100 Film Favorites – #68: Atlantis: The Lost Empire
(Gary Tousdale & Kirk Wise, 2001)
Lots of colons in titles these last few days.
Atlantis: The Lost Empire is one of the less-remembered entries in the Disney animated features canon from the last few decades. It may not be as obscure as The Black Cauldron, Make Mine Music, Saludos, Amigos, or any of the others I pride myself on getting on the Sporcle quiz, but it’s certainly no Aladdin or Beauty and the Beast. But it’s nevertheless stuck with me. Why? Well, I’m going to credit it once again to my passion for cryptozoology. Or maybe in this case it’s “cryptogeography.” Atlantis is like the cryptid of continents – a legendary place for which many have searched, yet none have found.
The movie stars Michael J. Fox as Milo Thatch (the Disney protagonist I see the most of myself in), a nerdy linguistics scholar who discovers an Icelandic tome which features instructions on how to reach Atlantis (The Lost Empire). An eccentric millionaire, who was friends with Thatch’s explorer grandfather, funds an expedition to the sunken continent. Since the story takes place in 1914, the expedition showcases lots of vaguely steampunkish technology, including a massive submarine inspired by the works of Jules Verne.
In addition to the vintage/sci-fi tech, the millionaire assembles a crew consisting of the “best of the best” in various fields, including an Army general (who’s totally not the bad guy) an Italian explosives expert, a massive African-American medic, an animal-like French digger named Mole, and a young female mechanic and boxer. Support staff includes an elderly radio attendant and a prospector-esque chef named Cookie, voiced by Jim Varney in his last film role (the movie was released after his death). Milo tags along with the hodgepodge crew to interpret the journal and act as guide.
After some intense action/adventure (including fighting a gigantic mechanical lobster dubbed “The Leviathan”), the expedition reaches Atlantis. They are surprised to find the place in a state of cultural stagnation: the Atlanteans have lost the ability to read their ancient language, and with it the ability to use much of their advanced technology. Because Milo has learned to read the archaic writing, he suddenly finds himself revered by the Atlanteans. To recover the empire’s lost history, Milo begins exploring the ruins with Kida, the Atlantean princess, with whom he is quickly smitten (and whose exclusion from the “Disney Princess” line I take as a deep personal offense. I think I’ll write an angrily-worded letter. Also, Princess Eilonwy from The Black Cauldron likewise gets no love).
Milo discovers that a huge, mystical crystal buried beneath the Altantean throne room is the secret to the empire’s power and its citizens great longevity (Kida is actually many centuries old). It turns out that, SPOILERS: the army general actually IS the bad guy and the entire expedition was motivated by his desire to take posession of this crystal. Also, the rest of the crew was in on it the whole time. When Milo tells them the Atlanteans will die without the crystal, most of the others are swayed, but the general’s megalomaniacal bad guy tendencies are revealed, and he begins attacking everyone in a World War I-era military biplane. He’s shot down, but manages to grab the crystal, which turns him into a huge…crystal…ice monster…thing. This part of the movie is weird. The general shatters, and the crew agrees to return to the surface without revealing their discovery of Atlantis, and Milo stays behind with Kida to continue his research and return Atlantis to its former prosperity.
Like the entry for Bean: The Movie, this section of the post can be seen as “reasons this movie didn’t rank higher.” I feel the biggest problem with the film is the size of its cast. The expedition team consists of a large number of interesting characters, all of whom have a cool look and a distinct personality, but there’s so many of them that once they’re all introduced, there’s little time to give any development to any of them. The first act of the film is little more than, “Okay, Milo. I’ve hooked you up with the best of the best. Here’s this guy, and this guy, and this girl, and this other dude, and this one chick. And also this other guy. Oh, look! We’ve already reached Atlantis.”
The end of the film is also rushed. Here’s a rough approximation of the last 20-something minutes of the film:
Milo: Oh, look! A crystal!
General Rourke: Yes! The crystal! I’m here to take it, because I’ve been the bad guy all along!
Milo: Oh. I didn’t even realize there WAS a “bad guy” in this movie.
Rourke: Well, there is, and I’m him. MUHUHUHAHA!
*Rourke attempts to take crystal, becomes ice monster, breaks into a million pieces*
Milo: Well, that was weird.
Even with the lack of character development and odd pacing, I still like this movie. It features plenty of witty dialogue and comical moments, and what we see of each of the many crew members is interesting and distinctive, if not fully fleshed out. The steampunk-style art direction by Hellboy artist Mike Mignolo gives the film a uniquely beautiful look. Add in the nerdiest animated Disney hero (except maybe that kid in Meet the Robinsons), and you’ve got a fun, quirky Disney adventure which is too often overlooked.
Tidbits: The Atlantean king is voiced by Leonard Nimoy.
-This is one of the few films in the Disney animated canon to feature no musical numbers.
Brian Terrill is the host of television show Count Gauntly’s Horrors from the Public Domain. You can keep up with Brian’s 100 Film Favorites countdown here.
2 thoughts on “Brian Terrill’s 100 Film Favorites – #68: “Atlantis: The Lost Empire””
I absolutely adore this movie. It’s so nice to meet someone with the same love for this often underrated film. Its art direction really is something. I would love to see a quality live action based on those designs, the Leviathan and the Ulysses really deserve more screen time.
Totally! One minute they introduce the awesome submarine, and the next the Leviathan shows up and destroys it. I felt the “fireflies” were another element which came and went too quickly to be fully appreciated.