This review of Disney’s ATLANTIS: THE LOST EMPIRE was written upon the film’s release in 2001 and originally appeared on the website Anime Jump.
Some anime fans are taking a page out of the “Lion King” handbook and crying “ripoff” at Disney’s film ATLANTIS, claiming similarities between it and the 1989 Gainax series NADIA: SECRET OF BLUE WATER. However, fact is ATLANTIS has about as much to do with NADIA as it would have to do with ANY series dealing with Finding Lost Atlantis Under The Sea. Okay, there is a blue healing gem plot device thing, that’s a pretty direct swipe. But otherwise forget it. ATLANTIS doesn’t even have Captain Nemo in it, and there isn’t any of that business of secret agents and conspirators running around the surface world that seems to be in ALL these lost undersea empire films - check out Atragon or Latitude Zero sometime.
The real problem is that ATLANTIS is an oddity even among modern Disney films. It’s a throwback to the Bad Days, an atavistic relic from the days before The Mouse learned how to make animated films that appealed to modern audiences. In other words, this movie is VERY 1980s.
The figure animation is full of over-expressive facial contortions and that flippety-floppy crap Don Bluth used to use to hide his lack of ideas. There are a lot of old people and dark greys and browns, and a cat straight out of OLIVER&CO. or FOX AND THE HOUND or some other dank resume-filler. The character designs themselves are by themselves fine, but no two of them look as if they belong in the same film. Most studios hire a guy, ONE guy, to design characters and keep the look consistent, but not ATLANTIS, where one person’s traditional Disney and another person looks like an Aeon Flux extra and another one is a graffitti caricature.
And while I’m on the subject of characters; ATLANTIS shows Disney taking a bold step into the 1980s by including a racially mixed cast of adventures, all of whom are painful caricatures, if not outright stereotypes (the French guy doesn’t bathe! Isn’t that FUNNY?!), all of whom turn out to be brave, stalwart, and true. Except of course for the two white Americans, who are evil and die horribly. Sure, the hero is a white guy, but he’s a nerd, so he doesn’t count.
Do you think the Disney animators are kinda working out some high school traumas when they give us a dramatic climax featuring a big, tough, alpha-male military guy beating up on a skinny, pale, bespectacled weenie-boy? I do.
I would say something about the Atlantean princess, whatever her name is, only the most charitable thing I can think of to say is that she probably won’t be joining the ranks of Famous Disney Princesses any time soon. Blue hair, head consistently drawn too large, and has a blue gem that heals wounds, except when it’s not convenient to the plot. Oh, and apparently she’s eight thousand years old. Which leads me to question exactly what the deal is with the city of Atlantis. Atlantean crowd scenes are carefully orchestrated to show as many cute little toddler Atlanteans as possible, because they’re that kind of perfect, untroubled by evil capitalistic Western society-culture that automatically has lots of smiling children around. So it begs the question, if the Atlanteans never die, but can have children, how come in the eight thousand years they’ve been on the bottom of the ocean they haven’t overpopulated themselves into complete extinction? Maybe the toddlers are eight thousand years old too and nobody ever ages. How’d you like to be that kid’s mom - changing eight thousand years worth of diapers? Now THAT’S what I call paradise, for some kind of sick freaking diaper fetishist, maybe, but not for me, thanks.
I think they’re cannibals, that’s what they are. Either that or they have some sort of Logan’s Run public execution type deal going on. Closed society, folks - something’s gotta give SOMEWHERE.
Actually this is the kind of film where stuff just happens, where every plot element falls through if you give it a moment’s thought, where the evil mercenaries get their comeuppance but the guy who HIRES the evil mercenaries is somehow still a good guy, where the only reason something is mentioned or shown is to make sure you remember it when it becomes convenient to the plot.
With none of the witty banter or pop-culture gags that have made recent Disney films so watchable, it’s obvious that this film is their attempt to ‘catch up’ with Japanese animation. The script, by Hollywood veteran Tab Murphy -best known among fans for his abortive scripts for WATCHMEN and STAR BLAZERS - never strays far from familiar territory. If you've ever seen a Doug McClure film and then watched a Japanese cartoon, you've seen ATLANTIS. “We’ll give ‘em flashy effects, chicks with blue hair, big machines, and a plot you could drive trucks through! They’ll love it!” they said. And this would have worked… in 1987. If they’d released this film fourteen years ago the Mouse would be where the Japanese are now - producing entertaining and innovative works that set new standards in animation. As it is, ATLANTIS is a day late and a dollar short. Instead of having Mike Mignola work on mechanical designs – which are great - , they should have just given him all the money for a HELLBOY feature. (Which somebody did, a few years later, and it was a big hit. Dave wins again!) – ed.
That’s not to say this film is a complete washout. It’s one of the few Disney films where the “funny” supporting cast is actually funny. Hiring comedians like Don Novello, who’s easily the most memorable character in the film, is a trend that should continue. The meat-and-potatoes mechanical stuff is gutsy and shows a lot of promise - the second quarter of the film is mostly submarines battling giant robot lobsters and mechanical moles digging in the bowels of the Earth, that sort of thing, and the movie shows it can handle this material with the best of them. Plus - and I cannot emphasize this enough - there are NO funny animal sidekicks and NO songs, which gets a few points in my book.
Still, there’s a big chunk of soul missing from the center of ATLANTIS. It’s ultimately a cynical and heartless film made up of bits and pieces of other films. Don’t believe me? This movie has a CITIZEN KANE swipe in it, okay? It’s an exercise in beating the Japanese that, like Disney’s OTHER summer “blockbuster” PEARL HARBOR, does the most damage to itself.