At 20, Atlantis Is One Of The Most Criminally Underrated Disney Films
Atlantis: The Lost Empire may not have made a lasting impression in the box office, but it certainly found a place in our hearts.
The animated classics of Disney are frequently praised, but some gems often get overlooked. One of the most criminally ignored of these films is Atlantis: The Lost Empire. The film takes viewers on a fantastical adventure with plenty of heart, but for some reason, it didn’t prove to be an immediate hit with cinemagoers.
Twenty years ago, Disney was in a tricky spot. Far from owning multiple cinematic and galactic universes like Marvel and Star Wars, the company was still only known for releasing animated films. These films had largely been a success since the release of Sleeping Beauty in 1959, but things were changing.
New technology began to rival traditionally animated films, as Pixar picked up steam in the wake of 1996’s Toy Story. On top of that, films like 1997’s Hercules and 2000’s The Emperor’s New Groove were falling below financial expectations. This left Atlantis up against the odds when it was released in 2001.
Despite the enjoyable voice acting of the cast, which included Michael J Fox, Cree Summer, Phil Morris and the late Jim Varney, the film wasn’t much of a financial success.
While Atlantis didn’t overcome the changing tides of family entertainment financially, it did become a beacon of entertainment for everyone who enjoys a good adventure story. Naturally, the film charts the journey to find the fabled lost city, but it adds a lot to what could be a simple quest.
Personally, the film informed me about the underwater city for the first time. It also gave the only scientific explanation for its existence that makes sense to me to this day – that it is preserved by a u-bend like you have in your kitchen sink. On top of providing me with an education in plumbing and fables, the film also offers a lot in visuals, story and, most importantly, character.
Milo James Thatch is our protagonist, down on his luck as a linguist as his expedition requests are rejected by the museum he works for. Instead, he’s relegated to boiler duty as he dreams of fulfilling his grandfather’s dream of finding the lost city of Atlantis.
The strong emotional pull of the story is complemented by animation that is both typically Disney and encompasses the industrialisation of the early twentieth century. This leads to some fantastic gothic shots as Milo visits a mansion to become part of a mission to the fabled city.
After its stylish setup, the film puts the u-bend theory to the test with plenty of action, CGI and steam-based submarine-like vehicles. This leads to some great chaotic sequences that give any animation a run for its money.
We get a classic Disney montage of the team becoming friends and Milo becoming accepted by Vinny, Sweet, Ramirez, Chef, Mole and one of the best characters for deadpan delivery Wilhelmina. It’s undeniable that the film takes some of the best parts of Disney’s trademark storytelling as the team searches for the lost city.
After a few close-shaves and a bridge blown over in ‘like ten seconds,’ the gang eventually find Atlantis. The city is a real testament to the creativity of the team behind the film, and it is clear why up to 350 animators were needed at certain parts of the project. The setting is truly unique in the way it looks and the way it operates.
The people of Atlantis have their own language, thanks to the work of Marc Okrand who contributed to the development of the Vulcan language in Star Trek. On top of this, they have an otherworldly aesthetic, and use a magic source to live for an extended period of time. In short, the city puts the magic of old Disney films into a completely new setting.
Our lovable gang of misfits must face a choice about whether to condemn Atlantis in the name of money or defend the city. In this sense, the film focuses on what would happen if Clayton’s band of men in Tarzan had any moral fibre. Safe to say, it’s easy to back our heroes when they stand up to capitalism and decide to defend the city and its unique culture in an explosive battle.
We all know that Disney has a knack for creating a compelling journey for its characters, and Atlantis follows the tried and tested template almost perfectly. Not only that, but its conflict with the ugly face of imperialism is easy to side with – especially when the animation is so impressive.
It’s a shame the journey to the lost city has largely been forgotten. However, the film still delivers on an action-filled quest that’s fun for everyone. With that in mind, it is well worth going down the u-bend to revisit this forgotten feature and finding a hidden Disney treasure.
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