THE HOUSE OF MOUSE PROJECT – ‘Atlantis: The Lost Empire’

The one that offered a visual aesthetic like no other.

In the early years of the new millennium, Disney animation was sharply deviating away from the lavish musical spectacles which put the studio back on top in the early 1990s. After the relatively disappointing box office results of films like Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Disney’s studio executives pushed their creative team to deliver unique projects to help stave off the uprising of both Pixar and DreamWorks Animation.

While Disney animated feature films were still naturally performing well with family audiences, few teenagers would be caught dead in the line for the studio’s latest animated title. Desperate to tap into the lucrative teen market, then-CEO Michael Eisner went looking for an animated project he could easily sell to teenagers who grew up with Disney films but had outgrown gooey love stories and talking animal features. And he would turn to the team responsible for one of the most successful Disney animated films of all time.

In October 1996, directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, producer Don Hahn, and screenwriter Tab Murphy gathered for lunch to toast the recent release of their film The Hunchback of Notre Dame. After Trousdale, Wise, and Hahn had achieved staggering heights with Beauty and the Beast, the team were hopeful their latest film would prove equally successful. After a smooth production run, the four filmmakers were keen to keep the crew together for another animated feature.

After crafting two animated musicals, the group were interested in attempting something radically different, with their sights firmly set on producing an action-adventure inspired by Jules Verne’s classic 1864 sci-fi novel A Journey to the Center of the Earth. The team were keen to produce an action-heavy animated film set in the mythological lost city of Atlantis, which Verne’s work had only briefly touched upon. Trousdale soon approached Eisner with the pitch for Atlantis: The Lost Empire, which was greenlit on the spot, with the pair in agreement the film would not be a musical.

With a desire to craft a film that fully explored the city, the team heavily researched the mythology of Atlantis through various sources and were frustrated the city was consistently depicted or described as a mess of crumbled columns underwater. Trousdale and Wise made the decision to depict the city as a spectacular civilisation of the future with advanced technology powered by the “Heart of Atlantis,” a powerful crystal which also protected the city. The mystical crystal also provided the city’s citizens with healing powers and longevity of life, which was inspired by the work of Edgar Cayce, a late 19th-century clairvoyant.

While Joss Whedon initially worked on the draft script, the bulk of the screenplay was handled by Murphy, whose narrative was set in 1914 and centred on Milo Thatch, an ambitious young Smithsonian Institution cartographer and linguist who believes he has uncovered the directions to Atlantis. After his proposed expedition is rejected by the museum’s board, Milo teams up with an eccentric millionaire who agrees to fund the voyage and provide a team of specialists to assist Milo in his daring quest.

In a bid to truly depict Atlantis as its own unique civilisation, Trousdale and Wise were insistent on creating an entire spoken and written language for the Atlanteans. They turned to American linguistics expert Marc Okrand, the man responsible for developing the Klingon language for the Star Trek television series and its subsequent feature films. Okrand employed an Indo-European word stock for the Atlantean language with its own individual grammatical structure. Okrand worked for months on the language with a determination to create words that sounded nothing like any known language in existence.

The written components were designed by John Emerson, who crafted hundreds of random sketches of individual letters from which the directors chose those that best represented the vision for the language they had. The final designs generally featured swirled lines and dots to depict the Atlanteans close connection to the ocean and the earth. All written components were boustrophedon aka designed to be read left-to-right on the first line, then right-to-left on the second, and so on. This continual zigzag pattern was created to simulate the organic flow of water.

For the design of Atlantean architecture, art director David Goetz was inspired by the ancient structures of Cambodia, India, and Tibet, while also heavily influenced by the ruins of the Mayan civilisation of Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador. The circular layout and overall blueprint of Atlantis was taken directly from Plato’s works Timaeus and Critias. To accurately depict the technology of the early 20th century, animators visited museums and vintage army stations to study artifacts of this era. Key members of the animation team travelled 800 feet underground in New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns to view subterranean trails which would serve as the inspiration for the cavernous entry point to Atlantis.

But Trousdale and Wise yearned for the film’s overall visual aesthetic to be something unlike any other Disney animated feature thus far, with the goal of creating something that truly looked like an animated comic book. As such, the co-directors approached comic book artist Mike Mignola, who was the creator and artist behind Dark Horse Comics’ Hellboy. At first, Mignola was stunned to be approached to work on a Disney animated feature, but lept at the opportunity after meeting with Trousdale and Wise, who described their bold vision for the film.

Mignola was hired to be one of four production designers for the film, providing detailed style guides, character and background designs, and even working closely with Murphy on story ideas including the creation of mechanical flying-fish machines for the film’s conclusion. His influence over the entire production was immeasurable, with every visual element of the final film reflecting Mignola’s unique style with sharp angular edges and deep lines, which mirrored the artwork of comic books.

To further enhance the film’s spectacular visuals, Trousdale and Wise sought approval to produce and shoot Atlantis: The Lost Empire in 70mm anamorphic format (more commonly known as widescreen), which would be the first time a Disney animated feature had been produced in 70mm since The Black Cauldron. The directors felt it would give the film a nostalgic vibe, echoing action-adventure films of the past, which were presented in the CinemaScope format. But Eisner was initially reluctant to the idea. With the disastrous 1985 production still fresh in his memory, the CEO was concerned it would cause the budget of Atlantis: The Lost Empire to balloon.

