…".in a single day and night of misfortune, the island of Atlantis disappeared into the depths of the sea."—Plato, 360 B.C.
…".in a single summer of public disinterest, ninety million of the Walt Disney Company's simoleons disappeared into a sea of red ink."—Judge Michael Rankins, A.D. 2002.
From the directing team that brought you the masterwork Beauty and the Beast and the reimagined literary classic The Hunchback Of Notre Dame comes this animated adventure that's two parts Jules Verne (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Center of the Earth), one part Edgar Rice Burroughs (the Pellucidar novels), and one part Namor the Sub-Mariner in Shangri-La. It's Disney like you're not accustomed to seeing it: no talking animals, no singing gargoyles (no singing of any kind, actually, until the credits roll), and a heap more rock'em-sock'em-shoot'em-up than anything Uncle Walt ever envisioned. It's a brave new world of action-adventure for the minions of Mickey, and not enough kidlets and their parents plunked down their greenbacks to tour the premises for Atlantis to make back its nut in theatrical release. But maybe they weren't the right audience for this un-Disneylike feature.
Facts of the Case
It's 1914, and protogeek Milo Thatch (voiced by the Anti-Elvis, Michael J. Fox) is an Indiana Jones-wannabe who tends the boiler in the basement of a museum while dreaming of his big chance to become the Lord Carnavon of the undersea world. Milo, you see, has noodled out the location of an ancient tome called the Shepherd's Journal, which, according to Milo's dead grandfather (and it wouldn't be Disney, would it, without deceased forebears lurking in the backstory?), holds the secrets of long-lost Atlantis (the continent, not the resort in the Bahamas). The museum bigwigs, of course, think Milo is Walter Mitty with Alex P. Keaton's voice. But then Milo is introduced by the mysterious Helga Sinclair (voiced by Commander Ivanova from Babylon 5 and drawn like the blond twin sister of Aeon Flux) to wacky billionaire Preston Whitmore (voiced by Frasier's dad), who not only believes in Atlantis but is the proud possessor of the Shepherd's Journal. Whitmore wants to bankroll Milo's quest for Atlantis, and he's already built the submarine and hired the crew, led by manly man Commander Rourke (voiced by Jim Rockford—leave a message at the beep). Before Milo can say "Captain Nemo," he finds himself under way to the Lost Empire.
Rourke's gang of explorers initially numbers around 200, but by the time they and Milo arrive in Atlantis (you knew they'd get there—the title of the movie gave it away), there's just a hardy handful of multi-ethnic survivors who would have made James Watt proud: an African American/Native American physician (Dr. Sweet, voiced by Jackie Chiles from Seinfeld); an Italian American florist-turned-explosives expert (Vinny Santorini, voiced by Father Guido Sarducci); a French geologist (Moliere, voiced by Disney veteran Corey Burton, channeling Peter Lorre); a teenaged Latina mechanic (Audrey, voiced by one of the female cops from NYPD Blue); a crotchety old battle-axe radio operator (Mrs. Packard, voiced by Abe Vigoda's wife from Barney Miller); a crusty chuckwagon chef (Cookie, voiced by Ernest P. Worrell); and the aforementioned Helga (think Kim Basinger in L.A. Confidential, but packing heat and pumped up on steroids).
This motley crew (not to be confused with Mötley Crüe, whom I guarantee you'll never hear in an animated Disney film) doesn't much impress the Atlantean natives, who happen to be such bons vivants that they speak dozens of modern languages, including—conveniently—20th century English. However, their princess, Kida (voiced by Freddie from TV's A Different World, whose dad was the voice of Grimaldi in Heavy Metal, but I digress), is intrigued by Milo's journal and his ability to read Atlantean, a skill no one in Atlantis still possesses. (Let's see—they're ployglots in languages that evolved centuries after their island sank, but they can't read their own writing. Gotcha.) Kida's dad the King (voiced by Mr. Spock) would prefer to send the surface interlopers home on the next bathyscaphe. But, as it happens, some of the explorers have mercenary motivations, and ultimately Milo must choose sides: the fetching Kida (who sashays about in the voluptuous, callipygian form of the native girl in The Road to El Dorado) and her people, or the horses he rode in on. And therein, as they say, lies a tale.
As tales go, Atlantis: The Lost Empire is a fairly entertaining one, if not especially original or unpredictable. If you've seen any of a thousand adventure movies one could name, you can pencil in the plot pretty much from the beginning. None of the characters are memorable—all, in fact, are cookie-cutter stereotypes pasted in by Central Casting—but the voice actors are engaging, and each is given his or her moments of tough or funny schtick to pull off, which they do with gusto. Milo makes a plucky protagonist as Disney tradition dictates, but he's much a milquetoast that he's hard to root for until he suddenly develops some backbone (and previously untapped fighting skills) late in the film. An adventure, though, is only as good as its villain, and the bad guys in Atlantis aren't particularly menacing; Rourke reminded me way too much of another lackluster Disney antagonist, the Aussie poacher in The Rescuers Down Under.
