My paw to God, it’s true. In fact, my good buddy Animation Commendation even has a blog devoted to Disney’s live action efforts which I’ve been meaning to link to for ever. You should check it out. The germ for the idea that would become Atlantis began with a desire to do an animated version of the old Disney live action adventure movies. You know, Davy Crockett, Treasure Island and by far it’s most obvious influence, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
Atlantis represented a huge, daring creative gamble for Disney, an attempt to break out of the admittedly lucrative formula that had begun to stifle the studio creatively. This was going to be something new. There would be no funny animal sidekicks. The movie’s unofficial motto during production was “less singing, more explosions”. Comic book creator Mike Mignola was brought in to give the movie a new distinctive visual look. This thing would have a PG rating by God!
One thing that really comes across watching this movie and the bonus material that comes with it is just how much everybody cared about this film. Seriously, you can tell, they worked their asses off on this. Did it pay off?
Well…read the review! You think I’m just going to tell you up front?
Let’s take a look at the movie.
The movie begins as it means to go, with a big ass explosion. It’s 8800 years ago and…something…has just blown up in the middle of the ocean. A fleet of Atlantean hovercraft flee the shockwave, trying to reach Atlantis in time to warn the city. One of the pilots shouts to another “YOU FOOL! YOU’VE DESTROYED US ALL!”
Oh if you’re watching this scene and wondering why those hovercraft sound so familiar, it’s because the sound effects were done at Skywalker Ranch. They were originally used in the pod-racing scene in The Phantom Menace and were then re-used here, presumably because everyone felt sorry for them.
Atlantis battens down the hatches and the terrified people take shelter in the face of the oncoming wave. We see the young princess, Kida, being rushed to safety by her mother Queen…Unnamed. Kida drops her doll and tries to do back for it but Unnamed stops in her tracks to explain to Kida why she can’t do that and okay, is this just some kind of Atlantean cultural thing or what?
But then, Unnamed is enveloped in a strange blue light and is lifted into the air by an unseen force while Kida looks on in horror. Unnamed rises through the air, drawn into a strange spinning light that hovers overhead.
This light then extends a forcefield around the city and Atlantis sinks beneath the waves.
Fast forward to Washington 1914 where linguist Milo Thatch (Michael J. Fox) is prepping for his big presentation to the board of the Smithsonian so that they’ll fund his mission to find the lost city of Atlantis. This movie was made around ten years after Fox had first been diagnosed with Parkinson’s but only three since he had gone public with his condition. Fox really enjoyed working on Atlantis because he didn’t have to worry about controlling his symptoms and could just focus on the acting and I think that comes through. He gives a lot of energy to this performance and it sounds like someone who’s really enjoying himself. As he goes through his mock presentation he explains that an ancient manuscript called The Shepherd’s Journal shows the way to Atlantis. He says that it had been previously believed that the Journal was somewhere in Ireland, but that this was the result of a dodgy translation and that the Journal is actually in Iceland. Now, I know that sounds like something deserving of a trip to the highest summit of bullshit mountain, but actually, the Norse translations of “Ireland” and “Iceland” really are only one letter apart, just like their English counterparts, so I can’t really rip the movie on that. But there shall be linguistic ripping later on. Oh my, yes.
We learn that Milo is intent on following in the footsteps of his grandfather, Thaddeus Thatch, who spent his whole life looking for Atlantis. Milo even has Thaddeus’ old helmet in his office. In a shrine.
Suddenly Milo gets a memo that his meeting with the board has been pushed back to half an hour ago, and then a second memo saying that since he didn’t show up to his meeting he ain’t getting any of that sweet, sweet, research grant cheddar.
Outraged, Milo confronts Mr Harcourt (David Ogden Stiers) who tells him that he has a lot of potential, but that if he continues chasing fairy tales he’ll just throw his career down the toilet like his grandfather before him.
Disheartened, Milo returns home to discover that he has an unexpected guest.
No actually, a beautiful blonde woman named Helga Sinclair (Claudia Christian) has let herself in and says she has a proposition for him from her employer. I will probably never do a “Hottest Disney Women” list because honestly that’s kinda skeevy, but if I did, Helga would be right up there. She’s also a great example of just how mold-breaking this movie is, there really is no equivalent character type for Helga anywhere else in the canon. She honestly doesn’t get that much to do but she’s probably the most memorable of the supporting characters.
