The early 2000s were a rough time for Disney animated features. The Disney Renaissance had come to an end, and audiences were more wowed by the CG works of Dreamworks or Disney’s own sister franchise, Pixar. On the upside this period saw Disney stretch their creative muscles a bit in an attempt to rekindle interest in their brand. On the downside, very few of these creative departures were successful for the House of Mouse. Perhaps no other film better represents Disney’s bold ambition and muddled realization of this period than 2001’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire.
In case the title wasn’t already early 2000s “edgy” enough, Atlantis: The Lost Empire all but abandoned the more kid friendly nature of past Disney movies in attempt to appeal to a more mature audience. It was a respectably bold move on Disney’s part, the problem is that Atlantis lacks the well structured storytelling of those kid friendly Disney movies. It’s so busy with its emphasis on action scenes (some of which are quite well done) that it often loses its plot and characters. In doing so, it also lacks the sophistication needed to make it an interesting animated feature for adults.
The story follows Milo Thatch (Michael J. Fox), a linguist and cartographer who dreams of finding the lost city of Atlantis, despite being labelled a loon by his peers. Milo gets his chance to discover the lost city when he is recruited on an expedition by an eccentric millionaire, who was friends with Milo’s grandfather.
Milo is joined on his expedition by an assortment of characters: Vincenzo is an Italian demolitions expert, Audrey is a teenage mechanic, Dr. Sweet is the crew’s enthusiastic medical personnel and Moliere is a French geologist who behaves like a mole, to name the more prominent members of the crew. Also onboard are Commander Rourke and Lieutenant Helga Sinclair, whose behaviors leave no secret to their ulterior motives.
To be honest, the film actually has a nice setup, with the first several minutes introducing us to Milo and the other characters in effective and fun ways. But once the crew sets off for Atlantis much of the film’s character rapidly disappears. Milo ends up falling in love with the Atlantian princess, but he never gets any real moments of character development, and the personalities of the supporting cast feel dictated by their introductory jokes.
The story itself falls prey to just about every action adventure movie cliche you can think of. As previously stated, the buildup works just fine. But once the crew makes it to Atlantis the story feels like it’s leaving checkmarks on an adventure movie’s to do list. It even borrows some elements from Hayao Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky, but to say it doesn’t use these elements nearly as effectively is a drastic understatement.
Atlantis: The Lost Empire is far from all bad though. The animation takes on a comic book visual style, which makes it look distinct in the Disney lineup. The style is complimented by Jules Verne-inspired aesthetics, which adds to its overall visual appeal. The action scenes are exciting, with the climactic sequence in particular being close to stunning (if only the rest of the film were as good). And Michael J. Fox brings the same sense of enthusiasm and personality to his voice over work as he does his live-action roles, which is always appreciated.
When all is said and done, however, the story ultimately falls flat. Atlantis is a Disney movie that doesn’t want to be labelled a “kid’s movie,” but it’s also one that lacks substance. It aims to be mature with lots of action and explosions without stopping to think that, maybe, maturity means a bit more than that.