Atlantis: The Lost Empire – (2001)
According to Rotten Tomatoes, Atlantis: The Lost Empire is the fourth-worst movie in Disney’s Animated Classics series. Trawling around the internet, love for the film is hard to come by — and that’s when people even remember it at all. It is, in a lot of ways, the second coming of The Black Cauldron: it’s one of the few Disney films to earn a PG rating, it was fabulously ambitious and expensive to produce, neither critics nor audiences knew quite what to do with it. Atlantis had the added problem of steep competition from rival film studios, left to claw a place for itself next to Dreamworks’s Shrek. (Which, I will grudgingly admit, is the superior movie. )
Still, I believe it’s a great film, and I’d always hoped that after it got a few years under its belt people would go back with open minds and rediscover it. Isn’t that sort of what happens to Disney movies that get forgotten? Heck, even Sleeping Beauty and Robin Hood weren’t well-appreciated in their own time. But ah, here we are a decade on, and it seems Atlantis gets the short end of that stick too. The world has moved on. Pixar is king of the hill, Dreamworks continues to crank out Shrek sequels, and even though Disney is getting back into the fairy tale business it’s all being done in CGI. There’s no reason for a new generation to look back on an archeological oddity like Atlantis.
The best I can hope for this article to do, then, is to maybe convince a few people who haven’t seen it to give it a try. Or, perhaps, to share a new perspective for people who saw it and didn’t like it. And so the very first thing I’m going to do is piss everybody off. That’s right, people; prepare to get mad at internets.
Nausicaa: Castle in the Blue Water
Here’s the blurb from my webpage, circa 2002, that introduced my Atlantis write-up:
Most webpages about this movie rant and complain about how it rips off some holy anime. Silly me, but mine actually describes why I like the film. Always thinking positive, that’s me!
Oh ho ho! Save some of that zingsauce for the rest of us, 20-year-old Brickroad!
2001 was right in the middle of that awkward angry phase most of us internet denizens go through (and many of us never grow out of). It was particularly awkward and angry for me because I liked playing video games but hated watching anime. This may come as a shock to you, but the Venn diagram of internet hang-outs for those two topics has a pretty large overlap. It was especially bad because I tended to only play JRPGs, which in the late PSX-era were basically anime stories with button inputs. My main haunt at the time happened to be an IRC channel and web forum dedicated to Suikoden. I had a lot of mean conversations with people who were (at best) trying to get me to watch whatever their new favorite anime was, in that good-natured way people do when they like something and want to share it. Or (at worst) picking on me because anyone who doesn’t see the inherent brilliance of Rouroni Kenshin has a mental defect and therefore deserves scorn and mockery.
That… that last sentence was pretty, uh, 2001. Let’s see if I can’t dial it back a notch.
I like to think I gave as good as I got, and the truth is I would take some of those old bitch-fests to heart and discover some legitimately good anime in the next few years. In the meantime, though, I had Atlantis, and the dominate opinion from my most important social circles was that it was a worthless film which, depending on who you asked, was either Disney “trying to be anime” or “ripping off [insert anime here]”. Either way, it was a dumb movie and I was dumb for liking it.
Knowing now what I do about Atlantis‘s supposed anime influences, Hayao Miyazaki in particular, I’ve softened my defensive position against that argument somewhat. If you sit down to watch Atlantis, and you consider what the field of animation looked like in the eary aughts, the influences are quite obvious. However, I now know more about a lot of things I didn’t in 2001. I know a bit more about the artistic expression of ancient cultures, which were distilled and combined to give Atlantis its unusual look. I know a bit more about the art of worldbuilding, particularly creating false histories and languages, both of which provide Atlantis a deep, lived-in feel. I know a bit more about the works of Jules Verne, those classic stories about fantastic turn-of-the-century technologies and amazing hidden worlds, from which much of our modern fantasy and sci-fi draw inspiration.
I’ve also experienced Nausicaa, and Castle in the Sky, and (god help me) the entirety of Nadia. I say this with confidence: you simply can’t get from them the same nutrients you can from Atlantis. It’s not plagiarised material, as was often claimed back in the day. And it’s not simply the animated adaptation of classical literature, which would be par for Disney’s course. It is pieces from all over being put together to build something new. The mass market rejected it because it was neither a comedy nor a romance. The hostile anime kids rejected it because they identified superficial comparisons to other works they were already enjoying. What the mass market missed was a piece of technically brilliant animation and some highly entertaining character acting. What the niche market missed was a tale about a quaint American everyman, and a beautifully-constructed society founded on history and mythology. Atlantis has qualities neither Shrek nor Nadia possess; first and foremost, the city of Atlantis itself.