She drives Milo through the rain to the mansion of reclusive millionaire Preston Whitmore…
…and shows him inside telling him not to “drip on the Caravaggio”. Yeah, so just in case you were in any doubt as to how rich this guy is, there’s your answer; “Priceless paintings as carpets” rich. Whitmore is an eccentric rich guy in the proud “Howard Hughes” tradition voiced by John Mahoney, perhaps best known for playing Marty Crane on Frasier. Now, Frasier is one of my favorite shows and Mahoney is one of my favorite actors so it’s hard for me to quite pin down why he just…doesn’t…work…in this role. I don’t mean that he’s bad, it’s just that the voice and the character design don’t gel for me. I can’t accept this character speaking with that voice, it just feels off. Well anyway, Whitmore tells Milo that he was a friend of Thaddeus Thatch and gives him a gift from his grandfather which turns out to be the frickin’ Shepherd’s Journal. Whitmore says that he’s willing to fund an expedition to find Atlantis, that the submarine is already built and the crew hired (the same crew who found the Shepherd’s Journal in Iceland). Milo agrees but said that he’ll have to quit his job but Whitmore says it’s already taken care of as he doesn’t like loose ends, which may be the first time I’ve ever heard that expression used in a non threatening way.
We cut to the launching of the submarine Ulysses (an absolutely gorgeous diesel-punk lookin’ thing) and the movie proceeds to drop an absolute metric shit ton of supporting characters. Okay, full disclosure, for the last week I, my wife and our baby daughter (I call her “Mini-Mouse”) have been stricken down with some kind of medieval plague so this review is going to be a little on the short side. I don’t actually have time to list all of the supporting characters so please avail of this handy chart.
Yeah, that’s a lot of supporting players. Add to this, Helga’s also along for the ride and there’s also the movie’s attempted break out character, Gaetan “The Mole” Moliere, who’s a dirty Frenchman.
No, I mean, he’s literally a dirty French…he’s French and he specialises in dirt…he’s…
No, listen I’m not racist! I swear, some of my best friends are French, tell ’em Maurice!
Now, here’s the biggest problem with this movie. There’s too many characters and not enough time to develop them. Not that the movie doesn’t try. We certainly do get scenes of the characters just handing out, trading backstories, all the usual tricks of the trade. It’s just not enough. My wife, who is kind of a genius at pinning down why a movie doesn’t work, nailed the problem: This movie needs to be like half an hour longer. Now, that’s not something you normally find yourself saying, specially in this day and age, but it’s the truth. The filmmakers here try to do a big grown up action movie but with the time constraints of a Disney animated feature and that’s just not doable. Animated movies tend to be quite a bit shorter than live action films and there’s a reason for that. With a live action movie you shoot several days worth of footage and then edit it down into a ninety minute movie or three hour movie or whatever. The final length of the finished film has no real bearing on the cost of the thing. But with an animated movie, every second costs money. If you decide halfway through that your ninety minute movie needs to be two hours long, congratulations, your costs have just gone up thirty percent. There’s just too much plot and too many character in the time we have and everything just feels rushed. Some of the characters are quite funny (Vinny and Mole in particular) but they’re all pretty flat. That’d be a problem in a normal Disney movie but in this one it creates major problems with the plot twist that comes halfway through. But we’ll get to that in a minute.
I’ve already mentioned how the filmmakers were trying consciously to break away from the standard Disney tropes and you can see this in the villain especially. Rourke is the leader of the expedition and he’s one of very few Disney villainous who isn’t obviously villainous from the getgo (Gaston and Edgar are the only other ones I can think of off the top of my head). He’s got a non-villainous character design and he’s even voiced by James Garner, who’s most famous for playing heroic roles like Maverick.
Does it work? Honestly, no. Like all the other characters Rourke is just too underdeveloped for his face-heel turn to have much of an impact, and as a villain his motive is just not that interesting. He wants to get rich, whoop-dee-frickin’-doo. Now, a villain who’s motivated by greed can work of course (see McLeach, Percival C.) but you need some strong writing’ and a charismatic performance to back it up.
Alright, enough about what the movie does wrong, let’s talk about what the movie does right. While searching for the entrance to Atlantis, the Ulysses comes under attack from a giant robot lobster (which incidentally looks like it clawed it’s way straight out of a Hellboy comic) and the sub responds by sending out a fleet of mini-sub TIE fighters and that is frickin’ awesome. It’s a submarine that shoots out little submarines! I WANT THAT TOY!
