This movie makes me so insanely sad. Why? Because this movie could have been awesome. It could have been an amazing movie. Instead, we get the snore-fest that is Atlantis: The Lost Empire. (I know this movie has fans. lots of them. I’m probably going to offend you in some way during this review. Be forewarned.)
With this one, Disney was trying to appeal to the older crowd, the pre-teens or teenage boys who never went to see Disney movies. For some reason they thought that what they were doing wasn’t working. Remember the last time they tried doing that? Let me refresh your memory…
The Black Cauldron
How’d that go? yeah, not so well. The funniest part is that that movie and this one almost suffer from the exact same problems! The Black Cauldron was a convoluted plot with characters that weren’t fleshed out. Atlantis is also a crazy plot with insane amounts of characters who aren’t fleshed out. Just like with The Black Cauldron, you can see that this movie had potential, but somewhere, somehow, Disney lost it.
Before I go into my rant, let’s run through the plot:
We start with a quote from Plato about Atlantis, then get a bit of a prequel, where we, the watcher, find out exactly what happened to Atlantis: it was attacked by flying machines bringing a tidal wave, and we watch as a mother is torn away from her little child by a glowing light and a crystal around her neck. We then see the city center grow protected by giant robot things that control a forcefield, and it sinks into the ocean.
Cut to the early 1900s, where we meet Milo (voiced by Michael J Fox), a man who is trying to prove to the people in the museum he works that he knows the location of the Shepard’s journal, one of the only remaining pieces that could lead them straight to Atlantis. After they laugh at him, he’s persuaded by a woman named Helga to meet with her employer. Turns out this guy was a friend of his grandfather’s and he’s found the shepard’s journal and is willing to fund a team to go down and find Atlantis – they just need Milo because no one else but him can read what’s in that book (it’s in Atlantian).
Milo gets on board the submarine ship thing and we meet a plethora of characters, including the captain, Rourke. They begin their journey but soon they’re being attacked by this machine giant prawn thingy. (This is called let’s kill off anyone who we don’t care about!). Only a handful survive and soon they found an underground tunnel that is supposed to lead to Atlantis. They travel, we get Milo attempting to bond with the rest of the group, we lose a few more when something else happens, and eventually a handful finally reach Atlantis only to find that there are still people living there.
They go to meet the King (Leonard Nimoy), who wants them to leave. Milo has come all this way and wants to stay a bit, and Rourke talks the King into letting them recharge before they head out. Kida, the King’s daughter, takes an interest to Milo because he can read their language. See, apparently, they can’t. She takes him to help her try and figure out how to fly a machine she found. It’s all centered around the crystal. Realizing he’s interested in learning more, Kida takes him underwater, where Milo reads a mosaic describing the “heart of Atlantis.” It’s somehow connected to the crystals.
They come back to the mainland only to find that the entire crew has turned on them, lead by Rourke and Helga. Milo let’s the “heart of Atlantis” slip, and Rourke assumes it’s a treasure. He orders Milo and Kida to take them to it after he mortally wounds the King. They go down a tube thingy under the palace to a chamber with floating rocks and a solid light center. Milo mentions how the heart of Atlantis is acting like it’s alive, and how it’s the center for all their magic and how it’s what’s keeping Atlantis alive under here. Kida then becomes “chosen” or “possessed” by the heart, walking out onto the water and lifted into the air. The heart has chosen her to live in, as it does it times of danger. This doesn’t sway Rourke, who captures her and takes her away from Atlantis.
The city begins to dry up, and Milo and the rest of our characters (who have a change of heart) ride the mechanical fish machines to rescue Kida. They manage to rescue her as Rourke and Helga destroy each other, but they’ve been gone from Atlantis too long. The volcano it lives in is waking up, sending lava toward the city. Milo gets Kida back, and the heart releases her and sends the Robots to put up the forcefield as the lava encases them. Everyone’s saved, the others leave with a few riches, Milo decides to stay.
You know, I remember seeing the trailer for this movie and thinking it was going to be cool. They did a cool scene and ran through some of the characters, and I thought “Oh this is gonna be great, those characters sound really interesting.” Yeah… they did sound interesting. When I got into the movie, imagine my surprise when that scene in the trailer was the ONLY thing we got about those character’s personalities!
There are a MILLION characters in this movie, and what drives me crazy is that NONE of them have the depth to them enough that we should care what happens to them, except maybe our main character Milo. And Kida (But I’ll get to her later).
Pictured above are most of our side characters, save our two villains (Rourke & Helga), Milo, and Kida. I would not be able to look at that picture and tell you their names (except maybe Mole..? is that right for the dude on the far right?). You want to know why? Disney seemed to not care. These characters are all tropes. There is one thing they’re known for, and that’s it. L to R: Cookie (oh I remembered a name!) is a hillbilly who can’t cook. Grandma there smokes a lot and is really sarcastic and deals with radios. Sweet (?) is the doctor who reminds me of John Henry and has a few funny lines. Mustachio man speaks in a strange accent and likes to blow up things but really wants to open a flower shop. The girl with big lips is an engineering prodigy, and Mole is a strange hermit man who likes dirt so much it borders on mental.
That’s all we ever know about any of their personalities, because that’s all there is to them. It’s kinda sad, because some of them (mustachio and big lips) actually give us a little hint into their backstories, but it never amounts to anything. It just drops. They seem useless.
