Jab’s Disney Reviews: Atlantis The Lost Empire

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ATLANTIS: THE LOST EMPIRE (2001):
Written by:
 Tab Murphy, Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise, Joss Whedon, Bryce Zabel & Jackie Zabel

-This is an interesting one. Atlantis came comes on the tail end of the Renaissance (ie. well after it ended, but only by a couple years), so the hype was less extreme, the expectations were lowered, and the money was gonna be less. Even so, they did some REALLY high-tech stuff with this one, adding a bunch of CGI monsters into a film that homaged the early-20th century’s idea of sci-fi & fantasy (ie. Jules Verne). It’s an interesting looking movie, with Hellboy‘s Mike Mignola doing a lot of the design work (you can tell in a bit of the stuff, though the characters were turned more Disney-fied while looking only slightly angular- the “Disney House Style” tends to overwhelm even the most distinctive of artists).

Basically, the whole deal is nerdy Milo Thatch (Michael J. Fox doing his “shy guy” voice) gets sent on a voyage to the Lost City of Atlantis (something his grandfather was working on for years before he died) with a “Rag-Tag Bunch of Misfits” and a military dude named Rourke in command. They lose damn near the entire expeditionary force to a giant Lobster/Leviathan, and meet up with the xenophobic, ambiguously-brown natives who’ve been trapped beneath the ocean’s floor for thousands of years. They’re to be sent home, but Milo makes nice with the local Princess Kida, and there’s a double-cross from Milo’s partners, and it turns into a giant fight beneath the surface of the Earth.

The movie’s quite decent, with some great acting (especially from Fox), and is interesting visually, though it suffers from a handful of flaws. The plot just FLIES along- going from “We’re in Atlantis” to “we’re TAKING THEIR ENERGY SOURCE FOR $$$$” in all of five minutes while barely giving Milo & Kida time to interact, and they spent all this effort on making a unique society in Atlantis and then spent barely ten minutes enjoying it on-screen. It throws the entire pacing off dramatically, especially since it’s mostly just people running from stuff for half the movie. The action scenes utilize state-of-the-art animation, yet it involves too much stuff going on at once, making things into kind of a mess so you can’t appreciate THAT, either. The pacing means many characters (and it’s a BIG cast, with Jim Varney’s cook charater getting a ton of ad-libbed dialogue despite him not being in a combat role) get very little characterization- Kida in particular is on-screen an in-character for almost no time at all. Because none of the movie is allowed to breathe, a lot of it lacks impact.

And then there’s accusations that it ripped off huge chunks of Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water, but the directors deny it, and I haven’t seen the original so I can’t say for sure. But screenshots are pretty damning to the point of “well SOMEBODY must have seen this”.

An Italian friend noted:Here in Italy Atlantis got a very bad reputation because a lot of people — including myself — saw it as an attempt from Disney to capitalize on a well known Japanese series: Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water is immensely popular here, especially among people born in the ’80s.
Since there was already a controversy about the Lion King being a little too close to Osamu Tetzuka’s Kimba the White Lion. The striking similarity between Atlantis and Nadia caused the movie to be vastly underrated and generally shunned, even by major animations nerds.

Another friend added:You’d need to check Wikipedia for the specifics, but Milo is kind of a grown-up Jean Raltique (except he’s American instead of French, an archaeology geek with some mechanics knowledge instead of a full-blown inventor (Jean created such things as an long-range steampunk airplane *on the late 1800’s* and then some Professor (as in the one of Gilligan’s Island)-caliber stuff on a filler arc) and the ‘fall apart around a girl’ jokes were lacking in Ecchi), while Kida is… well… Nadia (except that grown-up and with a hunter/gatherer/warrior culture background instead of being a circus acrobat… and being less of a Tsundere).

This website here features easily the most damning comparisons: http://am.animatedviews.com/AtlantisNadia.html

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Milo is the main protagonist of Atlantis and stands a bit apart from the others, because he’s basically Peter Parker’s nerdier brother, in a sea of Handsome Leading Men and Tragic Monsters. He’s played with likable aplomb by Michael J. Fox, who did a REALLY good job here. You understand immediately that he tries hard and is non-threatening, but ends up alienating people without coming across as annoying TO THE AUDIENCE. Not an easy thing for the “quirky dork” character to pull off. It helps that he’s got the classic “nerd” appearance, with the big glasses and scrawny body, and doesn’t do the “Urkel/Wallowitz” thing and try to flirt with the girls in an incompetent manner. The whole “I swim pretty girlPRETTY GOOD- I swim pretty good” thing is a great example of the difference (and is probably a Joss Whedon line, knowing him). He’s not much in a fight (check his combat against Rourke- Rourke just grabs Milo’s fist and slams it back into his face), but he’s more athletic than you’d think (climbing up that damn super-pedestal would NOT be easy, and he can swim “pretty good” as he says), and has a wealth of linguistics knowledge (of course, it helps that the Atlanteans automatically speak all languages because of Magic- well that or Atlantean being a root language, but that makes no sense).

