To date, Disney has released 56 animated feature films. Their plots range from beautiful princesses singing about their troubles to a chicken claiming the sky is falling, but my favorite is based on the works of Jules Verne and the myth of a lost underwater city. “Atlantis: The Lost Empire,” released in 2001, is not only interesting in its divergence from traditional storytelling, but in its unique production and art style as well. These elements earn it a rightful place among my list of films.
First, I must describe the production elements of the film that make such an incredible experience. Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise and written by a seven-person team that includes the legendary Joss Whedon, the movie is inspired by Jules Verne’s stories. Verne’s stories include “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” “Around the World in Eighty Days” and “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.” This science-fiction adventure about the sunken city of Atlantis creates an engaging story with a message about the value of human life vs. wealth.
“Atlantis” was produced in a 70mm format, the first Disney film to have been produced so since 1985. During this time, audience interest was shifting towards CGI, clearly seen in the evolution of Disney princess movies. The movie used more CGI than any other of Disney’s hand drawn animations at the time, giving it a very unique style. The animation also adopted the art style of comic creator Mike Mignola, adding to Atlantis’ unmatched uniqueness. All of these artistic decisions resulted in visually astonishing animation.
“ . . . In a single day and night of misfortune, the island of Atlantis disappeared into the depths of the sea.” This 360 B.C. quote by Plato opens the movie, accompanied by music that creates an overall eerie start that sharply contradicts that of most Disney movies. When this screen fades, we witness the Atlantian military attempting to outfly a massive tidal wave on high-tech hovercrafts. As the camera follows a few ships making it to the center of the city, a panicked evacuation has already begun. Suddenly, a mysterious blue beam takes the Queen into the “Heart of Atlantis,” a floating crystal that protects the people. Once absorbed, a force field is cast over the inner portion of the city as the massive wave swallows the rest of the empire and surrounding land, sinking the center city into the sea.
We are then jumped forward to 1914, and are introduced to Smithsonian cartographer and linguist Milo Thatch. Thatch is determined to follow his late grandfather’s search for the lost city of Atlantis. After many failed attempts to obtain funding from the museum, millionaire Preston Whitmore, a friend of his grandfather, invites Thatch to go on an expedition to locate this civilization. Whitmore presents Thatch with an ancient book about Atlantis that his grandfather discovered before his death. Using this journal as a guide, he sets out with a group of oddball specialists in a gigantic submarine appropriately named “Ulysses.” As this group has worked together for years, Milo remains the outsider for most of the film.
After a deadly attack by a mechanical leviathan, Milo leads the survivors through a cave system, where they eventually encounter the Atlantians and their incredible yet crumbling civilization. Through their interaction with the defiant king, the Commander’s controversial motives begin to emerge. While exploring the island together, royal daughter Kida informs Thatch that he is the only person who can read the Atlantian written language. The rest of the fantastic story will be up to you to discover.
Despite its engaging plot, the movie did not do as well at the box office as Disney hoped, resulting in the cancellation of a spin-off TV series and an amusement park ride. Personally, I would have loved both of these tie-ins. This was the first year for the Oscar category “Best Animated Feature,” and while “Atlantis” could have easily won in a different year, the competition from “Shrek,” “Final Fantasy” and “Monsters, Inc.” proved too much.
I have only recently come to appreciate one of my favorite aspects of the movie, as I am working towards a Linguistics Concentration. The film hired a real Linguist, Mark Okrand, to create the written and spoken Atlantian language. How cool is that? If there is one lesser known animated movie I recommend to people, it is “Atlantis.” I believe everyone can find some intriguing aspect that captures their wraps them up in the story of this marvelous lost empire.
— Allison Isztok ’20