Atlantis: The Lost Empire [20th Anniversary]

[2001/2021]

Directed by Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise | Featuring Michael J. Fox, Leonard Nimoy, James Gardner, Jim Varney, Cree Summer | Written by Tab Murphy

“It was 20 years ago today…,” as the Beatles tune goes, when Atlantis: The Lost Empire was first given wide release. Underperforming up against stiff competition like the same genred and wildly successful sequel, The Mummy Returns, and even Disney’s own fair, Monster’s Inc., Atlantis was largely considered a failure at the time, and saw an end to the highly successful animated renaissance of the late 80’s and 1990’s. It’s unfortunate, too, since I don’t think any of the blame can really be place on Atlantis’ shoulders.

You see, 2001 was right smack dab in the center of a bit of a box office dry spell anyways. The highest grossing film of 1999 (The Phantom Menace) made double the money the highest grossing of 2000 (How the Grinch Stole Christmas) did. And, while 2001 saw improvements over this, the next few years, which saw the spawn of several monstrous franchises like Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean, and many more, significantly overshadowed it.

Plus, there’s something to be said about the cruelty of Michael Eisner’s pitting of a traditionally animated film (and a tonal break-away film at that) against a safe, hip, and new CG guaranteed success like Monsters Inc. Granted, I’m sure the Disney board of directors were behind that decision as well. But still, it just seems like Atlantis was doomed to failure from the release mismanagement, no matter how good it was!

To Disney’s credit, though, the film was certainly marketed like a high-renaissance film. McDonalds had tie-in happy meals, there were countless action figures, bookmarks, planned Disney rides, a few video games, a sequel television series in the works, and even a tie-in comic book with cover art by Mike Mignola! The latter of which was quite a treat, as Mignola’s unique art style had inspired the design of the film in the first place.

I remember being so excited for the release at the time. It seemed like it was going to be another great Disney film; a perfect follow up to the excellent Tarzan. And, creatively, I think many would agree with that assessment nowadays. Nearly a decade after the film’s release, the project began to bolster a cult following online; many of the fans just discovering Atlantis: TLE for the first time. And, stylistically, it’s no wonder it finally found the light of fame; with it’s comic book aesthetic, action packed (and song-less) story, diverse cast of characters, and steam-punk, or perhaps more appropriately diesel-punk, aesthetic.

Story wise, I think it’s one of, if not the, greatest film of the Disney renaissance/post-renaissance era. The renaissance, for all of its merits, was rather formulaic, especially when compared to the pre-60s Walt Disney era it sought to emulate and recapture. Walt Disney only released three ‘princess’ feature films within his life time. The renaissance? Five. “Disney Princess” wasn’t really a brand before this period of fairy tale musicals. And, while I can’t fault any of the renaissance films for this (they’re actually all really solidly made films in their own right), I can’t help but notice how, chronologically and even productively, they’re not at all like what Walt likely would have done.

Walt Disney’s films generally went a new direction with each and every film. Only a handful of times did he ‘repeat’ himself, so to speak, with a particularly ‘safe’ film. Granted, story wise, each renaissance film is very Disney-esque and brave and bold. But from a corporate big picture standpoint, they’re all a bit copy and paste.

Hey, if you’re gonna stick to a template, at least make it a good one, right? And the Disney renaissance’s Snow White, Cinderella, & Sleeping Beauty fixation was certainly not a bad template. Not in the slightest. It, coupled with the creativity and innovation at the studio, rightfully garnered many of the renaissance films Academy Award noms or even wins!

But, back to Atlantis…

As a child of the 90’s, I grew up with most of the renaissance films hand in hand with the classic Disney counterparts equally. Unlike some, I wasn’t really old enough to see them unfold year after year. But, unlike others, I wasn’t too young to have missed their theatrical debuts and hype for sparse vault home video releases. I was somewhere in the middle. And, while the tail end of Renaissance films had been a load of fun, Atlantis would prove to be even more special.

You see, I have a very special relationship with Atlantis: The Lost Empire, since it was the very first film I ever saw in theaters.

Having grown up in the VHS and One Saturday Morning/Disney Channel era, and on an old CRT, I had only ever experienced movies in the 4:3 aspect ratio. For some films, (like those filmed in the Academy ratio, or most television) that was perfectly fine and dandy. But for some, the pan-and-scan process was the thing of nightmare fuel.

Overly zoomed shots, re-composited backgrounds, post-production redirecting without original creator’s approval, open matte boom mics and mistakes. It certainly wasn’t very enjoyable, especially for those who wished to study film more seriously. But, for little kids like me, there rarely was another choice. (Unless your parents were LaserDisc fanatics, or something)

DVD was new and expensive; not to mention, early ones often came with Fullscreen edition counterparts too! So that wasn’t really an option either… at least, not until a few years later. I think I had seen a play or two live as well, but, me being just five or six at the time, that had been my entire entertainment experience up until that point.

