Atlantis: The Lost Empire

(Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise, USA, 2001)


Walt Disney Pictures drops the syrupy songs, for a change, for its animated feature, Atlantis: The Lost Empire. Directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise set out to craft a more modern, action-based narrative than in their previous hits, Beauty and the Beast (1991) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996).

The plot is a typical mélange. Elements of the lost city legend are freely intermingled with more contemporary preoccupations – such as the search for the secret ‘energy source’ that has kept the inhabitants of Atlantis alive.

Milo is a young linguist whose fascination with Atlantis earns him rejection from official channels, but indulgence from a rich patron. He soon finds himself in the company of a team of mercenaries led by Commander Rourke as part of a mission to find the fabled city.

Atlantis turns out to be a civilisation rather like those often discovered in Star Trek: too perfect, slowly dying because of its lack of contact with any exterior element. Milo’s attention is torn between the young, progressive Princess Kida and his scheming comrades.

There are echoes of the Indiana Jones adventure yarns in the period setting, and of Aliens (1986) in the composition of the crew. Joss Whedon, who wrote Alien Resurrection (1998) and created Buffy, contributed to the script.

It is even possible to see the influence of Japanese animated epics such as Akira (1988) on the once all-American Disney style. This is especially evident when we reach the big scenes of cosmic cataclysm and renewal: most small kids around me at the preview had a hard time following exactly what was happening, and I knew how they felt.

The actors who give voice to the characters are well cast for the prior screen associations they bring, such as Michael J. Fox (Milo) and James Garner (Rourke). Poor Claudia Christian, usually called upon to play some form of sexual deviant, here breathes life into the muscly, bad-girl Helga.

There are some dull moments and facile gags along the way, but Atlantis: The Lost Empire mostly succeeds in building an intriguing, spectacular narrative that suspends disbelief – a creditable achievement in contemporary American animation.

© Adrian Martin September 2001

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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