But give Oscar-nominated directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise some credit: Atlantis isn't your grandfather's (or your Uncle Walt's) Disney feature. It's a somewhat darker film—not Ghost In The Shell dark, but plenty dark for the people who gave you Cinderella and The Little Mermaid—than we're used to seeing from the Mouse House. It also relies on a story and style that appeal to a somewhat older (and let's face it, male) audience than Disney animated films customarily attract. It's surprisingly violent—not graphic, but there's enough flying bullets and detonating dynamite here to supply a Schwarzenegger action flick. Its humor is dry and often ironic, and none of the characters can be described as "cute" or "cuddly" (Milo's pet rat was excised early in the development process). Small wonder, then, that kids didn't clamor to see Atlantis; it's as close as Disney has come to targeting an animated feature at the teenage audience that films such as Titan A.E. and Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within also tried to capture, without box-office success.
Atlantis is a more satisfying film than either Titan A.E. or Final Fantasy (if not as ambitious as either) largely because it doesn't try to do too much. It's a simple adventure, and tells its story in a simple manner. It is, however, an astoundingly beautiful film to behold, with traditional animation and CGI blended seamlessly in a way Titan A.E. attempted but failed rather miserably. I didn't find myself constantly saying, "Okay, the characters are hand-drawn, but this sub and that flying gizmo are computer-generated." The two techniques are melded together without making either obvious; Atlantis looks like a traditionally-animated movie, but contains numerous effects that could only be accomplished with digital wizardry.
The visual style of the film suits its theme perfectly. It took me a while to warm to the blocky, sketchy way that most of the characters are presented, with their square fingers and angular features—comics artist Mike Mignola (Hellboy) contributed to the designs—but it works, like the original 101 Dalmatians and unlike the Gerald Scarfe conceptions that annoyed me in Hercules. (Interestingly, the female lead Kida and most of the other Atlanteans we see are drawn in a more rounded, almost anime-like style.) In addition, the characters are surrounded by lush backgrounds using the "Deep Canvas" process Disney premiered in Tarzan. We see several incredibly detailed machines that look as though they popped right off the cover of a science-fiction pulp magazine or out of a 1960s American International Pictures epic (including Rourke's submarine Ulysses, a giant robot lobster called Leviathan, and a gaggle of towering stone giants). I was particularly struck by the lighting effects that appear prominently throughout: glowing masks and crystals, flaming fireflies and rivers of lava are all realistically rendered. And there's a transmogrification scene in the climactic moments that echoes Taarna the Tarakian (have I already mentioned Heavy Metal?) by way of Dark Phoenix from the X-Men comics as impressively as any animated special effect I've witnessed.
On this Collector's Edition DVD, Atlantis: The Lost Empire couldn't look or sound better. The direct-to-digital anamorphic transfer is pristine—if there are any artifacts or errors, I couldn't spot them. Colors are bright in the context of a rather narrow palette, with blacks rendered sharply as well. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is a revelation for an animated film where one might be tempted to expect less: a deep, active sonic field with enveloping fullness and booming bottom end when it's called for. There always seemed to be something going on in the rear speakers, though without distracting from or overpowering the dialogue. A DTS option is also available. And of course, the disc is THX-certified, which means George Lucas thanks you for shopping (cha-ching!).
Extras: in the immortal words of the late Harry Caray, "Holy Cow!" Disney has spread the banquet table and set a place just for you—why? because they like you. Here's what you'll find.
Disc One, in addition to the film itself, includes two commentary features showcasing directors Trousdale and Wise alongside producer Don Hahn. The first is a standard audio commentary with the three filmmakers recorded together. It's a detailed and genial conversation—these guys know what making an animated film entails (as demonstrated by their collective body of work) and regale us in laidback fashion with behind-the-scenes tidbits about this particular effort. My measure of a good commentary is simple: did I learn anything interesting? In this case, I learned quite a bit, so I liked it. There's also a "visual" commentary, actually a series of vignettes featuring the filmmakers introducing deleted scenes, storyboard montages and other material. These segments can be viewed separately from the film or as inserts that can be activated at key points while the movie plays.
Also on Disc One is a feature entitled "DisneyPedia Atlantis." It's a set of brief voiceover tracks, illustrated mostly with footage from the film, that provide historical perspective about the Atlantis legend at about a junior-high level. Not especially thrilling.