A funny thing that I associate with the character is Wiki sites, because APPARENTLY someone edits his friggin’ Disney Wiki page at least once a week, because I’ve been receiving constant updates from it since like 2013. I’m too lazy to unsubscribe from it or something, lol.

About the Performer: Edmonton’s local boy Michael J. Fox is and was a big name and a heck of a “get” for a nebbish character. Despite being super-tiny and childlike, Fox was VERY popular with girls, looking about as nonthreatening and cute as humanly possible during the course of Family Ties, which made him a huge star (at its peak, the show drew 1/3 of American households every week, which you’ll never see again in a sitcom). And unlike MANY Teen Stars and ’80s celebrities… he JUST. KEPT. WORKING. He famously played Marty McFly in the Back To The Future trilogy, which resulted in eternal classics that ensure he’ll ALWAYS be recognized. He didn’t even stop there- I thought Teen Wolf was really awful (I just don’t get it), but it ALSO did amazingly well (leading to a TV series, which I remember seeing a lot of- right place, right time).

He segued that into a career as an older actor, but that went a bit iffy (a few big hits, and then a few things like Doc Hollywood and The Frighteners, both of which disappointed)… until Spin City, a clever comedy about the Deputy Mayor of New York, hit big and made him an established TV star again. The show did AMAZINGLY well, and I really loved it, but his career famously took a hit when he revealed a diagnosis with Parkinson’s Disease, which has turned him into more of a “Cause Celebrity”, as the disabling illness has kept him from much regular work. He had to leave his show, usually doing bit parts from then on (imprsesively so in Scrubs, where his charater has crippling OCD, despite being the God of Doctors otherwise, and loses his shit out of frustration), and voice acting (like for Stuart Little). He’s become an activist for causes related to his condition (you REALLY don’t wanna have a disease that DOESN’T have a celebrity who suffers from it), especially stem cell research. His crumbling physical condition is VERY apparent to people who see him these days, and it’s a pretty tragic thing to watch, especially since it’s been happening for twenty years. He missed the Calgary Comic Expo over it, and was barely legible at a conference my mother attended.

SUPPORTING CREW MEMBERS:
-There were a ton of Navy-type guys on this mission, but most of them were killed when their ship was attacked by the Leviathan. Of the remainder, only a handful were given any characterization, turning into a really large supporting cast for a Disney film (which usually keeps it a bit smaller). There were still some generic Mook Crewmen, but they were never anything other than background, and were soon killed in another set of explosions in the film’s climax.

The ones here were given some characterization, and were part of Rourke’s plan to capture the Atlantean Power Source to sell for profit, thus betraying Milo, whom they’d only recently come to like (he was kind of a putz at first, screwing up and being incompetent). Milo guilts them over this, but once they see that capturing Kida/The Source will soon kill all of Atlantis, they switch sides and start helping Milo to get her back. These are the characters who see combat or prove themselves quite useful- there’s also Cookie the cook (not good at cooking), and the chain-smoking communications officer Packerd.

Of course, it goes without saying they’re a Rag-Tag Band of Misfits, and ludicrously-multiracial given the time period (and the second-in-command is a WOMAN). Most of them are actually quite competent, however, and do some good fighting with the Atlantean Fighter Bikes.

My Italian friend, again:Mole, Vinny and Helga are another of the reasons why a lot of people compared Atlantis to Nadia. The “main sidekicks” to Nadia and Jean were a team of thieves fromed by Grandis (a noblewoman fallen into hard times due to a terrible marriage), Sanson (her family chaffeaur and resident strongman) and Hanson (a fatso mechanic with a knack for creating absolutely over the top vehicles). In and of itself this trio of bumbling thieves with a heart of gold were already a double homage: Sanson and Hanson dressed like a palette swap of the Blues Brothers and the entire team dynamics were very close to the various “villain trios” of the Time Bokan series, with the boss-lady, the snarky strongman and the quirky mechanic. 

