DT Moviehouse Review: Atlantis: The Lost Empire

Time once more for my blog feature, DT Moviehouse Reviews, in which I make my way alphabetically through my 200+ DVD/Blu-Ray collection (you can see the list right here) and decide if each one was worth the money. Today I take a look at Disney’s underrated animated film Atlantis: The Lost Empire.

(2001) Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise

Written by Tab Murphy with Story credits including Kirk Wise, Gary Trousdale, Joss Whedon, Bryce and Jackie Zabel, and David Reynolds.

Tagline: Atlantis Is Waiting…

What it’s about:

In 1914, underappreciated scholar Milo Thatch (Michael J. Fox) seeks to carry on his deceased grandfather Thaddeus’ quest for the legendary lost city of Atlantis. He keeps getting dismissed as a fringe academician until he is contacted by an old colleague of his grandfather’s, wealthy eccentric Preston Whitmore (John Mahoney), who recruits Milo to advise a fully funded and outfitted submarine expedition to find Atlantis. The expedition is led by a motley team of mercenaries including Commander Rourke (James Garner), his femme fatale second in command Helga Sinclair (Claudia Christian), dynamite expert Vinny (Don ‘Fr. Guido Sarducci’ Novello), Doc Sweet (Phil Morris), plucky engineer Audrey Ramirez (Jacqueline Obradors), geologist Mole Molierre (Corey Burton), sardonic communications expert Wilhemina Packard (Florence Stanley), and irascible cook Cookie Farnsworth (Jim Varney, in his last major performance), as well as a virtual army of gun toting red shirts. After their sub is wrecked by a mechanical submarinal guardian, Milo and the mercs find themselves in the highly advanced society of Atlantis, led by King Nedakah (Leonard Nimoy) and his daughter Princess Kida (Cree Summer). However, when Rourke comes face to face with the priceless secret energy source that had preserved Atlantis for 8,000 years, he shows his true colors and attempts to seize it for himself. It’s up to Milo and friends to stop him.

Why I bought it:

In 2001, this was the best animated movie I had seen since 1999’s sublime The Iron Giant.

It’s a 50’s style sci-fi adventure movie in the vein of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and Journey To The Center Of The Earth, beautifully animated in top shelf Disney style, with fascinating, almost geometrical designs (notice the fingernails of all the characters are like diamond wedges) and conceptual work by Mike Mignola of Hellboy fame (particularly noticeable in the look of the gigantic Atlantean guardians).

While it doesn’t have the emotional impact of The Iron Giant, it’s exciting and nostalgic in the same way, and there’s not a musical number in sight (but a great evocative age of discovery score), something refreshing in animated movies at the time, and a daring if sadly unsuccessful experiment by Disney.

The voice work is all top notch too. The character animations perfectly compliment the actors’ styles, mimicking even their body mannerisms at times (particularly in the case of Milo/Michael J. Fox). Aside from the stars and the swan song performances of the always great Jim Varney and Florence Stanley, the minor characters are diverse and interesting to watch.

As a history buff, I was particularly impressed by all the cool background stuff casually dropped in the character of the African American Dr. Strongbear Sweet, who mentions growing up on an Indian reservation with a father in the famous 10th Cavalry (The original Buffalo Soldiers) and being present with the Rough Riders at the charge up San Juan Hill (the 10th was also at San Juan Hill). “I’ve got a sheepskin from Howard U and a bearskin from Old Iron Cloud.”

How cool is that?

Every frame of this movie displays an obvious love of craftsmanship and design. The movie is packed with period detail and seamlessly mixes real technology with fantastic steampunk-y inventions. Besides the Nautilus-esque submarine, I particularly liked the truck with a catapult that launched the motorized one man gliders.

In addition, the Atlantean stuff is superbly well realized, from the architecture and the retro-tech flying machines based off the sleek designs of sea creatures, right down to the invented language (there’s a neat little short on the development of that on the DVD special features).

Rourke is like Gaston’s abusive father.

I’ve heard complaints about the story and single dimensionality of the characters. I didn’t see it personally. It’s a fun movie, action packed. The good guys are likable and relatable and the bad guys (particularly James Garner, who even pitches his beautiful lieutenant off a balloon to her death to lighten the load) are suitably ruthless. There are even a number of permanent deaths (including a whole slew of gas mask wearing red shirts) which really surprised me at the time.

As in all good adventure movies, the stakes are necessarily high.

Best bit of dialogue:

Most of Jim Varney’s dialogue cracks me up. He reminds me of a John Ford stock character. The one I keep thinking of is after an attack on the camp by fireflies (literally giant flaming flies). Cookie gets singed in the backside and drops trou, declaring;

“Dang lightning-bugs done bit me on my sit-upon! Somebody’s gonna have to suck out this poison. Don’t everybody jump up at once.”

Best scene:

Actually the entire climactic sequence takes the cake for me.

After Princess Kida melds with the power source of Atlantis (alternately described as living and sentient and as the collective will of all Atlanteans, but definitely containing the spirits of members of the royal family it has previously merged with) and is transmogrified into some kind of brilliant blue water elemental being, Rourke and Helga (and an army of red shirts) decide to take her to the surface and sell her to highest bidder (the Kaiser is alluded to).

Milo uses the Atlantean power crystals to get the flying machines running and takes off in pursuit with a contingent of Atlantean warriors and the rest of the mercenaries, whose consciences get the better of them after Rourke murders King Nedakah.

What follows is a thrilling subterranean aerial battle between the Atlantean craft and Rourke’s mechanical gliders, full of plasma blasts and chattering Maxim machineguns, and ending with an explosion that immolates the paralyzed Helga and sends a crystallized Rourke (he is transformed horribly by a scratch from one of the power crystals) smashing into the fan of a crashing balloon.

The explosion also triggers a dormant underwater volcano which threatens to envelop Atlantis, until Princess Kida calls on the power source to activate a series of gigantic mystic stone automatons which rise from their 8,000 year slumber to erect a protective energy shell over the city against the avalanche of magma.

It’s a sweeping, exciting sequence in the tradition of the best kind of pulpy adventure.

Would I buy it again? Yes. Also of note, Disney intended to produce an ongoing television series involving Milo and Kida (and the good mercenaries) searching the globe for Atlantean artifacts. After the movie flopped at the box office, these plans were abandoned, and the three produced episodes were put together and released as Atlantis 2: Milo’s Return. It’s too bad the show didn’t go through, because the three episodes are enjoyable excursions to different parts of the globe and delve into different mythologies (native American and Norse). The first episode involves a seaside town that makes a bargain with a sea monster – it’s EXTREMELY Lovecraftian in tone, an obvious homage, particularly when you consider the excised end postscript scene (which is still viewable on the DVD special features), which features a woman asking her unseen baby for a hug and having a wormy tentacle emerge from the bunting!

NEXT IN THE QUEUE: Attack The Block

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. This is sadly the last animated feature Disney has put out that I actually love. Very cool to learn about Mike Mignola’s involvement.

    I never had any interest in Milo’s Return, but I do now. Thanks, Ed.

  2. You’re weclome David! Thanks for looking. It really is a fun movie. Milo’s Return is nowhere near as good, and being a tv show the animation is cheaper, but it was a cool premise I thought, and the Lovecraft thing really jumped out at me. I think the only voice cast member who doesn’t return is Fox.


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