“My grandpa used to tell me stories about this place…”
It takes forty-three minutes from the time you push play to the time Princess Kida finally welcomes you to the city of Atlantis. The build-up is both necessary and worthwhile. It’s not enough to just bring us cold into a fantasy setting… not if your story is about outsiders going to that place for a visit. It’s why these stories have wardrobes and looking glasses.
Unassuming nobody Milo Thatch’s journey is a little more involved than stepping through a wardrobe. He starts out by banging his head against the walls of beaurocracy, a sensation with which we can all sympathize. Before long he’s whisked away into the world of Preston Whitmore, eccentric billionaire, and his cavalcade of of technical marvels bent on finding the lost continent. Next he boards the submarine Ulysses and meets the members of its crew, each quirkier than the last. And then it’s down into the depths of the ocean, into the murky unknown where Milo hopes to find the road to Atlantis. There the ship does battle with a gargantuan sea monster built by the ancient Atlanteans themselves.
Traveling to Atlantis with Milo is something like peeling back the layers of an onion. The audience already knows what’s at the center; Atlantis is right there on the movie poster and DVD box cover. So if it’s not a surprise, why spend forty-three minutes focusing on the journey? Because the getting-there matters. Atlantis is, after all, not a fantasy world. It’s a place on our very own world, a place which nobody has visited in thousands of years. The story takes place at a time when the last corners of the Earth were being explored, and those quests were radically difficult and dangerous. Getting to Atlantis? Considerably moreso. A difficult and harrowing journey is one of the tenets of the Vernian adventure story.
When we finally get there, Atlantis is every bit as glorious and alien as we were expecting it to be. I wish I knew more about the process of designing this place on paper, because I bet it was fascinating. Imagine the challenge: Atlantis is a lost continent, but it was still a place on our planet that ostensibly existed alongside other ancient civilizations. It was mighty and powerful, and possessed technology the likes of which would not be seen again until modern times. Therefore, it cannot simply be a “new” place, some separate-but-equal analogue to the ancient Greeks or Egyptians. At the same time it cannot simply be a blend of ancient culture and mythology; that would give the impression that Atlantis came after those other cultures, or was somehow subservient to them.
Atlantis had to be new without being new, and different without being different.
The effect is impressive, if not 100% successful. It’s a bit too easy to pick out the cultural inflences that were drawn upon: the Atlantean warriors and their African tribal masks, the Mesoamerican architecture, an alphabet remniscient of Celtic runes. Still, the cohesion between these disparate elements is good enough that Atlantis lives and breathes like a real place. It has enough of its own identity to avoid looking anachronistic, but it’s close enough to our popular perceptions of the ancient world that we can imagine our civilization having evolved from it.
The two most striking physical traits of Atlantis are water and spirals. Much of Atlantean culture, even before the collapse, was influenced by its proximity to the ocean. Atlantean warriors use spears and nets, fishing villages cling to tiny islands strewn throughout its little sea. Ships are modeled to look like fish and other forms of aquatic life. A veil of mist hangs over the whole city, courtesy of the waters pouring into the molten rock below. Spirals and swirls are carved into the stone pillars and stairways, bringing to mind waves and ocean currents. And absolutely everywhere, the color blue. Not just the color of the crystal that provides the city with light and energy, but the color of the ocean that surrounds it as well.
(Quick personal aside: am I the only one who doesn’t associate blue with any of the great ancient cultures? In my head Greece is white marble, Egypt is yellow sand and brown pyramids, America is gold statues and rainforest green. Might this be why Atlantis is so blue?)
Disney has animated a lot of historical places over the years. Though painstaking accuracy was never the goal, there has always been enough detail for that the settings to really sell themselves. Just in the years leading up to Atlantis we were taken to breathtaking reconstructions of Paris, China, and the jungles of deepest Africa. When you saw those places, you knew someone had taken pride in getting it right. And that’s the note Atlantis hits. If Atlantis were a real place, and there were historical details to steep from and get right, this is what the Disney version of it would look like.