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GAETAN “MOLE” MOLIERE
-The Mole is your classic “Weird Character”, and acts all crazy around dirt, digging stuff up, getting angry when others mess up his dirt, etc. Your generic Comic Relief character- I never really got into him. His VA, Corey Burton, has made a career out of replacing Paul Frees in many of his roles (like Captain Hook & Mr. Smee, as well as the Ghost Host of The Haunted Mansion). He’s also The Mad Hatter, Dale in Rescue Rangers, and more- he gets a LOT of Disney work.

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“Hey, look! I made a bridge; it only took me eight seconds!”
-Vinny, after Milo commented on the beauty of an ancient stone column
VINCENZO “VINNY” SANTORINI
-Vinny is the “Ensemble Darkhorse” of the film, being a sarcastic, deadpan kind of guy, which is exactly the kind of thing that can make someone stand out in a Disney movie, where most people act “big”. He makes a lot of sarcastic remarks, jokes about Milo blowing up a bunch, and is the source of most of the laughs, really.

About the Performer: Don Novello is most famous for playing Father Guido Sarducci on Saturday Night Live for two years (spread out across five). I remember the character’s name, but… I can’t remember anything about him. The name was just REALLY memorable. Sarducci himself was popular enough to show up on numerous unrelated TV shows (Blossom, even!) and networks. The character actually pre-dates SNL itself, as he’d invented it for the nightclub circuit in the early ’70s. He was hired as a writer for SNL after Lorne Michaels read some of his letters as “Lazlo Toth”, a strange, obtuse fellow who would send correspondence to celebrities and politicians, acting generally absurd- many of the targets of his mockery had no idea they were being messed with! His biggest stunt was showing up at the Vatican and getting arrested, in-costume, for “impersonating a priest”. As Vinny in Atlantis, he was said to improvise many of his lines with a casual tone, pretty much stealing the show.

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DOCTOR JOSHUA STRONGBEAR SWEET
-Dr. Sweet is the son of a black soldier and a Native American medicine woman, and is the resident Doctor. His VA, Phil Morris, is best known for playing Jackie Chiles on Seinfeld, but has had a few other minor roles.

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AUDREY ROCIO RAMIREZ
-Audrey is the mechanic in this multiracial bunch (seriously- it’s 1914 and they added three non-white racial groups to this military operation), knowing a ton about mechanics, as well as being a little street tough with an oddly-square set of lips. In one of the darker parts of the movie, during the Leviathan attack she shuts off one of the sectors in Engineering to save the ship… visibly sending one of her co-workers to his death (he’s trapped behind the door as water floods in). SFDebris points out that her character literally does nothing particularly useful during the course of the movie, and is the only person in the crew not to.

About the Performer: Jacquelin Obradors has been in various shows in small roles, most notably NYPD Blue for four years. A Latina actress who ISN’T one of the big, famous ones, she really isn’t getting any major roles they don’t already snap up.

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LIEUTENANT HELGA SINCLAIR
-Helga is a bit unique- generally this type of character is the Femme Fatale, and she comes across as that in the opening bits of the movie. She wears a sexy dress (though the Disney censors forced them to put it further down her leg, because we all know that the upper leg is obscene) and talks all seductive to Milo… then immediately shifts into this hard-assed military woman in charge (in 1914?), generally taking Rourke’s side and making sarcastic remarks about Milo (“how is he still single?”). She’s with Rourke until the very end, when she is fatally injured by an acute case of Being Thrown Off A Goddamned Hot-Air Balloon when it starts getting weighted down. She gets her revenge on the boss-man with a nicely-placed Flare Gun, and is never seen again.

About the Performer: Claudia Christian is best-known for playing Ivanova in Babylon Five, and was typically “The Hot Girl” before that. Unusually, the show let an attractive woman play a pretty stodgy military figure, though gave her a rare lesbian subplot (I mean, think of the time period this show came out during). Her career outside of that has been pretty minor, and she confessed to having a drinking problem in the 2000s.

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COMMANDER LYLE TIBERIUS ROURKE
-Commander Rourke appears to be a bit of a genial old military guy at first, being strict but fair- he even tolerates Milo’s incompetent presence on their mission! However, his true colors are immediately revealed when he walks into the Royal Chamber, punches Leonard Nimoy in the stomach, and takes control of the culture’s power source, dooming thousands to a slow death. He blows off his teammates when they turn on him for this, then kills his OWN SECOND-IN-COMMAND when she starts weighing down their hot-air balloon. She gets a bit of revenge when she damages the thing in response, and he ends up getting a fairly grotesque fate- while beating the bejeezus out of the helpless Milo, he ends up merging with Kida’s “Life Energy” or whatever, but it turns him into a dark version of her, consuming his body and turning it into some kind of glowing rock-man. He makes one final lunge at Milo, his face full of rage and hatred (he’d pretty much snapped mentally by this point ANYWAYS, and that couldn’t have helped), and ends up sticking his head up too high into the propeller of their vessel, and he kersplodes into a dozen pieces.