Now let’s talk about our “villains.” I put those in quotes because all of those listed above are at one point or another so called “villains” because they went along with the plot to destroy Atlantis. But I’m really talking about these two:
Now again, I didn’t remember their names until I literally had to do a search for a picture. Apparently that’s Rourke and Helga. Shows how much of an impression they made. Part of that isn’t their fault. They have to play nice until they get to Atlantis, then Rourke shows his true colors. And to be fair, when he does, he’s scary. But until then, he’s just a greedy, over demanding man. He does his best to try and be sincere, but I dunno. If they wanted to keep his villainy a secret, they didn’t do a good job. My husband guessed as soon as he saw him that he was the villain.
Helga on the other hand… well, my husband thought she was the love interest. To which I laughed. If she doesn’t look evil, I don’t know who is. She’s Rourke’s right hand, uh… woman, and is just as greedy as he is. She’s also his undoing, which is a bit of a unique situation for a Disney movie: The villains do each other in. She’s also what happens when Disney tries to sell sex. That’s right, this lady is what will get teenage boys into the theaters! Too bad I don’t remember seeing her on any of the trailers…
Alright now let’s move onto our main character, Milo.
Dear god Disney, did you really have to make this guy this much a geek? No one is ever gonna give him a chance! Milo is actually one of the most developed characters in this movie, even if he looks like a caricature just like the rest. (Don’t get me wrong – he’s totally a caricature…) He’s out to prove the skeptics right. He’s out to untarnish his grandfather’s name. He’s willing to do anything to prove that he’s right about Atlantis. He’s having the adventure of his life and once he gets to Atlantis he can’t believe what’s actually there. But, at the same time…. that’s kinda all we get from him. There’s not really any time to develop him because there’s so much random stuff thrown in with all these other characters and attacks and…. stuff. More stuff. It’s a shame, because he could have been much more interesting.
I want to talk about one more thing I like about Milo, and to discuss that I have to sort of digress onto another topic; one that I think this movie actually did well. That’s Atlantis itself and the Atlantians. Even if they didn’t do enough of it.
There is a whole freaking culture in this movie. There’s a language. There’s magic and science that no one in the movie or even watching the movie can wrap their heads around. Atlantis was dragged into a volcano to protect itself, and there its people have stayed, getting older and older, living in the ruins and losing memories and abilities of what they once could do. Losing their language to the point they can’t read any more – and these are the same people that were alive when it disappeared into the ocean!
They all wear a crystal around their neck and they forget why. They have a religion. We don’t know much about it, but when Kida sees the stones of her old Kings, she drops everything and starts praying! To completely invent a culture like this… it’s extremely unique thing for a Disney movie to do, and it KILLS me that they didn’t delve into it more.
Ok, with that explained, I want to talk about another storyline arc people have been using for decades: White man saves natives. You see it with countless movies, from The Last Samurai to Pocahontas to Dances with Wolves to Avatar. While I do have to admit that I’m a sucker for a majority of these movies, the point that people don’t like about this type of story is that it belittles the Natives and their abilities. In most of these movies, the Natives could have dealt with the situation themselves. The white man is there to learn something, fall in love, and save them, even thought they probably could have saved themselves.
Atlantis is similar, but different enough that this whole storyline idea is actually OK with me. Yes Milo “rescues” their culture, but at the same time, this culture actually needed help. It’s not just like the other ones where you have swords and spears and arrows going up against guns. In this one you actually have this unbelievable power in the Natives of Atlantis – they just don’t know about it. They actually NEED someone to help them because of what they lost. They can’t read the language, they don’t understand. It’s a difference that I think was very well done and in a movie full of caricature and trope, very refreshing.
NOW I wanna talk about Kida. The daughter of the King of Atlantis, she was just a little girl when she watched her mother be “chosen,” which led to the protection of their city under the ocean. She’s lived her life sheltered but she’s curious – she wants to know more about the culture that seems to be slipping out of her fingers. She finds one of their flying contraptions and wants it to work. Milo to her is like a Godsend. Finally she can uncover the mysteries of her people.
Kida is by far the best character in this entire movie. Don’t get me wrong, she’s not as developed as she could be, but she’s close. She’s the most interesting character in this movie because in a lot of ways, she represents Atlantis. Through her we get a feel for what culture they do have. We feel for her and grow angry when her ailing father tells her not to pursue anything, but instead to protect their way of life. She’s independent and brave. She’s everything you want in a leading female character, just not quite enough. It always annoys me that she’s not considered a “Disney Princess.” Maybe it’s the fact she’s like…. 8,800 years old. Does that detract? It doesn’t matter. I’d be her fan.
The romance between her and Milo is completely forced, but it’s a Disney movie, so you have to have it….? (actually I think it detracts. Friendship would have been much better!) They didn’t have time to do anything in this movie to actually develop their relationship, or anyone else’s for that matter. You don’t get connections between the characters at all. It makes me extremely sad, because this could have been so good!
I just… I don’t know what else to say about this movie. It’s boring. There’s a lot that goes on, but it’s not the right stuff. Sometimes I wonder why I own this movie, but at the same time, I can’t bring myself to get rid of it. The idea of Atlantis tugs at the hearts of so many, I think just that keeps me from tossing it. I think it’s because every time I watch it, I think it’s going to be better than it is. Because those ideas disney had about what happened to Atlantis are so good. Gah, it kills me. I wish someone would redo this movie. I know it has fans, and good for them! They can look past everything I can’t, I guess. I want to like this movie so much more than I do. I’m really torn. I just… I am.
I give Atlantis: The Lost Empire a 2.7 out of 5, making it my lowest ranking Disney movie. I’m sorry, but I’m not…
Up Next: Lilo & Stitch (2002)