Remember The Black Cauldron? That slightly weird, plot-heavy fantasy that made no money for Disney with impressive design but nothing noticeably Disneyish? Well, Disney didn’t apparently, because they were at it again in the 00s with Atlantis: The Lost Empire, a film that shares the adventurous, fantasy DNA and emphasis on plot over character or, well, gaining an audience. It’s not quite as strange and not nearly as dark as Cauldron, but is still Disney’s attempt at worldbuilding and creating a mythology in a way that their more traditional fairy tales don’t. It also goes pretty insane towards the end However, also like the unfairly maligned 80’s obscurity, Atlantis: The Lost Empire is actually pretty decent. It’s no way near a classic, but it’s a good deal more entertaining than something like Dinosaur, as it crammed with events and contains some interesting designs.
The story, for the majority of you that haven’t actually seen it, is set in 1914, where a young museum intern dreams of completing his father’s work and finding the legendary lost city. He leads a group of slightly surly, slightly suspicious experts in various areas, down a sinkhole in the sea to find it. Once he gets there, however, it’s not quite as simple getting out, especially given some ulterior motives of the crew. Milo learns leadership, falls in love and beats the baddies – who they are won’t be a surprise to anyone who has ever seen a film before.
There’s an admirable Jules Vernian sense of adventure to the film, abetted by some inventive, CG augmented steampunk designing. This is old, old school sci-fi, and starts a continued studio interest in the genre – they followed this up with Lilo and Stitch and Treasure Planet, both of which are even more sci-fi based than this (later Chicken Little continued the 00s trend). The design is the strongest element of the film, all pistons, drills and clanking metal. The Atlanteans themselves have built an impressive world of ancient mech that is all powered by a a mysterious blue light. The film as a result often looks incredible. It’s not particularly original, but it is arresting.
In this sense it feels, at times, like Disney’s attempt at a Studio Ghibli film, most particularly Laputa: Castle in the Sky, containing that film’s eye for inventive means of transport, a mythical destination that few believe in, giant robots and underground shenanigans. It’s not as good, but very few films are – either way, it’s a marked change in tone for the studio, focussing more on creating an impressive, well rounded world than they previously have done. What separates a Ghibli from Atlantis, however, are that the design and beauty support the film as opposed to dominate it. Beyond the aesthetic elements of the film, Atlantis struggles.
The group of misfits that Milo travels with to the underwater kingdom are a crudely drawn group of racial stereotypes that don’t extend beyond their initial one line descriptions. Admittedly, the same accusation could be leveled at Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but somehow the group here are even more crudely drawn than Grumpy and Dopey. Perhaps it’s the fact that they aren’t inherently interesting – let’s just say the mechanic would be played by Michelle Rodriguez if this was live action. There’s one scene of obligatory ‘character development’ where they reveal their motivations for being on the journey that has some forced attempts at humour and falls painfully flat. They regularly churn out direlogue that clangs louder than the steampunk engines. The lead double act of Milo and Kida are hardly better – although the latter surely deserves a place in the Princess canon? She’s better than Cinderella at any rate.
The film also isn’t really about anything beyond its plot. It just zips from event to event without really letting the film breathe. There’s barely any text for their to be subtext beneath, so the result is a thematically dissatisfying film that doesn’t hold interest beyond the surface of the narrative – and means you’ll probably forget it after it has finished as well. The more damaging result is that there is no real emotion to the film, it all passes by without engaging the head or heart. So you may be dazzled temporarily by Disney throwing everything into the art and design department, you will be left longing that they had spent a little more time on the script. They clearly didn’t notice as the exact same problems plague Treasure Planet, only two films later.