As a Disney Villain, Rourke is pretty minor-league, though he’s fairly effective in being likable, then turning evil- James Garner did quite well. It’s just too bad he has too little screen-time, and doesn’t get some truly magnificent moments, because he might have been something.

About the Performer: James Garner was super-duper respected as an actor, and had a career that lasted far in excess of pretty much anyone else. He was a war hero (fighting in both WWII and Korea) who used his movie-star looks and great height to play many heroic characters, particularly in Maverick, which made him a star immediately. He was in the smash The Great EscapeThe Rockford Files (a successful TV show), and other things. Modern audiences most likely remember him from The Notebook, a fabled romance movie where he played the elderly version of Ryan Gosling’s character. Women LOVED it, and I heard from several dudes that it almost made them tear up, too, but I guess I have a mean old cynic’s heart, because I didn’t feel much about it (also, YOU CAN’T WILL YOURSELF TO DIE AT THE SAME TIME AS YOUR WIFE!). He died in 2011.

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PRINCESS KIDA (Kidagakash Nedakh)
-Kida is your standard “I want something MORE” Disney Princess for a bit, though little hints, like brandishing weapons at people or trying to gut a soldier with a knife, imply she’s a bit more hardcore (sadly, Disney Execs wanted a more peaceful, less-action girly one, so she doesn’t get a lot to do offensively). Like most of the cast, she suffers from the large group and doesn’t get as much development, though she’s inquisitive and spiritual, moreso than a lot of her people, who are merely attempting to survive with what little they have left (even her father is like this, though being voiced by Spock gives him a lot more gravitas). As a Princess, she’s spiritually-linked to the Heart of Atlantis that gives it all life, and is thus kind of a Living Macguffin as well, being kidnapped by Rourke and his goon squad.

The character, despite seemingly being based entirely around appealing to the male audience (she’s nearly always scantily-clad, wearing a bikini top and baring her legs quite often, in addition to the “Dark skin and white hair” look), hasn’t had much of a cultural impact, and Disney’s ignoring of Atlantis hasn’t help. So despite fitting the criteria by most estimations (though she inhabits a much more modern era than most), she is NOT an official “Disney Princess”.

About the Performer: Cree Summer has had a TON of work, largely thanks to a high-pitched, yet mobile, voice. She started out as Penny on Inspector Gadget, but has moved on to roles all over the place, like Susie Carmichael in Rugrats, Foxy in Drawn Together, and Elmyra in Tiny Toons. Kida is one of her only “Big Ticket” roles- something Disney is occasionally good about- hiring based off of talent instead of being well-known (Quasimodo, too, was less well-known). She’s a black woman, so fits the multi-ethnic-looking Kida. She does pretty well in her limited role at making up a new kind of accent, though she specializes in the occasional “Ethnic” character (I have a hard time not hearing Suzie Carmichael when she speaks at times, but she plays more seductive characters as well).

Reception & Cultural Impact:
-Given that it’s a straight-up action movie for large chunks, it was less marketable than more character-based Disney musical stories that people were used to, and the early 2000s were NOT a kind time for Action Movies (it’s part of what hurt Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s early career, when 10 years previous, he would have been HUGE- it took him another ten years to really get hit after hit), it’s not surprising that it disappointed at the box office. The movie failed to make its money back domestically. This makes it the first actual Box Office Bomb since The Rescuers Down Under in 1990- a very ignominious end for a very ambitious movie.

There was going to be an Atlantis TV series, but the disappointing box office meant that the idea was scrapped, and the few episodes produced were cobbled together for a Straight-To-DVD Sequel, Atlantis: Milo’s Return. And that remains the movie’s only legacy, as Disney more or less excommunicated it from their canon. Good luck finding ANYTHING themed around it in the Parks, or on their TV stations.

The movie’s attained a bit of notoriety since its release, however, largely among nerds who really liked the cool scenery and Jules Verne stuff (Verne is REALLY big in Europe, I’ve discovered). Kida of course went over VERY well with men, and there’s often jokes about how “Kida should be a Disney Princess!”, because, well… she’s a Princess. Her cool design would actually make her a stand-out member, but given how badly her movie did, I’m not seeing Disney try that until the Princess line is dying a slow death and they need ANYTHING to jolt it.

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