Atlantis. The film's failure was so significant that Disney even scrapped plans for an Atlantis-themed ride.
On top of that, Disney abandoned a new Atlantis television series it had been planning, despite the fact that the first few episodes had already been produced. Determined to squeeze every penny they could out of the dead franchise, Disney clumsily stitched the first three episodes of that series into a feature-length movie: Atlantis: Milo's Return. Even by Disney's alarmingly low straight-to-DVD standards, the film is a disaster. The animation is shoddy, the story (actually three stories which are poorly-connected) is awful and the film retroactively damages the original by undoing that film's satisfying conclusion. My advice: by all means pick up this release, but pretend that this shoddy sequel doesn't exist.
Atlantis: The Lost Empire / Milo's Return (Blu-ray) offers two transfers of varying quality. The original film looks pretty strong, as the bright colors have a lot of pop, detail is excellent and banding is pretty minimal. It's not the knockout transfer it could have been, but there isn't significant reason to complain. Alternately, Milo's Return looks pretty crummy, though much of that has to do with the fact that the animation is so cheap-looking. The image is soft throughout, lacking the crisp detail of the theatrical feature. The first film also receives an exceptional DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track which beautifully highlights the robust sound design and James Newton Howard's majestic score (the composer has always done strong work for Disney—it's a shame they don't hire him more often). The track for the sequel isn't as remarkable, but at least it's crisp and clean throughout. Most of the supplements are understandably focused on the original film: an audio commentary with Hahn, Trousdale and Wise, an hour-long documentary on the making of the film, some deleted scenes, a couple of kid-centric featurettes ("How to Speak Atlantean" and "Atlantis: Fact or Fiction") and a trailer. Atlantis: Milo's Return only receives a thirty-second deleted scene. You also get a DVD copy of both films.
Despite its reputation as a misguided change-of-pace for Disney, Atlantis: The Lost Empire is plenty of fun and deserves another look. The sequel is garbage, but at least the price of this release isn't inflated due to its inclusion. Recommended.
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• Deleted Scene
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