To simplify the production process and save on costs, the animation team discovered they could use the existing standard aspect ratio equipment but simply draw within a smaller frame with a widescreen format reference guide to aid in their designs. After viewing a test sequence in the 70mm format, Eisner approved the change in production method. From here, Trousdale and Wise were inspired by filmmakers who had used the format in the past, particularly Steven Spielberg, David Lean, and Akira Kurosawa, with Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark consistently used as a reference point for the production team.

At the height of its production, over 350 animators, artists, and technicians were working on Atlantis: The Lost Empire. The film employed the services of Walt Disney Feature Animation in Burbank, California, Disney Feature Animation Florida, and Disney Animation France, with designs either faxed, couriered, or digitally shared between the three studios to allow for consistency in the aesthetic.

With more computer-generated imagery than any other Disney animated feature film thus far, Atlantis: The Lost Empire would ultimately include over 360 digital-effects shots that took more than three years to craft. Computer software was utilised to seamlessly join the 2D animation with artwork and object created in 3D, particularly in sequences involving the Ulysses submarine. The directors were also able to use a groundbreaking “virtual camera” which allowed the camera to effortlessly glide through a digital wire-frame set, with the background and details drawn over the frames in post-production.

For the film’s instrumental score, Trousdale and Wise approached composer James Newton Howard, who had just completed work on the score of Dinosaur. As several of the film’s key moments would not feature dialogue, Howard worked closely with the co-directors to craft a resonant score to convey the emotional intent of each scene. The composer crafted different musical themes for the cultures of the surface world and Atlantis, with the Atlantean theme employing the use of an Indonesian orchestral style.

Despite Eisner’s assurances the film could exist without any musical numbers, he was still insistent the film still include a big power ballad to play over the end credits, which was traditional of all Disney animated features. Generally, these songs became pop hits in their own right and boosted soundtrack sales for the studio. As such, Trousdale and Wise enlisted Oscar-nominated songwriter Diane Warren to write a track entitled “Where the Dream Takes You,” which was performed by Grammy Award winner Mya. Sadly, the sung was a complete dud and made no impact on the singles chart, nor was it nominated for Best Original Song at the Academy Awards.

Atlantis: The Lost Empire was released on June 15, 2001, to mostly generally mixed reviews from critics. While some critics like Roger Ebert praised the film as “rousing in an old pulp science fiction sort of way,” and The New York Times declared it “a monumental treat,” Variety called the film “all-talking, no-singing, no-dancing and, in the end, no-fun,” and The Washington Post panned it as “new-fashioned but old-fangled hash.”

The film opened at #2 during its U.S. opening weekend with a modest $20.3 million. During its full theatrical run, Atlantis: The Lost Empire grossed $84 million in the U.S. with a further $101 million internationally for a disappointing total gross of $186 million worldwide. With a production budget close to $120 million, the film was a major financial loss for the studio. Its failure was mostly attributed to DreamWorks’ Shrek debuting in cinemas just one month earlier, which surely made DreamWorks founder Jeffrey Katzenberg immensely satisfied, given his chequered history with the Disney studio.

With the rise of animation studios like Pixar and DreamWorks, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences finally introduced a new category honouring animated feature films at the 74th Academy Awards. Much to no one’s surprise, the inaugural winner of Best Animated Feature was Shrek. To add insult to its box office losses, Atlantis: The Lost Empire was not even nominated for the award.

In the history of Disney animation, there are few feature films as boldly ambitious as Atlantis: The Lost Empire. Its striking visual style is genuinely unlike anything Disney had produced to that point or even to this day. It’s little wonder the film now has a passionate fanbase and is considered by many to be an underrated cult classic, particularly with comic book fans who swoon over Mignola’s artistic influence on the project.

Despite its disastrous box office, the popularity of Atlantis: The Lost Empire has only grown over the last two decades, with many calling for the film’s heroine Kida to be officially added to the Disney Princess line-up. For the most part, Disney has seemingly ignored this title, with the film rarely receiving merchandise products and its characters rarely appear in Disney promotional material, which naturally angers its fervent fans.

While I can respect the film’s bold visual aesthetic, it’s another case of style over substance. The plot falls victim to an uncomfortable white male saviour narrative and leaves its strong indigenous female character languishing in the background. It’s confounding Milo is the true saviour of Atlantis and not its gutsy princess, which is a narrative more akin to Disney films of the 1940s and 50s where a handsome prince saves the fair damsel in distress. For a film making such bold advances with its animation, its screenplay leaves a lot to be desired.

The sublime animation is ultimately what saves Atlantis: The Lost Empire from being a total disaster. While its storyline is horrendously dull and its characters are terribly flat, the spectacular animated sequences are enough to wake audiences out of their bored stupid, with several stunning scenes brought to life through a fusion of computer animation with Mignola’s unique style. It’s a beautiful film to behold, but very little else. The decline of Disney narratives continued here, and it was becoming blindingly apparent the studio was losing its grip on how to craft a truly great film.

Is Atlantis: The Lost Empire a Disney Classic? There’s plenty to love about this film, but even more to despise. For all its spectacular animated sequences, the film is beset by screenplay issues that ultimately craft a dreadfully boring film. While it may have since attained cult status with some fans, this is no Disney Classic.