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Extended Thoughts on ‘Atlantis: The Lost Empire’

Atlantis: The Lost Empire

Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise

Written by Tab Murphy

I imagine something that matters most to many of the people fortunate enough to work for the Walt Disney Company, especially those in Walt Disney Feature Animation, is the legacy they get to not only leave behind, but create. Sure, most of those people will never get the same kind of recognition that Disney himself or, these days, John Lasseter gets from the adoring public, but the legacy they leave behind can be just as powerful or important. There are a few really good modern examples of this; two directing duos were involved with some incredibly influential films, even though theirs are not household names. John Musker and Ron Clements directed Aladdin and The Little Mermaid, the movie that pretty much singlehandedly saved Walt Disney Pictures from mediocrity, embarrassment or, even worse, obscurity.

But Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale are the duo I want to focus on for just a bit. Trousdale has since moved on from Walt Disney Feature Animation to work for DreamWorks Animation. He has five directing credits to his name, the latter two being holiday specials for NBC based on the movies Madagascar and Shrek. His first directing effort was 1991’s Beauty and the Beast, which celebrates its 20th anniversary in just a couple of months. He helmed the film with Wise, who’s also moved on from Disney, to Sony Pictures Animation. After helming the only movie to legitimately get nominated for the Best Picture Oscar (I say “legitimately” because Beauty and the Beast got nominated when there were only five Best Picture nominees, not ten), Wise and Trousdale probably felt like the world was their oyster. Heck, to the higher-ups at Disney, that was probably the case. So in 1996, they directed The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

While The Hunchback of Notre Dame is nowhere near Beauty and the Beast in terms of its historical relevance or its overall quality (at least to me), it’s an ambitious project with generally memorable songs and impressive animation. Even though the two films aren’t exactly made from the same cloth, there are strong similarities between the stories fueling both projects. Five years later, Wise and Trousdale made their last film for Walt Disney Pictures: 2001’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire. Your guess is as good as mine. Seriously, though, I’m sure that Wise and Trousdale felt the need to, at least, do something more than a love story. (There is, of course, a romance in the movie, but it’s pretty much tossed in at the last second.) Atlantis: The Lost Empire is yet another solid attempt at getting boys to watch Disney movies, and like most of those attempts, it failed commercially and qualitatively.

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The stigma has always been there, mind you, but it’s become far more pronounced over the past 25 years: Disney movies are for girls. If you took your children to Disneyland or Walt Disney World, they could go to the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique and walk out looking like princesses. The first Disney movie is about a princess, and most of the other iconic films in the canon are about young women falling in love after staving off some kind of adversity. Not every Disney movie is like that, but most of the popular ones are. For every Cinderella, there is a Sword in the Stone, and for every Little Mermaid, there is an Atlantis: The Lost Empire.

It’s come to the point where Disney executives try their best to hide princess movies from little boys in fear that they won’t see them. The original name for Tangled, the 2010 Disney film, was Rapunzel, seeing as the story is about a girl named Rapunzel. But the marketing for the film obscured that fact, emphasizing the role of Flynn Rider, the young hunk who Rapunzel falls for. Now, Tangled is a fine movie (though I would argue it’s been highly overrated by people who chose to ignore the down-home charms of 2009’s The Princess and the Frog), but the title is pointless. All it tells me is that the people who run Walt Disney Pictures rely too heavily on focus groups and demographic data as opposed to focusing on solid creative storytelling.

Regarding Atlantis: The Lost Empire, the problem is simple and has been replicated since movies like The Black Cauldron: half of the movie is for teenage boys and half of it is for little kids, boy or girl. The story, where a nerdy linguist goes on an epic adventure to find the lost city of Atlantis with a group of explorers, could easily be straight from the Indiana Jones playbook if the fedora-wearing hero was as dorky on his adventures as he is in his classroom. The execution is where Atlantis stumbles. An early action sequence, where the crew of the ship searching for Atlantis have to fight off a massive electronic creature that looks like a lobster and scorpion had a kid, is both thrilling and troubling, especially since it ends in a somewhat realistic fashion: a number of nameless characters die. So when we spend some time with one of the survivors, a French scientist who acts like a mole, I have to ask: is this movie for children or teenagers?