My parents had, for several months, been wanting to take me to the movies. But, the perfect film just hadn’t come around yet. I actually remember, that summer (I saw the film later on in its release) them debating on whether to take me to Monsters Inc. or Atlantis. I’m glad they chose the latter.

Arriving, I was greeted by the experience of a Cineplex for the first time. The carpeted floors, the gigantic lounge, the movie posters adorning the walls, the bright flashing showtime lights, the rich popcorn smell… all of it. For a little five year old, it probably seemed even more grand and incredible!

Grabbing our snacks and taking out tickets, we made our way back to the correct theater, and excitedly, they let me go in first. Walking down the darkened, floor lit hallway, I emerged on the other side to see the grand spectacle of a gigantic mega screen, hundreds of seats, and small little projection light emerging from the back of the auditorium.

Needless to say, I was blown away.

On the car ride there, my parents had gone over the usual protocol. Keep calm, be respectful, and don’t make a fuss. Nobody wants an out-of-control toddler ruining their movie going experience, of course. The irony, though, was that all of that prep had practically been for nothing, since, as we took our seats and waited, it very soon became clear that, as the final moments of the previews came to pass, we were going to have the entire theater to ourselves that showing.

For a kid, that was actually really cool. With my parents’ permission, I was able to waltz up and down the entire seating section, and try out different angles and listen to the surround sound. I tried sitting in the front row. The very, very front row. I ran all the way up the steps and to the back. The very, very back. No matter how high I jumped, I couldn’t kiss the light with my fingertips.

I sat all the way to the right side of the theater, I sat all the way to the left side. Through the previews, I got a taste of the room acoustics. It, in some small way, exposed exactly how the theater worked, even to my little five year old mind.

I honestly wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Unfortunately, now, as an adult, I understand that the empty theater, financially, was a very bad sign for Atlantis. Granted, it was towards the very tail end of its run, and the crowds do tend to dwindle and dwindle as the weeks go on. But, this was really something else.

Regardless of that sad actuality, for me, it was a dream. And when the movie finally started, I sat back with my parents right in the sweet spot center row, and listened as my mom read the opening text.

What happened next absolutely blew my mind. The grandiose expanse of the animated ocean was not just impressive, it was utterly awe inspiring. Another aspect of Atlantis I love; it’s choice to ditch the 1.66 to 1 ratio for a much wider, and more expansive, 2.35:1 cinemascope. For someone who, up ‘til that point, had only ever seen films on a little square TV box, it truly took my breath away.

Fun little historical factoid: Cinemascope had been engineered in the 1950’s as a way for Hollywood to compete with the increasing popularity (and competition) of in-home televisions. Call it a gimmick, but it sure gives cinematographers (or animators) a completely different canvas on which to paint.

Atlantis used the added space amazingly well. Not used to such a large and impressive screen, nor the ultra wide view, I struggled to keep the entire picture within my eye vision. But, if anything, that only made the experience cooler, as I had to keep swaying my head back and fourth just to take everything in. It made the film so much more realistic to me. Like, if I’d blink, I’d miss something. And it really encouraged me to try and ‘study’ the picture and framing, if you will.

When I got home, I was absolutely Atlantis crazed. I remember collection nearly all of the McDonalds toys. I got a plethora of the books and extras for my birthday. And, for that Christmas, I woke up to an Atlantis action figure army! It was simply amazing.

Before Atlantis, I hadn’t really considered a career path, or had any strong interest one way or another about any particular thing. But, after Atlantis, I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. That single event; That one film sparked an interest in filmmaking and entertainment that set me down the journey I’ve treked ever since.

For that, I thank Trousdale, Wise, Don Hahn, Tab Murphy, and, of course, the Disney company for setting my imagination ablaze, and thrilling me into a lifetime of happiness, as hokey as that may sound.

While I may not so resolutely place Atlantis as my #1 favorite film of all time (I have such a hard time even making a top 10 any more), it’s certainly still very highly ranked in my mind. And, perhaps more importantly than that, it’s, bar none, the single most important film in my life.

I’ll end with a paraphrase from the late, great film critic Roger Ebert. His summarizing statement perfectly captures all my thoughts on Atlantis as an artistic statement and creative project:

“…Atlantis is like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, set free by animation.”

(And 20,000 Leagues is another one of my all-time favorites!)

If you’ve never seen Atlantis, I highly recommend you check it out. One of the greatest post-Walt films the Disney company ever made. A fun plot, memorable characters, and comic-booky action. You simply can’t go wrong with that.

5/5 Stars.

R.I.P. to James Gardner, Jim Varney, and Leonard Nimoy.

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