REALLY RUBBISH: Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)

Atlantis: The Lost Empire (USA, 2001)
Directed by Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise
Starring Michael J. Fox, Cree Summer, James Garner, Corey Burton

When reviewing children's films, there are two main approaches one can take. One is to review the film in question as first and foremost a piece of cinema, analysing its narrative and technical aspects and giving out recommendations on this basis. The other is to take a more moralistic view, imagining whether you would show a given film to your own children (real or hypothetical) on the basis of the messages or lessons that it contains.
Both approaches are problematic, insofar as they use adult language, knowledge and expectations of a medium to recommend something that was never intended for adults, at least not primarily. But either approach is infinitely preferable to the dim view that children are stupid enough to watch anything, and that a 'children's film' does not have to be as well-made as one intended for grown-ups. Whichever approach one takes, Atlantis: The Lost Empire is not worthy of any recommendation, being one of the laziest animated films in recent memory.
When I reviewed Treasure Planet three months ago, I drew a comparison between Disney and PIXAR in the early-2000s. I argued that while PIXAR were pushing the envelope of what mainstream animation could achieve, Disney were aggressively re-treading old ground, "trying to push the same old stuff overlaid with snazzier visuals." Since the Disney empire diversified in the 1950s, the animation department has had to fight for power against the cash cows of theme parks and merchandising - and the success of these arms has often influenced the output of Disney's more creative elements.
Apologists may defend Atlantis as a break from the Disney norm of fairy tales and princesses. But this argument holds no water, since in every other way the film is conventional to the point of utter contempt. The film is a relentless race to the bottom, treating its audience young and old like complete idiots and not offering up one original or creative idea in compensation. It's ironic that the film disappointed at the box office, considering that most of it feels like it was created to sell a toy rather than tell a story.
All this could be somewhat rationalised if the film were a straight-to-video project, or an episode of a TV series based on another Disney film. Most of us are aware of Disney's track record in this regard, and would therefore lower our expectations from expecting the best to hoping for something other than the very worst. But Atlantis comes from an original treatment by Joss Whedon, and is helmed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, the same team behind Beauty and the Beast. The only thing more painful than a bad film made by bad filmmakers is a bad film made by good filmmakers.
It's clear that Trousdale and Wise's strengths lie in adapting existing stories. Beauty and the Beast and The Hunchback of Notre Dame both come from reputable sources, and both successfully channel the sources' darkness for a younger audience. Atlantis, by comparison, is utterly aimless, floating from set-piece to set-piece without a map or rudder. For all the flack that Disney gets for its creative liberties in adaptation, its attempts at original material are often just as inept.
What makes this all the more painful is that there is so much potential within this story. The myth of Atlantis is a fascinating one which opens up all kinds of possibilities about different cultures, languages and technologies. Even if the myth were handed with kid gloves, this could have still have been a really fun adventure. The setup is an enticing blend of Jules Verne, Tintin and Indiana Jones, with Atlantis serving as the great, undiscovered 'other world' into which our heroes venture as the eyes of the audience.
But all of this potential is quickly squandered, thanks to poorly-drawn characters and terrible storytelling. All of the characters are flat and entirely one-dimensional - Milo is the well-meaning dork, Kida is the headstrong but naïve princess, Rourke is the blinkered military leader, and so on and so on. The writing is so lazy that there is actually a scene where most of the characters sit down and tell their backstories one at a time. Alfred Hitchcock once said that exposition was a bitter pill that had to be sugar-coated for audiences, and no amount of sweetness or visual beauty can make up for this particularly bitter pill.
As for the plot of Atlantis, it's deeply derivative to say the least. It is possible for a film to come from well-worn conventions and yet still offer something new - Indiana Jones is a brilliant example. But there comes a point when similarity to another work becomes so close that is borders on plagiarism or self-parody, and Atlantis falls firmly into the latter trap.
The plot is essentially the same as Pocahontas, with the central relationship between Milo and Kida having the same dynamic as John Smith and Pocahontas. The traveller or pioneer falls in love with the native's daughter, conflict ensues and they unite to save their two worlds. That would be fine, except that the lead-up to finding Atlantis takes far too long, with the film getting bogged down in needless distractions, lazy exposition or bad jokes. And that's before we address the use of language in the film: Disney commissioned Marc Okrand to create a whole new language for the Atlanteans to speak, only for the language barrier to be dealt with in the stupidest possible way (yes, worse than magic leaves).
The influence of Indiana Jones is writ large over Atlantis - the filmmakers even cited Raiders of the Lost Ark as their inspiration for shooting the film in widescreen. But if the Pocahontas similarities aren't enough to put you off, then you could easily transpose the plot of Last Crusade onto the film, to the point where the characters completely overlap.
Milo's decision to go after Atlantis is driven by the need to fulfil his father's dream - the same reason that Indy takes up the quest for the Holy Grail. Rourke is essentially Walter Donovan, appearing to be on the heroes' side but ultimately wanting the 'grail' for his own power. You could even argue that his assistant, Lieutenant Helga, doubles for Dr. Elsa Schneider - though the film doesn't imply that both father and son were attracted to her.
The difference between Last Crusade and Atlantis lies in the level of affection for the story and character archetypes. Indiana Jones is driven first and foremost by a deep-seated love for the fantasy and adventures genres. Even when the series became one of the biggest in film history, the films never felt like blatant cash-grabs on the part of the studios. Atlantis has creative talent and affection somewhere in it, but the film has been trampled on by uncreative minds, whether in marketing or middle management.
Internal logic is an important aspect in all fantasy stories, and Atlantis doesn't make a great deal of sense on either a physical or a mythological level. We may be able to laugh at the idea of sentient crystals after Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but in this context the film sets up the idea and then makes no effort to explain it. It's just another plot device, designed to take Kida out of the picture for a quick battle scene. The film is structured like an ADHD theme park ride, its goal being to keep you distracted for as long as possible so that you don't have the chance to stop and take in this potentially complex world - and then proceed to pick it apart.
This rollercoaster approach to storytelling also defeats the film's big trump card - its visuals. Atlantis was the first Disney film presented in 70mm since The Black Cauldron - another film that was brutally compromised by studio interference. The animation is very pretty, with a nice range of colours and tones underscored by shimmering, iridescent blues. But even the prettiest scenes aren't impressive because the editing is choppy and we don't care about the characters. There's very little use made of the widescreen presentation, and the 70mm format is thoroughly wasted.
Atlantis: The Lost Empire is one of Disney's most conspicuous and disappointing failures. It epitomises the studio's reputation for brand paranoia, taking a potentially interesting and entertaining premise and draining it of all creativity and elegance. The result is a crushingly dull and uninspired offering whose only function is to depress and reinforce bad feelings towards the company. It's awful, tedious, lazy and empty - and really, really stupid.