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The issue of appropriateness—which isn’t something I intend on harping on with any movie, seeing as I don’t have any kids to worry about—is but one problem here. Some of the others are far less troubling, I’d wager, to the mass audiences, but they really threw me off. First of all, and this should go without saying at this point, but this story feels so overheated and rote in many ways. Though I know that Indiana Jones wouldn’t be as shocked that the explorers helping him find Atlantis are doing so for nefarious purposes, he would potentially throw his lot in with a bad crowd simply so there could be a few daring action sequences where he shows them who’s boss. Here, though I appreciated the fact that there’s about 20 minutes where Milo Thatch, our nerdy linguist protagonist, has to reconcile the fact that he’s been surrounded by scoundrels for a long time, I also don’t find it a story told with any panache. If you tell me a derivative story and don’t hide it with something shiny or cool, you’re gonna lose me.

Another serious problem, but one that mass audiences definitely won’t consciously notice, is derivation of a more troubling kind. When the main antagonist of your movie looks like another Disney movie’s main antagonist, you have a dilemma on your hands. Milo, voiced by Michael J. Fox, is led around by Commander Rourke, voiced by James Garner, until Rourke reveals himself to be a money-hungry mercenary. From the get-go, even though they dress differently, Rourke looks a whole lot like Percival McLeach, the bad guy from The Rescuers Down Under, the 1990 sequel to The Rescuers. Now, sure, The Rescuers Down Under isn’t exactly considered a vaunted classic to most Disney fans, but it’s still a movie that came out in theaters and had a uniquely intimidating villain, not least because his voice was provided by George C. Scott. Rourke and McLeach could be brothers, and when you’re reminded that a character from a new movie looks like a character from an old one, that’s bad news.

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That’s also a sign of cost-cutting measures. I have no idea if the people who worked on Atlantis: The Lost Empire had to keep costs down—frankly, my guess is that never happened—but when Disney animators were forced to go to the well of old animation in the past, they did so to save money. If you watch Robin Hood, the worst offender of this kind, you’ll notice that some of the scenes just look like those from movies like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but with animals that walk and talk, not humans. When Little John starts dancing with Maid Marian’s nurse hen, you may be reminded of the scene in The Jungle Book where Baloo and King Louie dance to “I Wanna Be Like You,” because the storyboards for both films are the same. I wonder if the character design looking derivative in Atlantis was intentional, but it sure was distracting.

The final distraction, the one that tipped it for me, was a bit of miscasting. It’s a rare complaint I have when a character is miscast, but it happens twice here, with Fox and Garner. Both have good voices for animation, and both do serviceable work as Milo and Rourke. But neither actor has the right chops for the characters based on how their arcs play out. While Michael J. Fox could be a bundle of nervous energy as a live-action performer, his voice just doesn’t fit coming out of a nerdy guy’s body. Even worse, while Garner nails Rourke’s paternal side in the first half of the film, once he’s revealed to be a villain in the last 40 minutes, it’s a failure all around. Garner does his best to exude menace (usually by growling his lines), but he just sounds too friendly to be a bad guy.

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I wanted to like Atlantis: The Lost Empire more than I did, if only because I went into it knowing very little about its history or its plot. I knew it was an adventure, which I like, and I knew it combined hand-drawn and computer-generated animation. While I was excited for the prospect of such visuals, I was let down by how cardboard the characters looked behind the expansive and technologically fancy backgrounds. I can’t say I was let down by the film, but I also walked away mostly unimpressed. Though it’s not as bad as some recent Disney animated films (hello, Chicken Little), it’s also not something I’m going to remember in a week. I can only imagine that’s the opposite of the legacy Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale wanted to leave behind.

– Josh Spiegel