Disney Animated Features
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Release Date: 15 June 2001
Atlantis: The Lost Empire is unlike any other animated feature Disney has released. It is most similar to the adventure films The Black Cauldron, The Great Mouse Detective, and The Rescuers Down Under, but Atlantis emphasizes the action -- enough so to get a PG rating from the MPAA. It is only the second Disney Animated Feature to do so -- Cauldron also had a PG rating, but it probably would get a G if released today.
Atlantis proves -- or should prove -- to mainstream American audiences something anime fans have long known: that animated films can be in any genre one wishes. They don't have to be musicals, although most have been. They can be concerts, like Fantasia 2000, comedies like The Emperor's New Groove, or action/adventure like Atlantis.
And what a ride Atlantis provides. In 1914, young Milo Thatch, a linguist currently working as a janitor at the Smithsonian, is trying to continue his beloved grandfather's research into the lost city of Atlantis. He even believes he can decipher the ancient Atlantean language. Yet the museum refuses to fund his crazy-sounding ideas for an expedition to seek out The Shepherd's Journal, a very old book that he is certain holds the key to finding Atlantis.
But Milo is summoned by an old friend of his grandfather's, the eccentric millionaire Preston B. Whitmore. Whitmore had helped fund the elder Thatch's expedition to find the Journal, and, unknown to anyone else, it had been a success. The book, written in Atlantean, was unusable, but Milo is able to read it and determine the most likely location of the lost city. Whitmore then reveals his well-underway plans for an expedition to find the city.
Many of the crew members had gone with Milo's grandfather to find the Journal, and they're eager to continue the work. But they soon discover that this will be no ordinary archaeological expedition -- the Atlanteans are still alive and not eager to have visitors. The crew must overcome the Atlanteans' fear, and even treachery from within their own ranks, to discover the secret of Atlantis and save a dying people.
There's so much more to the story -- some comedy, some tragedy, some romance -- but I can't cover it all here. It's an original story from Disney, and it's very well done. I feel obligated to point out that there has been some controvesy over the story. Apparently it bears some strong resemblence to the anime series Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water. Unfortunately, I can't really address the issue, having never seen the show.
The voice cast is positively stellar. Let's start with Milo, voiced by Michael J. Fox as a timid but intelligent and principled young man. Frasier's John Mahoney plays Whitmore, a fairly small role. James Garner is Commander Rourke, captain of the sub and leader of the expedition. Claudia Christian is Susan Ivanova -- er, I mean, Helga Sinclair -- the tall and beautiful yet stern and no-nonsense Russian first officer. Cree Summer, who appeared on TV's A Different World but is primarily a voice actress, is the Atlantean princess Kida, Milo's love interest.
Let's see, who else... Leonard Nimoy is suitably regal and wizened as the Atlantean king, Kida's father. Don Novello, aka Father Guido Sarducci, is the sarcastic Italian explosives expert Vinny Santorini. Florence Stanley plays the chain-smoking communications officer Wilhelmina Packard, and the late Jim Varney, in his last film role, is the ship's cook. The main crew also includes a disgusting Frenchman named 'Mole' Moliere (Corey Burton), an excavation expert; the feisty teenage Latina engineer Audrey Ramirez (Jacqueline Obradors); and the African-American ship's doctor, Dr. Joshua Sweet (Phil Morris).
All of the voice actors do an outstanding job, from Moliere's dirt-obsessed ravings to Sweet's fast-talking to Milo and Kida's adept handling of the Atlantean language. Incredibly, Disney took some flak for having such a racially diverse cast (a Russian, an Italian, a Frenchman, a black man, and a Latina are all senior crew members). In 1914, they say, such racial harmony would never have been possible. Yet, Disney has taken even more criticism in the past for not showing any racial diversity -- after all, Dr. Sweet is the first black person depicted in one of Disney's animated features (excepting the two Fantasias). It would seem that Disney was going to receive criticism no matter how they handled it.
Disney did an amazingly thorough job of creating the back story for this film. They hired Marc Okrand, creator of the Klingon language, to create the (sadly under-utilized) Atlantean language -- so you know it's internally consistent and really does have some relation to the Romance and Germanic languages (as discussed briefly in the film). Disney's official web site for the film was fantastic -- a treasure trove of information. Brief dossier files on the cast members (including their full names), an incredibly detailed history of The Shepherd's Journal, a discussion of the Atlantean language and alphabet, and a comprehensive file of all sorts of evidence pointing to Atlantis' existence, with annotations by Milo Thatch himself. It all felt very real. There was more, but it is sadly gone now, since Disney only supplies official sites for current and upcoming releases.
Unfortunately, as a non-musical, Atlantis is not likely to do well awards-wise. Hopefully, it'll pick up some Annie Awards, but Academy Award nominations seem unlikely.
Atlantis is a wonderful film, but it has been unfortunately disparaged by those who think Disney should stick with musicals. Its box office take may have been harmed somewhat by the recent release of Shrek, but only because people fail to realize the value in exploring new genres for animation. It's not a 'great' film by historical standards, but it is a revolutionary one for the field of animation, and it's a lot of fun to boot. Action, intrigue, mysticism, romance, and just enough comedy to keep things moving -- what more could you want?
Information for the Disney Animated Features series of nodes comes from the IMDb (www.imdb.com), Frank's Disney Page (http://www.fpx.de/fp/Disney/), and the dark recesses of my own memory.
14 March 2002: Good news! I discovered that the meat of Disney's web-site back story for this film, which I mentioned above as being gone, still exists! Go to (http://disney.go.com/disneyvideos/animatedfilms/atlantis/flash/index.html) and click on "Enter Atlantis" and browse through the extensive information found there.
11 February 2003: Atlantis was completely snubbed at the Academy Awards. Even the presence of a new category, Best Animated Feature didn't get Atlantis a nod; there were only three nominations and they went to Shrek (the winner), Monsters, Inc. (a worthy nomination), and Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius (words fail me). The film had several Annie nominations but lost out to Shrek and The Emperor's New Groove.