  1. Someday, I hope to read a critic's work where they at least attempt to find something good about whatever it is they're reviewing. Yes Disney could have made Atlantis WAY better. They made mistakes, a lot of mistakes . . . Doesn't everybody? I don't see why people like you can't just watch a movie to enjoy it, but no; you have to pick it apart, find all the faults and complain about them long and loud, and in a very snottily superior tone. Sure you make a lot of good points . . . but what's the point of the blatant and uncalled for bashing at the end? It just makes you seem a mean, sour, and probably lonely person who only knows how to spew hatred and ugliness, and who probably always will be, at least until you learn to see some good in the world. I hope you learn soon.

    I am truly sorry if this hurts your feelings, I know you are just doing your job, and I probably shouldn't bash you like this. I apologize.

  2. I think you'll find, if you take the time to read them, that the vast majority of my reviews are positive. It's also very possible to enjoy a film in spite of its flaws. But to ask someone to enjoy something and not think about it is basing asking someone to be stupid and anti-intellectual. Enjoyment should not come at the expense of intellectual engagement; they are not opposites but complimentary parts of the viewing experience.

    As for me trashing Disney - I feel I was completely fair. I'm sorry if I came across as "snootily superior", but I always expect the best from Disney, and feel I am therefore justified in being derisive when they fall short. The rest of your initial comment is just aimless personal attacks: suffice to say, it's very shallow and undermines your point.

    Finally, this is not my job. I don't earn a penny from this blog, it's all for fun. See, you can have fun through looking at things in detail :)

  3. Atlantis has a plethora of problems...plot holes and poor character development galore. I do feel a little bad that it gets bashed as much as it does; I've seen far more offensive things from Disney, hands down.

    Do you have any plans on reviewing Hunchback? I feel like it's so unfairly overlooked.

  4. I'll be reviewing Hunchback some time in the future, certainly - can't say when though. As for offensive - yes, Pecos Bill from Melody Time is worse than this, but having this much contempt for your audience is still offensive enough. Thanks for commenting :)

  5. Oh no, Atlantis is definitely deserving of the criticisms expressed in the review. The magical overcoming of the language barrier is especially jarring, as well as the characters with less personality than soggy cardboard. I'm usually lenient on flaws in animated films as long as the story doesn't suffer too much, but it can't be ignored here as the entire film's plot is incongruous.

    It's a little shocking that Trousedale and Wise made this as their other films felt like works of love, regardless of whether people were fans or not. This didn't have the same amount passion put into it.

    And no problem about commenting; thank YOU for taking the time to write the reviews. And no pressure about reviewing Hunchback; I was just a little curious as it was briefly mentioned in this review. :)

  6. It's certainly not hard to see why Trousedale and Wise left Disney soon afterwards. Thanks again for commenting :)

  7. This film need a far better idea then Milo is a jerk and his crew mates are now randomly villains for no other reason then greed storyline!. The only character I actually liked was Helga Sinclair and they left her fate to be not just be vague but very painful as well(the fall cripples her)and she disappears once the volcano awakes. I would love to know as to why the filmmakers felt the need to this to her character since she isn't dead!!!!!.It's just laziness on there part to have one there major marketed characters for this movie to be randomly take out of the film after saying her action one liner and then have the other characters forget she existed???????. Hopefully if this Atlantis ever gets a remake at Disney(I have feeling they will someday) then better choose a better storyline for it then the original(one that doesn't have to be the crew itself turning against each other for no reason) ,keeping the submarine, and an outside threat that would challage the crew to go to Atlantis for an actual mission as opposite dumb treasure hunt. It already sounds ten times better then the original.


Post a comment