Well, apparently the Ulysses was for robot lobsters ages five and up because it smashes the submarine pretty handily and the crew have to escape in some undersea life rafts. Only one of the rafts actually makes it to the safety of the undersea cave and the surviving crew hold a brief memorial service for their fallen shipmates.
Following the directions in the Shepherd’s journal, Milo leads the surviving members of the Odyssey team through the caves, unaware that they are being trailed by a team of Atlantean scouts led by the now adult Kida.
And I have to say, the animation for the Atlanteans running through the caves in stealth mode is just lovely.
The crew finally discover Atlantis and are surrounded by Kida’s scouts. Kida challenges them in Atlantean and Milo answers haltingly. The filmmakers wanted the Alanteans to have a real living language so they hired Marc Okrand, who devised Klingon and Vulcan for Star Trek, to invent Atlantean, complete with it’s own alphabet and grammatical structure.
I’m not entirely sure why they did that however, because almost instantly the Atlanteans start speaking English because Atlantean is the root of all modern languages so of course they can speak a language that sprang into existence many millenia after they lost all contact with the surface world excuse me for a moment…
It would appear that as well as giant lobsters, Atlantis is home to the legendary voodoo shark.
Kida is voiced by Cree Summer and I can’t get on board with that. Conceptually I like the character a lot. I like the idea of a Disney couple where the princess is the badass warrior, definitely. But Kida is still a stock character, the dull, overly earnest tribal princess who uses the phrase “my people” around as often as the word “the”. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a stock character if you have an actor who can bring some depth to it, but Summer just doesn’t rise to the challenge here.
Well anyway, Kida takes the explorers to see her father King Nedakh who is voiced by LEONARD FUCKING NIMOY!
According to Michael Cadeno, the lead animator for Nedakh, the whole crew would come down to watch Nimoy record his lines. As well they should. He’s LEONARD FUCKING NIMOY!
Kida tells her father that the Ulysses crew might be able to help them, but Nedakh has this crazy idea that a bunch of white guys with guns may not be what his ancient lost civilization needs right now and tells Rourke to live long and suck a dick. Rourke asks if they can stay for one night to rest and resupply and Nedakh grudgingly agrees. After they leave Nedakh tells Kida “You heart has grown soft. A thousand years a go you would have slain them on sight.” and I think more Disney movies need father daughter conversations like that.
Outside, Rourke says that someone needs to talk to Kida and get her to convince her father to stay. Someone with good people skills and who can speak the language (because apparently that matters again? Christ, I need a drink.) Milo gets volunteered . But fortunately, Kida is just as interested in getting information out of him. She asks him if he’s a scholar, seeing as with his “diminished physique and large forehead you must be good for nothing else!”
Milo asks her about the sinking of Atlantis and she basically recounts the opening scene for him and he asks how she can remember something that happened 8800 years ago and she’s like “Yeah, I’m hot and super old you got a problem with that?” She then asks him how he got down here and he explains that he followed the instructions in the Shepherd’s Journal and that gets Kida all kinds of excited because that means Milo can read Atlantean, something the Atlanteans themselves have long forgotten how to do. Which…how? How does that happen? You’re trapped under the ocean with literally no form of entertainment but reading. How do you just forget? I mean, if the language has changed so much over 8800 years as to be unreadable to modern Atlanteans, that makes perfect sense…except for the fact that at least some of the Atlanteans like Kida and her father are effectively immortal so…screw it, I’m overthinking this.
Kida lays it on the line for Milo; Atlantis is dying, it’s once proud culture now almost forgotten, its advanced technology rusting and unused, the once proud city now a mere debased shadow if its former glory.
*DETROIT JOKE GOES HERE*
Kida takes him to an underwater mosaic which he’s able to translate for her because it’s totally possible to read underwater (God I hate when movies do that). Milo tells Kida that the light that took her mother was something called the Heart of Atlantis and that it’s the life force of the city. They return to the surface only to find that…
Seriously. Everybody. Pretty much the entire supporting cast does a face-heel turn and is revealed to be working for Rourke as a ruthless group of mercenaries. Everybody. Sweet, Vinnie, Audrey, Packard, Mole…fucking Cookie?! You made Jim Varney a villain, movie. Jim Varney. I don’t know whether to punch you or kiss you.
