Saturday, August 24, 2019

Atlantis: The Lost Empire

When I first saw Atlantis: The Lost Empire in the theater as a kid in 2001, I remembered liking it, however I had missed the first few minutes due to arriving a little late; this small gap was filled in when I saw it again on DVD in 2002, which turned out to provide some additional context to the story. I had not thought about watching the movie again until a couple years ago, when I took a Quick Sketching class with Disney animator Ron Husband, who was the supervising animator for the character Dr. Joshua Sweet (Husband’s other Disney animation work also includes the goat Djali in The Hunchback of Notre Dame). It was also through that class that I learned legendary comic book artist and Hellboy creator Mike Mignola was involved in Atlantis’ production and his art was the inspiration for its art direction, which got me more curious about seeing it again. It wasn’t until recently that I actually got around to re-watching Atlantis, upon which I had begun to appreciate it more after a 17-year gap in viewings.

In the year 1914, thousands of years after the sinking of the city of Atlantis, linguist and cartographer Milo Thatch (Michael J. Fox) is working on a proposal at the Smithsonian Institution to excavate the lost city in Iceland with the aid of a book known as the Shepherd’s Journal; this book is said to contain all knowledge of the city, including how to reach it. After his proposal gets rejected, Milo returns to his apartment only to find a woman waiting for him named Helga Sinclair (Claudia Christian), who takes him to see a millionaire named Preston Whitmore (John Mahoney). Having known Milo’s grandfather, who started the work on finding Atlantis, Whitmore presents Milo with the discovered Shepherd’s Journal, adding that he is funding the entire expedition, led by Commander Rourke (James Garner).

The story is very well-paced and easy to follow, helped by solid and consistent writing as well as some very interesting and diverse characters. It should say something if, despite not having seen the movie for 17 years, I still had a clear memory of who the villain actually was, and, upon my last viewing, I was better able to spot some clever foreshadowing leading up to the reveal. There’s also a scene that expands on the backstories of each of the core cast, providing some interesting character development that otherwise couldn’t be shown on screen.

Milo Thatch (Michael J. Fox) practicing his proposal to a mock audience.

The quirkiness (for lack of a better term) of the movie’s characters is backed by some amazing voice talent. Michael J. Fox, best known as Marty McFly in the Back to the Future trilogy, delivers a decidedly different performance as Milo, believably playing a character with a genuine passion for linguistics and of the wonders of Atlantis. Cree Summer, the voice of Atlantean Princess Kidagakash “Kida” Nedakh, plays well off of Fox after their respective characters first meet, acting as a good opposite to Milo as she tries to learn everything she can about the outside world. James Garner, best known for television series such as Maverick and The Rockford Files, as well as films such as The Great Escape and 36 Hours, does a fantastic job as a villain with Commander Rourke, who is willing to go to great lengths to get what he wants, even if it costs an entire civilization.

The other core characters are memorable in their own ways, thanks to the stellar performances from their voice actors, even if they never receive as much screen time as Milo. Some stand-outs for me include Phil Morris as medic Dr. Sweet, Saturday Night Live alum Don Novello as Italian demolitionist Vinny, Florence Stanley as sarcastic radio operator Wilhelmina Packard and Toy Story alum Jim Varney (to whom the film is dedicated) in his final role as expedition chef Cookie. Another highlight is Corey Burton as French geologist Gaetan "Mole" Molière; I am most familiar with Corey Burton’s roles as characters such as Shockwave in the 1984 The Transformers cartoon and his numerous roles in the Kingdom Hearts series, so watching Atlantis again with this knowledge made me realize how much range he actually has as a voice actor. Of course, one cannot go without also highlighting the late Leonard Nimoy as the Atlantean King Kashekim Nedakh, whose ideals clash with those of Kida and whose voice lends the perfect amount of gravitas to the role.

Aside from the writing quality, a particular point of praise is the art direction, which takes a number of cues from the work of comics creator Mike Mignola. Mignola’s angular art style works perfectly with the tone of the movie and its general steampunk-type aesthetic, giving it a unique look that helps it stand out from every other Disney animated feature. Certain shots also make expert use of Mignola’s shadow work, giving some scenes a special emotional weight in addition to amazing lighting effects.

Atlantis: The Lost Empire draws heavy influence from
Mike Mignola's signature art style.

The movie also makes extensive use of CG in addition to traditional animation, as it came out during a point where the film animation industry as a whole was making a shift from traditional to CG in the wake of Pixar’s success. While the use of CG works well as a whole, it is ultimately a little obvious, particularly noticeable when something is animated more smoothly than would otherwise be possible in traditional. This is especially notable since Warner Bros.’ The Iron Giant came out two years prior and had better integration of CG that made the titular computer-animated Giant fit in perfectly with the traditionally-animated characters and surroundings.

While Atlantis failed at the box office, this would not be the last adventure for Milo and co. While a proper movie sequel that was in development had to be canceled due to this movie’s failure, another axed project that was in development at the time was an animated series called Team Atlantis, however it was already so far into production that three full episodes had been finished. Rather than let this effort go to waste, some new animation was produced to tie the completed episodes together, resulting in the direct-to-video sequel Atlantis: Milo’s Return. While I have not (yet) watched Milo’s Return, that is a potential review for another time.

Despite its failure, Atlantis has been gaining more popularity in recent years, with many reevaluating their initial opinions of the movie. While at this point it can be said to have achieved a cult following, the fact that I’ve been seeing a surprising amount of Atlantis cosplay at conventions in the last couple years should serve as a major testament to its increasing popularity.

Even with some minor hiccups, Atlantis: The Lost Empire is a very good Disney movie and one of the more overlooked entries in the Animated Canon. The movie features a very well-written and engaging story with some amazing characters and some very well-casted voice talent. The integration of CG with the traditional animation isn’t as good as some of its contemporaries, however that doesn’t really take much away from its visual appeal, which is unique from other Disney films. I would highly recommend to any Disney or Mike Mignola fan, though really I would encourage any fan of animation to give this one a watch.

No comments:

Post a Comment