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Wayback Wednesday: Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)

“You have disturbed ze dirt!”

The 2000s were a notoriously divisive if not disliked time in the history of Disney animation. The decade saw a lot of movies that strayed from the traditional Disney formula of musical fairy tales in favour of more bold choices that ranged from science-fiction stories to movies about just regular talking animals. This time period gave us forgettable duds like Home on the Range (2004) and Chicken Little (2005) but also gave us beloved and underrated gems like Lilo & Stitch (2002) and The Emperor’s New Groove (2000). By the way, check out my review for that movie, here. For the first review of 2023 I wanted to kick things off with a fun little movie that a lot of people (myself included) are on the fence about. A movie that people either fiercely champion or hardly remember ever watching. Which is how I ended up revisiting Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001). Admittedly, this isn’t my favourite Disney era nor is Atlantis: The Lost Empire one of my favourite Disney movies, but even I can’t deny how cool and enjoyable this movie is. Often forgettable, yes, but still cool and enjoyable! 

Credit: / Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

Atlantis: The Lost Empire follows Milo Thatch, an awkward and bookish linguist and cartographer who has dedicated his life to discovering the mythical lost continent of Atlantis. When he obtains undeniable proof of the continent’s existence, Milo joins up with an extraordinary group of explorers on a mission to locate Atlantis. What they discover is more incredible than any of them could have imagined and infinitely more dangerous.

Right off the bat I was flabbergasted by my rewatch of this movie because I simply couldn’t imagine Disney movies these days having the guts to open their movie with a Plato quote. That right there is an example of the risks and unique creative decisions that defined this era of Disney animation. Not to sound like a broken record, but this is just a straight-up cool movie. Kudos to a studio for making an original animated movie about exploration, science, and adventure that had a generation of kids going, “wow, that’s awesome!” That just doesn’t happen anymore. I think it’s hard to get young viewers interested in an adventure story that isn’t based off an existing comic book, TV series or video game. I mean, a steampunk-inspired, science-fiction / fantasy set around the turn of the century? That’s rad! In many ways, Atlantis: The Lost Empire reminds me of The Iron Giant (1999), another underrated animated movie not appreciated in its time. In both the tone and animation style, Atlantis: The Lost Empire has that same confident sense of identity, the realization that what it’s doing is unlike anything else being released at the time.

The artistry and the world design of Atlantis itself is so imaginative, almost like something out of an anime movie. Especially when you consider that there are thousands of years of interpretations of Atlantis and this is unlike any that I’ve seen before or since. Everything about Atlantis and its people is intriguing and I think would only benefit from being even more fleshed-out. There’s a direct-to-video sequel (obviously) that I believe I’ve seen once many years ago but to my recollection, it’s more a loose collection of vignettes than an actual sequel. So many Disney movies spawned odd animated series but this one surprisingly didn’t. This seems like the perfect candidate for one! Much more than The Little Mermaid (1989) or The Lion King (1994). By the way, check out my review for that movie, here. You want to see this group of characters on another adventure. I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but if Atlantis: The Lost Empire were to get a live-action remake, I would actually be excited for and interested in that!  I think it would be stunning in live-action and because there isn’t quite so much nostalgia and iconography associated with this movie, it would be great to add new elements to it. I think this movie was ahead of its time. If it were made today with real actors, sets and effects, it would be a critical success. Although, the casting for a live-action Kida would certainly end friendships. 

Who WOULDN’T want to play Princess Kida? She is such an incredibly fucking rad character and if I were a young Black actress I would be fighting tooth and nail for the honour of getting to play her if Disney ever decides to make a live-action version of Atlantis: The Lost Empire. Ooh, perhaps someone like Zendaya? Although topping the pure dynamic power of original voice actor Cree Summer would be a Herculean task. Summer is an iconic voice actor whose many performances practically everyone in my generation grew up listening to. Kida is so dazzling. I can’t tell you how steamed it makes me that Kida is not recognized as an official Disney Princess despite literally being a PRINCESS in a DISNEY movie! What kind of sense does this make? The disrespect and the Princess Kida erasure is far too much and I won’t stand for it. 

This is a fun and distinctive movie for Disney and I like them shaking things up, but what I think is the key to a Disney success is when they’re telling the story of a character audiences can really relate to. For example, Ariel, Belle, Jasmine…Milo’s great but there’s nothing about him as a character that I think anyone has been able to significantly connect with. That being said, Milo is such a lovable hero and Michael J. Fox plays him so well. He’s really great at voice acting. He nails the goofiness of the character but also the passion and later the hurt and betrayal. My favourite part of this performance is how he handles both Milo’s awkwardness and assuredness with ease. There are so many characters that I enjoy in this movie. From the good-hearted Dr. Joshua Sweet to the fabulously no-nonsense Lt. Helga Sinclair, it can’t be said enough how I’d love to revisit these characters in a new adventure. I especially love the camping scene where we get all these expositional backstories about these characters and any one of them, if not all, would make for interesting movies to explore more fully. I NEED a spin-off for Mrs. Packard. Her delivery of the line, “He took his suitcase? Marge honey, I don’t think he’s coming back,” will forever crack me up.

As odd as this may sound, Atlantis: The Lost Empire is a lot more serious and solemn and less silly than your average Disney movie which is maybe why I’m not as into it. Or why it wasn’t much of a success. That’s why I think it would be an ideal candidate for a live-action remake! It’s already a little lifeless and not very zany! There’s nothing to get lost in translation! I’m probably not alone here but I’m much more into the second half of the movie where the crew actually gets to Atlantis and they meet Kida. Then all of the imaginative wonder and awesomeness that Atlantis: The Lost Empire has to offer gets to be on full display. Up to that point it’s a lot of vehicles and caves and I’m much more into the majesty and mythology of Atlantis. Although the movie is a tight 95 minutes it suffers from a few key narrative shortcomings such as having an unsatisfying villain and defeat of said villain, as well as not having enough substance to back up the spectacular style. By the way, was anyone aware that JOSS WHEDON helped write the story?! Right in the middle of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997 – 2003) mania!

I guess you could say that I’m still firmly planted on the fence when it comes to Atlantis: The Lost Empire. By no means do I dislike this movie, but it’s also nowhere close to cracking the top 10 of my list of favourite Disney movies. It’s certainly worth the occasional rewatch but perhaps on a biannual basis. Gosh, if I’m this lukewarm when it comes to the movie that actually had effort put into it, do I dare condemn myself to watching the instantly forgettable Atlantis: Milo’s Return (2003)? Maybe in 2024!

Are you a fan of Atlantis: The Lost Empire?

Let me know in the comments or on social media!


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