“Yahd lu goh nikh!“
And may I point out that Atlantis does indeed look awesome? If you want to see some amazing tech, look into how Disnyey’s Deep Canvas animation technique works. Without going into too much detail, this style allows animators to effectively paint a 3D world rather than a simple 2D backdrop, as seen in most traditional animated features. Disney had developed Deep Canvas a few years earlier, for Tarzan, where it was put to great effect showing speed and movement. In Atlantis it was used more to give a sense of scale and dimension. The final shot of the movie is a minute-long unbroken pullback of the entire city, filled with the gorgeous art of its buildings and waters, comprised of who knows how many layers of moving parts and effects. The director’s commentary boasts it as the most complicated shot in Disney history, and I just about believe it. As a man who appreciates fine animation, I’m saddened this shot isn’t every bit as recognizable as Lady and Tramp slurping spaghetti, or Rafiki holding Simba on Pride Rock.
It’s not just the scenery that’s impressive. Gone are the days of 50-foot PlayStation hydras; when Atlantis‘s animators used CGI to create objects and effects, the result was much more impressive and well-hidden than before. The film’s two major battle scenes are climactic and terrifying, a step-and-a-half above anything you could possibly do with just a paintbrush. In the first, the Ulysses flees from the Atlantean Leviathan, an enormous mechanical lobster that defends Atlantis from intruders. The second is a spectacular dogfight between Atlantean fish-ships and WWI-era airplanes in an exploding volcanic shaft. The energy and sense of danger in these sequences is terrific, even in those few frames where the 3D effects clash with the 2D characters.
Atlantis was approached more as a live action movie than an animated one. The animators even went as far as to emulate camera movements, framing each scene in the way it might appear if they were filming instead of drawing. Nowadays we call this sort of illusion “shaky cam syndrome” and groan about its pervasiveness, but remember: we’re still in 2001 here. The technique hasn’t been hammered into our consciousness yet, and besides, it’s an animation effect, not someone for-real shaking a camera. These guys were creating the illusion of an illusion.
And though it’s not a musical, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Atlantis‘s musical score. In fact…
“Now Brick,” you say, “surely that’s an exaggeration. What about Beauty and the Beast? The Lion King?” Yes yes, both of which were musicals. That’s the difference, to me: the score of those films hangs overtop a skeleton of lyrics and vocalization. To have a musical piece really bring you into the world of a movie, to come to define that movie in your mind, is something Disney has been very good at since before any of us were born. Atlantis is no exception to this rule. It pulls it off without the benefit of lyrics. Not only that, but the soundtrack also incorporates sounds that are unmistakably Atlantean. This must have created all the same challenges as the design of the visuals or the language. What kinds of music would Atlanteans make? And how can that be incorporated into a story about the modern world catching up to it?
Back in the day, when we were jobless mopes with not much to do but lay around and watch the same movies over and over, we were hogging a friend’s PS2 while he slept in the next room. Apparently we had the volume up too loud, because he came in scolding us: “Are you guys watching Unbreakable again?” (Unbreakable being one of the movies we would watch over and over.) Well, no, we were watching Atlantis, but that led to a brief discussion about how the main themes of the two movies were similar. A brief IMDB search later revealed, yep, same guy: James Newton Howard. One of those rare Hollywood composers who can attach his music to a movie so well that the two become inseperable. Once you’ve seen Atlantis you will always know its theme music, because it will attach itself to your cerebral cortex without the assistance of snappy rhymes.
“Paper clips. Big ones.”
When you’re a jobless mope who sits around with his friends watching the same movies over and over, you tend to look for different qualities than most normal people do. I mean, you still like plot and characters and cool effects, but the real jackpot lies in a movie that is endlessly quotable. Back in the day my gaming group was capable of holding entire conversations consisting of nothing but lines from Clerks and Boondock Saints. I think the reason Atlantis made it into our DVD rotation, when no other Disney film did, was because its script is chock full of grade-A dynamite movie quote gold.
While the main characters of the film are rounded and somewhat bland, the supporting cast is quirky and charming and, well, fun. None of them are realistic, but then, that’s the point. What kind of people are going to be on the front line of a mission that plunges towards the bottom of the sea and into the Earth’s crust? Why, people whose personalities are larger than life. A man who sees the face of god in explosions. A squat little creature who is sexually attracted to dirt. An old lady so jaded and cynical that she would rather burst into flames than crack a smile. Here are just a few choice samples that stayed in our lexicon for a number of years:
“I got yer four basic food groups: beans, bacon, whiskey and lard!”