And this is really the biggest problem with the movie. I admit this is certainly a bold move. But ask yourself…who do we care about now? Pretty much everyone the movie has been getting us to root for with the exception of Milo is now someone we’re rooting against. Do we care about the Atlanteans? Nope. Apart from Kida and Nekadh not one of them has even gotten a line of dialogue. So it’s really all on Milo, he pretty much has to singlehandedly carry the audience’s investment and that’s a big ask. Now, as it happens, most of Rourke’s crew do actually switch allegiances back to the light side of the force after it becomes clear that Rourke’s plan will doom the Atlanteans forever. But because they’re all so underdeveloped it’s not like they’re complex, layered individuals with shifting allegiances and loyalties. It’s as if they’re goddamned schizophrenic.
Rourke explains that he’s known about the Heart of Atlantis ever since he found the book in Iceland and he forces Milo to show him where it is or else he’ll shoot Kida. Milo reluctantly takes him to the throne room and Rourke roughs up Nedakh until he finally reveals the way to the crystal chamber.
Rourke, Kida, Helga and Milo descend into the chamber where the Heart of Atlantis is revealed to be a big massive spinny glowing thing surrounded by the stone heads of Atlantis’ dead kings (called it!). Kida is suddenly possessed by the crystal and her eyes go white and she tells Milo in an unearthly voice not to worry because everything’s going to be alright.
Aw yeah, I think we all know what’s going to happen now right? Kida’s going to go all Dark Phoenix and incinerate all of Rourke’s crew and then….noooo apparently she’s just going to quietly let them put her in a crate and cart her away.
Milo then proceeds to lay the mother of all guilt trips on Rourke’s crew and Vinnie, Packard, Mole, Cookie, Sweet and Audrey put their white hats back on. Rourke and Helga take Kida out of Atlantis and then blow up the bridge behind them.
Milo goes back into the palace where Sweet is tending to the wounded king and Nedakh lays a big old heaping pile of exposition on Milo, explaining that it was he who caused the sinking of Atlantis by using the heart of Atlantis as a weapon.
Honestly, the whole Heart of Atlantis mythology stuff is never very well explained which kind of hurts the ending as pretty much everything that happens is as a result of it and we’re never really given a good idea about how it works and what the rules are. Nedakh tells Milo that he has to save Kida or else the crystal will…do…something. Guys, this is like recapping mist there is NOTHING HERE. Well, realising that not even the power of Nimoy can lend gravitas to this hippy bullshit, Nedakh dies and Milo comes up with a plan; to use all the old Atlantean hoverships that are just lying around that he now knows how to use because he’s read the inscriptions. Milo leads a force of the defecting Ulysses crew and the Atlanteans against Rourke’s men and suddenly this movie is back doing what it does best.
Kick ass battle scenes!
Rourke has attached the crate containing Kida to a balloon which he’s going to ride to the surface up the inside of an extinct volcano. Milo flies his hovercraft into the balloon and battles with Rourke which goes about as well as you’d expect. Milo gets knocked onto the crate containing Kida and Rourke swings at him with an axe, which smashes the glass porthole in the crate. Milo then uses a shard of glass to which has become infused with the crystal’s power to cut Rourke who then turns into a blue crystal man and what the close up mouth whore fuck did I just type?
Seriously. That’s as much explanation as you get. There is literally no foreshadowing that this was going to happen. If I want to watch a writer pull a plot resolution that big out of his ass I’ll watch Doctor Who, thank you very much.
Okay, let’s wrap this up. Crystal Rourke smashes, the volcano starts to erupt and the crew race to get Kida back to the city. Crystal Kida brings some big stone golems to life who erect a forcefield over the city and everyone lives. The Atlanteans overlook the whole regicide thing and send the surviving Ulysses crew members home with enough gold to choke a camel.
Milo stays behind and becomes King of Atlantis and Kida becomes I think the first Disney princess to actually become a Queen, so good on her.
Sorry, sorry, sorry.
I know this was rushed, I know I left out a ton of stuff and I know it actually updated while I was still frantically writing so you were probably wondering why the review kept cutting off. This last week has been kind of hellish.
Also hellish? The box office take for this movie (hey, I may be puking my guts out but I can still segue like a boss). This was another big disappointment for Disney, getting absolutely throttled by Shrek at the boxoffice. On one level it’s not hard to see why. There’s glaring problems with the script and the ending is completely rushed and nonsensical (I am aware of the irony, thank you). But I can’t help but feel a lot of affection for this movie. It’s brave, it’s different, it took big risks and clearly a lot of love and thought went into the design of Atlantis, the Ulysses and the overall look of the film. If the same love and attention had been given to the script this might have been a real classic. As it is, it’s pretty much the perfect cult film, not for everyone, but certainly plenty to recommend it.