A Study in Disney: ‘Atlantis: The Lost Empire’ (2001)

| February 5, 2022

Disney has been with us for almost a century now, and so it is safe to say that there might only be a finite number of people left whose childhood wasn’t touched by one of Walt’s confections.  They’re part of our culture, part of our collective imagination.  Over the next several months, I am going to be looking into their animated features.  It’s a journey that is sometimes magical, sometimes baffling, but always, purely Disney.

Atlantis: The Lost Empire was meant to change the course of Disney - Polygon

The Disney renaissance was arguably the greatest era of creative thinking in the studio’s history, but ultimately it came with a price.  By the end of the century, Disney was faced with a volley of competition from other studios whose desire to get into the animation market – a desire that was sparked by the creative explosion of the renaissance.  The problem was that the other studios were progressing forward, trying new things.  For Disney, this was the point at which the results of their own new ideas now seemed conventional and uninspired compared with the competition.

This was part of the reason for the failure of Atlantis: The Lost Empire, a movie that was was largely ignored by audiences and sniffed at by the critics.  There are a lot of theories as to why the film failed but the most likely reason was timing.  It was released in the United States twenty-eight days after DreamWorks’ Shrek, which was so lauded for its creativity (and cynical edge) that it went on to become the first movie to win the Academy Award in the newly instituted Best Animated Feature.  Atlantis wasn’t even nominated; it was passed over for Pixar’s Monster’s Inc. and Nickelodeon’s Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius.

Had audience expectations left Atlantis behind?  Was Shrek the better film?  It is debatable but no one could deny the fact that Shrek seemed like a breath of fresh air, something new, something different, something penetrable to a new generation that easily embraced the idea of upending the kinds of outdated sentimentality that they had grown up with from Disney.  Although no one knew it at the time, Shrek was exposing the very brand of nose-tweaking cynicism that the internet community would embrace.

Wrapped around an Indiana Jones-style adventure yarn, Atlantis would become Disney’s first foray into universe-building.  The world of Atlantis would have not only its own distinct civilization but its own technology and its own language.  The language was created especially for the film by Mark Okrand, a linguist who was responsible for creating the Vulcan language for Star Trek and was the author of “The Klingon Dictionary.”  His distinctions in the style of the language is not only evident in how it sounds but how it is read.  In the film, when the main character Milo reads the language he doesn’t read it from right to left like English or left to right like Hebrew, but rather right to left, then the next line is left to right, then the next line is right to left which gives the text a water-like flow as it is being read.

Added to this was the film’s design which, typical of Disney in the latter days of its 2D animation, was strikingly different than what had come before.  The film would have a comic book design which came courtesy of comic book artist, Mike Mignola who was most famous for the “Hellboy” comics.  His designs are very flat and have very sharp edges, even on the character’s faces and fingers.  He was also responsible for the look of Atlantis’ population and for the fish pods used in the film’s climax.

The problem is that as remarkable as the film’s design might have been, the story and the characters are right off the shelf.  The hero, Milo, is out to complete his father’s work.  He is sent on his mission by an eccentric billionaire.  He has a rag-tag group of mismatched misfits.  There’s a scheming general.  There’s a native girl who becomes his love interest.  Over and over we cover characters and story arcs that are all-too-familiar.  Why aren’t these things as remarkable as the film’s fresh and original look?

The public may have understood this.  The movie was largely ignored upon its first release and hasn’t really made much of a dent since.  It seems to have been largely forgotten even as a reevaluation of Shrek over the years has yielded a less enthusiastic reaction.  Is there a reason for this?  Well, possible.  The enthusiasm for Shrek was the newness of its cynical tone.  The less-then-enthusiastic response to Atlantis: The Lost Empire was simply that there wasn’t much to be enthusiastic about.  It is a good movie while you’re watching it, but even though it has some new ideas it is not a movie that stays in your mind.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.