“Watch me make Rhode Island dance.”
“This here’s a good place not to be.”
Hmm… come to think of it, those are all Cookie’s quotes. Well, he didn’t get all the good lines.
Aside from quotability, though, what you want in a supporting cast is a bunch of characters who can actually carry the weight of the plot. Something it can rest on, see, while the heroes and villains are steering it around. The crew of the Ulysses is more than happy to oblige in this regard. They stay in the background until needed, step forward for gags and background exposition only to the degree which is necessary, and each put just the right spin on their featured scenes.
There’s a layer of characterization here unique to Atlantis, too. All of these characters have to be capable of a double-cross. They’re mercenaries, and as a result they have to clash with Milo when he realizes their leader, Commander Rourke, doesn’t have Atlantis’s best interests at heart. The characters have to be introduced in a way that makes you like them, even though you know they’re only in it for the money. That way, when they pull their guns and blast the door down, you’re every bit as betrayed as Milo is, without feeling like the characters are acting out of turn. Of course they don’t stay bad — otherwise the emotional investment from earlier in the movie would have no payoff. So they have to switch back in a way that is equally believable. The movie creates this inner conflict between wealth and morality for six separate characters.
They’re not worse lovable animal pals from traditional Disney flicks, but they are very different. This is another spot where Atlantis takes its cues from live action rather than animation. The background cast aren’t cute and lovable; they’re the types of people who would be played by Steve Buscemi and J.K. Simmons. They help give Atlantis a more grown-up flavor than if, say, Milo had a monkey assistant and Kida could talk to dolphins.
“A thousand years ago you would have slain them on sight.”
Disney gets about two-point-eight billion reasons a year to disagree with me on this, but I think the whole Disney Princess franchise is a mistake. What they do is, they make this masterpiece of a film with a wonderful, memorable female lead… then they stick her in a dress and make her sing vapid songs about birthdays and tea parties in order to sell backpacks and plastic fairy wands. Yeah yeah, I realize that’s just how the business works, and that merchandising is a huge part of every major movie release. It’s just, at some point, you’re damaging your own characters beyond what I consider acceptable.
Kida alone was spared the torment of this soulless zombie existence. It’s not that I want her starring in a fanciful activity book about stringing Christmas lights, it just seems like once you’ve established there’s no line you won’t cross to wring another nickel out of your beloved characters you might as well jam in as many as will fit. Maybe it has something to do with that scene where Kida kicks a man in the balls, pulls a knife on a second man, then kicks him in the balls just for good measure. Hmm… but then, Mulan killed a whole army by blowing up a mountain, and she’s right there at the tea party. So maybe violence isn’t the answer.
Well, Atlantis is due for a Blu-ray release this summer. Maybe they’ll follow it up with a “How to Speak Atlantean” Sing-a-long video starring Kida in a ballgown. Perhaps a duet with Ariel? Our Friend the Leviathan? This… this probably isn’t worth thinking about to the degree that I have done so.
It took a lot of work, but I managed to at least pry the hinges off that angry metal box I had built for myself in 2001, where I drew bright red lines around the things I like and flung cowpies at anyone on the other side of them. I have fighting games and first person shooters on my game shelf, for crying out loud. And anime on my movie shelf. That I bought! With my own money! Because I wanted it!
Mostly, though, I hope Atlantis isn’t forgotten because I want another Disney film like it, someday. One that’s a little more grown-up, a little less song-and-dance-y, with slightly more complex characters and situations. And I want it drawn by hand, please, if that’s okay. I feel a bit like Disney looked back at The Black Cauldron and said, “Okay, we messed that up, but I’m sure we’ll get it right this time,” and then didn’t. I don’t want the next guys to look back at Atlantis and give up before they even start.
And on the off chance there are still people out there who are angry at this movie for being too much like Castle in the Sky, I say this: I own a copy of Castle in the Sky, and it is a wonderful movie in lots of ways Atlantis isn’t. But you may assuage your fears. The two DVDs do not come out of their boxes and fight when your back is turned. Watching Atlantis won’t cause you to like Castle less. And, perhaps best of all, nobody gets into heated “subs vs. dubs” debates about Disney films. I mean, that’s gotta be worth something.