Saturday, July 23, 2022

Atlantis: Milo's Return

Note: This review contains spoilers for Atlantis: The Lost Empire.

Of all the IPs Disney owns, one of the most overlooked is Atlantis, which revolves around the lost city of Atlantis. Though the original 2001 film, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, has managed a cult following within the last twenty years, it didn’t do as well at the box office as Disney had anticipated. As such, any further plans for a franchise were scrapped, including a TV series called Team Atlantis. Before Team Atlantis’ cancellation, however, three episodes were produced. Not wanting the effort to go to waste, these episodes were combined into a DTV feature, Atlantis: Milo’s Return, with some new animation tying the episodes together. Gauging critical reception is difficult, though Milo’s Return is typically viewed as a subpar effort in comparison to The Lost Empire. Looking as it now, it’s hard not to see why, but the rare window into what could have been makes it more interesting.

Sometime after the events of The Lost Empire, Queen Kida (Cree Summer), now married to King Milo Thatch (James Arnold Taylor), has been using the heart of Atlantis, the Crystal, to restore the city to its former glory. Without warning, Milo’s comrades and Mr. Whitmore (John Mahoney) appear to inform them about a mysterious creature causing trouble on the surface. Kida suspects that the creature might be Atlantean, much like the Leviathan, and has mixed feelings about her father’s decision to keep the Crystal hidden. Nevertheless, she and Milo leave Atlantis to stop the creature, as well as other threats that pop up.

Each of three episodes tackles a different myth or legend, which Milo and co. discover has some connection to Atlantean culture or technology.

In the first episode, Milo and co. arrive in Trondheim, Norway as they investigate the creature discussed at the beginning of the film. There, they realize that the creature is actually an Atlantean war machine that resembles the Kraken, a legendary sea monster. While the episode does feature an explosive confrontation with the Kraken, the story around it appears to borrow story elements from H.P. Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth. As in the famous novella, the sea plays an important role in the events surrounding the creature, though in this case the final confrontation largely occurs underwater. Although sanity isn’t as big a factor, the threat of mind control is ever-present and the otherworldly phenomena plaguing the cliffside village Milo’s party find themselves in wouldn’t feel out of place in Lovecraft’s work. A deleted scene from the episode’s original ending even drives the connection home, suggesting that the threat isn’t entirely gone.

Milo (James Arnold Taylor) investigates the Kraken in a mysterious cliffside town.

The second episode takes the party to Arizona, where they investigate the presence of coyote spirits. Instead of an Atlantean war machine, they deal with Ashton Carnaby (Thomas F. Wilson), a sly shop owner who will do anything to obtain rare artifacts for profit, as well as a mysterious man named Chakashi (Floyd Red Crow Westerman), who has a connection with the wind. By the end of the episode, they also learn about the influence that Atlantean culture has had on native tribes, including Native Americans, the Mayans and the Olmecs.

Restless wind spirits bring the party to Arizona.

For the third episode, the group discovers that one of Whitmore’s old competitors, Erik Hellstrom (W. Morgan Sheppard), has stolen the ancient Norse spear Gungnir, which originated from Atlantis. Hellstrom, who has lost his sanity, believes he’s the Norse god Odin and plans to use Gungnir to bring about Ragnarök, the end of the world. At his floating castle, Asgard, Hellstrom mistakes Milo for the trickster god Loki and Kida for his daughter, the Valkyrie Brünnhilde, and summons two giants of lava and ice to accelerate his plans. As a clever detail, Hellstrom is accompanied by two ravens, representing Odin’s ravens Huginn and Muninn, and a wolf representing either Geri or Freki.

Erik Hellstrom (W. Morgan Sheppard) is convinced that he's Odin.

Just from these three episodes alone, Team Atlantis showed promise as a full series. While it might not have been the best-written series, the concept of tying Atlantis into well-known myths and legends is interesting and could easily fuel a full season. What helps this notion is that everyone actually feels in-character from The Lost Empire, which shows a good level of care from the writers, and their special skills also come in handy during each episode, especially Mole’s (Corey Burton) knowledge of dirt and minerals. Individual character traits also help with the humor, which actually made me laugh a few times.

Of the core cast, however, Kida receives the most development, as she continually weighs whether or not her father was justified in keeping Atlantis hidden. Based on the extra footage tying the episodes together, it’s easy to speculate that this could have been the intended arc across the series. In that case, it’s a fairly compelling idea at its core, though we may never know the full extent of Kida’s experiences before she makes her final decision.

One notable change to the cast for the TV series is the addition of Obby (Frank Welker), an Atlantean “lavadog”. As an animal sidekick, Obby can easily come off as a ploy to potentially sell toys, but he does actually pull his weight from time to time. He helps get the group out of danger at least once and his immunity to lava becomes relevant during the confrontation with Hellstrom in the third episode. Additionally, his introduction actually adds some worldbuilding to the setting of Atlantis, which some viewers may appreciate.

Obby (Frank Welker) is a new addition to the cast.

As well as Team Atlantis may have worked as a series, however, the three episodes combined don’t work that well as a feature. Despite the valiant effort of tying the disparate events together as a single arc through extra footage, Milo’s Return’s biggest issue is its rather wonky pacing. Kida’s character arc acts as a sort of through line, but doesn’t prevent the film from having too many subplots, which only makes Milo’s Return feel like less of a true feature and more like three episodes of a cancelled TV series stapled together. Viewers may even pick up on some obvious act breaks that were left in and notice when each episode would have normally ended. A deleted scene from the first segment only makes this more obvious, offering a twist ending that would certainly have had more impact as part of a proper episode.

Compared with The Lost Empire, of course, the animation in Milo’s Return has an obvious TV quality, as well as some generally more obvious CG. As TV shows also traditionally have lower budgets than films, viewers may also spot some minor inconsistencies, which doubles as a sign of hand-drawn animation. Despite the lack of polish, however, Milo’s Return still looks pretty good and does a good job maintaining the Mike Mignola aesthetic of the original film.

On the upside, all of the returning voice actors continue to deliver the great performances they gave in The Lost Empire. Although Michael J. Fox doesn’t return, very likely for budget reasons, James Arnold Taylor is a great soundalike and shows a good emotional range as Milo. However, for one reason or another, Milo has an odd pronunciation of “Kraken” and overpronounces “Gungnir”.

There’s no denying that as a feature, Milo’s Return is a disappointing and subpar follow-up to The Lost Empire, with an overstuffed plot and lower quality animation. As a collection of episodes, however, the experience feels more novel and entertaining, since the audience is offered a glimpse into a show that almost never saw the light of day. If you’re already a fan of Atlantis: The Lost Empire, I’d recommend watching Milo’s Return at least once, as long as you’re aware of what it really is.

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