2001 saw blockbusters like Shrek and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider dominate the box office and spawn franchises and sequels. The same summer, Disney released Atlantis: The Lost Empire a traditionally animated movie with elements of CGI that told the story of the lost city of Atlantis, its rediscovery, and its return to glory. The movie quietly bombed at the box office making $185 million against its budget of $90-120 million.
The question is, is Atlantis: The Lost Empire worth revisiting? In the years since its release, the movie has garnered a cult following. The unique visuals coupled with the star voice acting cast and a compelling plot make this movie well worth a rewatch and a re-evaluation 20 years later. It combines the influence of Jules Verne with the comic book artistic influence of Mike Mignola creating an entirely unique experience for the time.
The movie begins by showing audiences the origins of the myth of Atlantis and how it became a lost city. An explosion rocks the city, sending a tsunami towards it and endangering the entire population. As the tsunami nears its inevitable target the Queen of Atlantis merges with a crystal floating above the city and as her daughter Kida (Cree Summer) watches she merges with it, becoming a dome that encapsulates and protects the city as the wave crashes down upon it, burying it under the ocean and beginning the myth.
Fast forward 8,000 years to 1914 and Milo Thatch (voiced by Michael J. Fox), a linguist working at the Smithsonian discovers the potential location for a text known as The Shepherd's Journal which appears to contain directions to the missing legend. Laughed at and rejected by the museum's board of directors, Milo is introduced to eccentric millionaire Preston B. Moore, who it turns out has been holding on to The Shepherd's Journal, which was found by Milo's grandfather Thaddeus Thatch and who agrees to fund an expedition to reach Atlantis. What follows is an old-fashioned adventure with a modern look and feel, driven by diverse and interesting characters that are easy to become attached to.
Initially manned by a crew of soldiers and specialists 200 strong, the Nautilus-inspired vessel the Odyssey encounter the Leviathan, guardian to Atlantis, which leaves their main ship decimated and the crew depleted. The collection of strange individuals left round out the motley crew. Commander Rourke (James Garner), Italian demolition expert Vinny Santorini (Don Novello), Dr. Strongbear Sweet (Phil Morris), French digging enthusiast Mole (Corey Burton), Wilhelmina Packard (Florence Stanley), Audrey Rocio Ramirez (Jacqueline Obradors), Lieutenant Helga Katrina Sinclair (Claudia Christian) and Jebidiah Allardyce "Cookie" Farnsworth (Jim Varney in his final film role) round out the cast of characters, all with unique designs and personalities. The influence of Mike Mignola's art style is plain to see. From the clouds in the sky to the angular character design, the shapes and color palettes echo Mignola's work in Hellboy, setting the visual style of the film apart from previous Disney releases.
The main downside of the box office failure of Atlantis: The Lost Empire is the lost chance for further exploration of the universe. Although the sequel, Atlantis: Milo's Return was released straight to DVD in 2003, many more planned expansions were canceled after the box office failure of the film. Initially, Disney planned to release a television series named Team Atlantis and had initially planned an underwater attraction at Disneyland which was quietly canceled. The sequel hasn't garnered the same nostalgia and retrospective reverence but that could be due to Disney's lack of faith in the property.
Looking back now, Atlantis: The Lost Empire has much in common with Titan A.E, a feature that shares many similarities and was released by Fox Studios and directed by Don Bluth in 2000. Both films utilized traditional and CGI animation had science fiction elements and contained characters that had standout designs. Both also focused on a small crew of people thrown together in the interest of discovery and adventure. At the time, these 2 movies did not perform well at the box office but are regarded now as mistreated classics deserving of higher standing. With the wave of live-action Disney remakes that have been released in the last few years, Atlantis: The Lost Empire might have a new lease of life on the way.
In 2019 a report tied director Guillermo Del Toro to a live-action version of the film, a report he later denied on Twitter. Despite this rumors persist that a live-action remake is on the horizon, with the internet passionately advocating for Tom Holland to be cast as Milo in the currently non-existent project because Tom Holland is currently being cast in everything. Although the live-action versions of Disney classics have tended to fall flat if Atlantis were to be given the live-action treatment, the sci-fi elements, and more grounded historical setting could definitely lend to making it a success.
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