Atlantis: The Lost Empire, a departure from the Disney films of the 1990s, is celebrating its 20th anniversary since it opened in theaters in 2001.
This film was made ten years after filmmakers Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise directed Beauty and the Beast. At the time of its release, it featured a diverse cast and characters. Maybe Disney was prepared for something, but in the end it just didn’t make enough cash at the box office. You’re going on a Jules Verne level adventure and depending on who you talk to, you’ve either met it or not. In terms of animation style, they draw on the visual style of Hellboy creator Mike Mignola. Hiring Mignola as production designer turned out to be one of the best decisions for the film. This is also one of the reasons Atlantis holds up so well 20 years later!
Milo Thatch (Michael J. Fox) is an Indiana Jones level adventurer and a linguist similar to Stargate’s Daniel Jackson. It’s 1914 and Milo believes the key to finding Atlantis lies in a book found in Iceland. His grandfather, without even knowing him, has already found it. However, he tries to get money and is turned down by the Smithsonian. Ultimately, the path lies with Helga Sinclair (Claudia Christian) and Preston B. Whitmore (John Mahoney). Before you know it, you’re on an expedition to Atlantis led by Commander Rourke (James Garner). There is a diverse crew joining them:
There are also large numbers of crew members joining, but many failed after the ship was destroyed by a mechanical leviathan. Not long after he’s on his way, Milo meets Princess Kida (Cree Summer). With the wonders of Atlantis, she still looks very young. As we learn later in the film, the princess is one of the few colored people among the animated Disney films. It may have been a rarity in 2001, but it should have happened earlier than the 21st century! That being said, we quickly learn that Atlantis is no longer the same culture it once was. They forgot to read their own language. Society is no longer what it used to be BUT because the Atlantic language is the root of many modern languages, thankfully they can understand English.
It turns out that Rourke has his own agenda and it’s not a pretty one. If he has his way, Atlantis will be left to die. That doesn’t go well with Milo and soon the rest of the crew – without Helga – turn against him. Since Rourke and Helga take Kida with them, it’s up to Milo and the gang to save Atlantis. That’s the gist of the plot in a nutshell.
The main thing that made Disney’s 41st animated film fail when it was released was that it just wasn’t a musical. The only great piece of music in this film comes during the credits. If you look at the movies that were released during the Disney Renaissance 1989-99, music is a big part of the action. Suffice it to say that the lack of music was not good back then. Atlantis also didn’t have the comedy that made The Emperor’s New Groove a hit.
The animation itself was in quite a transition period in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Hand drawn was on the way out while CGI was on the way. Check out what Pixar did. Hell, Shrek was the biggest movie of 2001 and put DreamWorks Animation on the map. If you look at 2001, Pixar and DreamWorks were animation’s big rivals. After Tarzan, Disney was – unfortunately – an afterthought. In addition, Atlantis came less than a month later and wasn’t even nominated for the very first Oscar for best animated film. Looking back 20 years later, the lack of a nomination was a huge mistake. There are things in this film that the audience just wasn’t ready for. But back then, many of us – myself included – were still amazed at what Shrek was doing.
The world of animation may have changed in 2001, but Atlantis: The Last Empire is a solid action adventure. Additionally, a live-action adaptation just couldn’t capture Mignola’s visual style. But if they choose to go down that route, there is a solid blueprint to be found in this action-adventure. Indiana Jones would be proud!
DIRECTORS: Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise
Screenwriter: Tab Murphy
Cast: Michael J. Fox, Cree Summer, James Garner, Leonard Nimoy, Don Novello, Phil Morris, Claudia Christian, Jacqueline Obradors, Jim Varney, Florence Stanley, John Mahoney, David Ogden Stiers and Corey Burton
Danielle Solzman from Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and an MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She has roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. She lives less than a mile from Wrigley Field in Chicago, is an active reader (sports / entertainment / history / biographies / select fiction) and is involved in the Chicago improvisation scene. She also watches and reviews many films.
She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote / Flickside. Her film reviews can be found on Creators from April 2016 to May 2017.
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