Disc Two opens with a short film in newsreel style, purporting to be a documentary about Preston Whitmore and the construction of the submarine Ulysses (the same Disney Department of Creative Anachronism that put Arsenio Hall and Jack Nicholson in the mouth of Aladdin's Genie conveniently forgot that "talkies" were still 13 years in the future in 1914). The menu offers three styles of navigating the disc's content: "Explore" provides a conventional set of animated menus using the interior of the Ulysses as the visual hook; "Tour" plays the entire array of extra offerings in a continuous two-hour presentation; "Files" is a text-based menu enabling direct access to any feature.
A veritable submarine-load of documentary features, again headlined by the triumvirate of Wise, Trousdale, and Hahn but featuring insights from numerous members of the production team, focus on various aspects of the film's conception and creation.
"The Journey Begins" relates the story of how this team, having completed Hunchback of Notre Dame, evolved the concept of an adventure about Atlantis. (Warning to the sensitive-stomached: there is near-endless discussion about nachos, chimichangas, and other Mexican fare in this short.)
"Creating Mythology" deals with the folkloric background of Atlantis, and the various threads the directors and screenwriter Tab Murphy cobbled together to weave their version of the legend.
"Finding the Story" describes the process of taking an animation script through development. "Designing Atlantis: The Lost Empire" is about—guess what?—the visual design of the film.
"The Voices of Atlantis" shows the actors at work, and "Creating the Characters" and "Setting the Scene" feature, predictably enough, the development of the character and scenery designs.
"Digital Production" provides an overview of the techniques used in bridging the gap between the traditionally hand-animated elements of the film and the 3-D computer animation—as noted previously, the two styles co-exist with incredible harmony in this movie. A companion short on digital production offers some of the experimental scenes the filmmakers created to test the compatibility of the differently animated elements.
"Music and Sound" illuminates the contributions of Skywalker Sound's Gary Rydstrom, who created the sound for the film, and James Newton Howard, who wrote the score for Atlantis and pretty much half the movies made in Hollywood in the past decade.
"How to Speak Atlantean" is another faux newsreel, this time a live-action bit starring Marc Okrand, the guy who developed the Klingon language for Star Trek: The Next Generation as well as the mythical language that appears throughout this DVD. He teaches the viewer such handy Atlantean lingo as "Where is the toilet, please?" (I kid you not.)
In "Atlantis Found," the creative team holds hands and sings "Kumbaya." Okay, not really, but they share their warm fuzzy feelings about the movie they just completed.
The disc also includes four trailers, numerous art galleries, a fully-realized alternate opening scene in which a Viking ship seeking Atlantis is destroyed by the Leviathan (sharp-eyed viewers will remember some of this opening from the theatrical trailer), storyboard sequences, dossiers and design sketches for all of the main characters, 3D views of the digitally created vehicles, and I'm almost certain there were a couple of turtledoves and a partridge in there somewhere too. I can't imagine what else you'd want to see from or know about Atlantis that isn't crammed into this two-disc set.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
After becoming late and reluctant passengers on the DVD train, Disney has shown a penchant for courting aficionados with elaborately-named special edition series that never seem to go anywhere. Case in point: the "VISTA Series," introduced for the DVD release of Unbreakable. Only recently has Disney really begun to ramp up new releases in this format, and the results haven't been all that impressive. Another case in point: the Platinum Edition, which is supposed to be the state of the art format for Mickey and Co.'s animated spectaculars. So far there's been one—count it, one—Platinum Edition package: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. (Beauty and the Beast is scheduled for a Platinum Edition release in October 2002.) But when compared cheek-by-jowl, the Collector's Edition of Atlantis: The Lost Empire looks every bit as elaborate and feature-laden as the Platinum Edition Snow White. So why doesn't Atlantis have a Platinum Edition label? Call me Uncle Scrooge, but it seems—well—goofy to me.
Atlantis: The Lost Empire deserved a better reception than it received from filmgoing America and from critics, who mostly gave it tepid reviews. Is it original? No. Have you seen this story told in dozens of movies before? Sure. But has Disney ever done anything like this—a gorgeously animated Cinemascope adventure with brilliant visual style and a more mature concept than dancing tableware? Not on your life, Buster Brown. That directors Trousdale and Wise and producer Hahn were willing to stake their enormous reputations in the animation community on a project that wasn't going to be a slam-dunk cash cow is admirable. If we encourage their risk-taking this time, maybe they'll give us a fresher story next shot out of the cannon. Animation fans, adventure fans and just plain movie fans should give Atlantis another look with this bonus-brimming Collector's Edition DVD.
All parties involved in the making of this film and this outstanding DVD presentation are acquitted on all counts. The filmgoing public is indicted for not giving this movie a fair chance. We're adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with Directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise and Producer Don Hahn
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