In 2001, Disney released its 41st animated feature, Atlantis: The Lost Empire. They did a lot of things differently with this movie, and that may have influenced its mediocre box office. But it was all those risks that make it so wonderful.
From a purely design perspective, Atlantis is a beautiful movie. In the beginning of the movie, the Jules Verne influence is very strong. Atlantis may have the best version of the Nautilus that’s ever made it to film:
Once they actually get to the city of Atlantis, the design riffs on the Greek origin of the myth, but also appears to include inspiration from every single pretty thing they could find. It would have been very easy to leech all the color and do a white-columned, white-togaed society, but that’s not what we got.
The look of the whole movie was heavily influenced by Hellboy creator/artist Mike Mignola’s style, who was hired as one of four production designers on the film. Disney animation worked hard to teach their animators how to match the style guides and preliminary character/background designs Mignola provided, and it gives Atlantis a completely different feel from the other Disney works.
Atlantis also eschewed making a musical for something much more in the vein of an action-adventure serial. For me, tired of princesses and princes, Atlantis was a breath of fresh air. Atlantis moves at a very fast pace, destroying the beautiful submarine less than 10 minutes after we see it. The final battle—between the technology of Atlantis and the guns of 1914 Europe—is epic in every sense of the word. On one side is grey stone and glowing blue and the other is brown metal and orange fire. Despite its speed, it’s an easy action sequence to follow and enjoy.
The heroes of Atlantis are geeks. When it comes down to it, no matter what they look like, they are geeks and that makes them wonderful to root for. The protagonist is definitely Milo Thatch, an academic obsessed with finding the lost city of Atlantis, who checks every single dork box. But all the rest of the team—save maybe Wilhemina, the radio operator—are all people with very specific sets of skills and obsessed with being good at them. Audrey’s a mechanic who became the most brilliant there is by the time she was a teenager. Dr. Sweet immediately starts running Milo through a series of medical tests when he met him. Vinny hoards explosives and is always tinkering with something that could blow everyone up. Mole actually assaults Milo for messing up his dirt collection.
And for all that some of these qualities are played for comic relief (especially Vinny and Mole) the ones with passion are the ones who are good inside. The villains are the ones who have no passions outside of money. We even get the classic second-in-command turn, where the angry accusation is about how much she was promised. Oops. Atlantis is much better at giving this message, and these kinds of antagonists, than Pocahontas was.
I’m also a fan of a lot of the dialogue in Atlantis. It’s very fun, and moves at a great pace. Like this:
Milo: Will you look at the size of this? It’s gotta be half a mile high, at least. It must have taken hundred — no, thousands of years to carve this thing.
Vinny (explodes the bottom of the column, so it falls over): Hey, look, I made a bridge. It only took me, like, what? Ten seconds? Eleven, tops.
The team is so good in Atlantis, in a way that previous ensembles weren’t. Without each one of them, the story didn’t work. Each one contributed something to get the team to Atlantis. Which, as much as I love the enchanted house staff in Beauty and the Beast, cannot be said of them.
Atlantis: The Lost World deserves more love than it ended up getting from its parent company. Disney scuttled the TV show and buried the plans to integrate into the theme parks. Which is a shame, since the design was so strong and the movie so fun.
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