Posted January 14, 2011 by editor in Retrospectives

Disney: Atlantis

Much like Treasure Planet that followed in the years to come, Atlantis must have seemed like a “Can’t Lose” scenario at the time.  There was a time when Disney could take any mythic legend or strong reference material from literature and turn it into a classic. Why?  Well the story was there to work with in the first place!  Here though something went horribly wrong.

Now Atlantis isn’t a horrible film – but it is far from the venture it should have been.  This is Disney doing their best Jules Verne – but with a hodge-podge script that is pretty thinly layered lacking imagination in the plot, although it may exceed in the invention department – it almost seems like a missed opportunity. Let’s pray they don’t do Journey to the Centre of the Earth!  God knows what cuddly, annoying or cute comedy sidekicks, or bizarre civilisation at war they might infest that tale with.

The opening sequence could literally make or break it for some viewers as this flight of fantasy really goes all out. First of all we introduced to some rather amazing technology (at a time set centuries ago). There are a couple of very impressive digital flying shots that swoop over the city moments before it is drowned in the sea.  We don’t know what force attacked the city – or even who the inhabitants are.  All we know is that they speak in a strange ancient dialect and that the city somehow manages to generate a giant force field around itself before it is swallowed by the water.

It’s a lot to take on and a bit leap to make. Do kids really want to be lumbered with odd dialects and subtitles when all they seek is adventure? Do we really want Atlantis to go all sci-fi in the sense of ancient energy way in advance of our own?

We then move to the main timeframe of 1914 where we meet the main protagonist, the rather nerdy Milo. The animation style has also changed which suddenly looks allot closer in style to the likes of 101 Dalmatians. Once set in motion the plot goes all Jules Verne when they head out on a giant submarine shaped like a whale– also way in advance of our own technology!!!! So suspension of disbelief is highly important in this film. But it is this sort of inventiveness that could have made Atlantis a real stand out. Some of the scenes are beautiful to look at, but the actual design work of the machinery is where they score major points if not all the points.

The characters are your standard Disney types. Every other character you meet ha something quirky about them – from hyperactive staff to accented explosive experts to a monotone old lady on communications. Of course they are all there for comic effect and work better than not but there are far too many kooky characters to strike a balance here. But it’s the straight players who have the trouble as they are terrible clichés. And stuck in a storyline that is familiar to us they don’t add anything new to that game. That leaves us Michael J Fox’s Milo to ground the film.

There are a few genius gags. Starting with Milo’s excitement at getting to go on his adventure. He says he is so excited that he can barely hold it in – cut to Milo throwing up over the side of the boat. Teehee.

Still look closely at the story as it develops.  Milo is used as an emissary to communicate with this new culture in order to better understand them (and from the villain’s perspective- get the upper hand over them by gaining their trust). With Milo exploring the new terrain with his female love interest/host it becomes more evident that perhaps James Cameron watched this mystical tale along with Dances With Wolves and Ferngully before scribing his latest blockbuster.

Atlantis cost several arms and legs to make – and whilst it has double its money – it isn’t considered a big success.  In the Disney cannon it sits somewhere in the middle, but it is very much of its time.  Brave choices were made stylistically, songs were dropped, but sadly the script wasn’t as strong as it should have been.

Disney have yet to learn how to use Sci-fi ideas properly. Their visual look for some of these ideas are wonderful, but it’s the story they are telling that appears too grand. Someone should tell them it isn’t grand Opera they are making – it should be simple story telling. Simple stories often work better in genre pictures as it helps audiences relate to them better.  Usually the best pictures require something not on offer here: RESTRAINT.

Steven Hurst