Let's go back to a simpler time: 1996. Producer Don Hahn and Directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise were sitting at a restaurant with Writer Tab Murphy after finishing The Hunchback of Notre Dame. It was agreed that the four of them should stick together and work on another film, one with an Adventureland setting. The idea came to them for a movie about the lost city of Atlantis, an idea inspired by Jules Verne's A Journey to the Center of the Earth. In their treatment of the Atlantis story, they also decided to incorporate the clairvoyant readings of Edgar Cayce, a psychic who claimed to be able to shed light on subjects such as healing and Atlantis. They incorporated some of his ideas-notably that of the mother-crystal, which provides power, healing, and longevity to the Atlanteans-into the story. To add to the realism, the crew went through countless museums to scope out early 20th century technology, and even went as far as to visit the Carlsbad Caverns to get landscape ideas for the underground animation. The filmmakers knew of the usual depiction of Atlantis as a crumbling Greek city, and wanted to create something uniqu e instead. What the movie ends up with is a combination of Mayan, Southeast Asian, Indian, and Tibetan inspired architecture. Atlantis was also to be different from other Disney films, as it would be a straight action film with no songs whatsoever. The crew even wore shirts that said "ATLANTIS-Fewer Songs, more explosions."
The filmmakers knew that besides redesigning what people thought of when they picture Atlantis, they had to create a distinct language for the Atlanteans. Marc Okrand, a linguist who created the Klingon language for Star Trek, was hired to create a unique Atlanean language. Guided by the directors' initial concept of a mother language, Okrand employed an Indo-European word stock with its own grammatical structure. John Emerson designed the written portion of the language, writing out a bunch of random shapes and along with the directors, picking out which ones best fit the Atlantean race. The A in Atlantean was meant to serve as a treasure map to the heart of Atlantis, as evidenced in the film.
The screenplay went through a ton o f rewrites. Joss Whedon, who you may know from several shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, and a little movie called The Avengers, was the first writer to contribute to the film, but unfortunately left early in the production. The original treatment was over 120 pages, 30 pages over the average number for Disney screenplays. To shorten it up, characters were erased and the story shifted to be more about Milo, the hero of the story. There was even meant to be trials in the caverns to keep outsiders away, but they had to be scrapped because they felt it slowed the movie way down. Milo was going to be a descendant of Blackbeard the Pirate, AKA Edward Teach-a connection that would have made Milo realize his natural gift as an explorer-but that was dropped. Moliere was supposed to be a professor-like character, but was inst ead turned into a crazy, mole-like man with extending eyeballs and weird headgear. The beginning of the film was going to have a Viking party using the Shepard's Journal to find Atlantis, only to be annihilated by the Leviathan.
To this day, Atlantis: The Lost Empire has a cult following, probably one of the few Disney animated films to have one, and it's all because of one thing: the animation. Well that's weird, you may be saying to yourself. Why would the animation give this movie a cult following? Well, the animation, besides being breathtaking, is based off of the work of Mike Mignola. Mignola, for those who are not familiar with him, is the comic book artist who gave us Hellboy. Mignola has a very distinct look to his drawings and Disney apparently liked it so much that they wanted to use it for their film. Mignola was hired on as one of the four production designers. The movie may be a traditionally animated film, but it had the most use of CGI than any other Disney movie at that time (Dinosaur was all CGI so that doesn't count). This movie has quite a few things going against it, but animation is not one of them. It is a really good looking movie, especially the landscapes and architecture.
If the characters are memorable at all, it is because of their voice actors. Milo may be annoying, but he is brought to life by the great Michael J. Fox. Fox had the choice between doing this movie or Titan A.E. and chose Atlantis due to his son's request to do so. Cree Summer is Kida, the Princess of Atlantis. Summer has been in a bunch of stuff, but is most recognizable, at least to me, as the voice of Susie Carmichael on Rugrats, and Elmyra on Tiny Toons. James Garner voices Commander Rourke, the leader of the mission to find Atlantis and the movie's antagonist. Garner is most known for his title roles in Maverick and The Rockford Files. Sadly, this film marked the last animated film for Jim Varney, who played Cookie. Varney is legend, so you better know who he is. Last is Leonard Nimoy as the King of Atlantis. Nimoy was in some space show in the 60's that I can't remember at the moment. I'm sure you've never heard of it anyway.
Most critics noted the lack of character develo pment and uneven plot as the worst offenses. On the flip side, most loved the animation and the last battle scene. Now, I don't usually agree with critics, but they did peg this movie correctly. The plot is kind of disjointed and you really don't g et to know the characters very well. Sure you know them, but you don't really care about them. I didn't care about Milo. I thought he was annoying. Sorry. That being said, the animation is superb and unique, and the last battle is pretty epic. I mean, the villain turns into crystal and then shatters into pieces when he stands up into a running propeller.
A few things I found interesting abo ut this film, though. I like how they based the Atlanteans off the Egyptians in the sense that they had forgotten about their own culture. When Napoleon marched into Egypt, he noticed that the Egyptians had all these relics, but had no idea of their past or their time as a great civilization. The same thing is mirrored in Atlantis. They can't even read their own language. This film is not only different because of the lack of songs, but because of its violence. Warning to all you wanting to show your kids this movie someday. Wait till they are older. A ton of people die in this movie. Sure you don't see most of them die, but it's all very assumed. It's an action adventure story so what do you expect? The themes of the movie are good ones though, if not a little forced. The villain of the movie is Commander Rourke, a man who will stop at nothing for riches, even if it means letting a whole civilization die, or even the men in his expedition. Rourke= Extreme Capitalist Greed. The film also drips with anti-imperialism, as we all see the consequences of trying to take something that belongs to another people by invading them. I would compare it to the old world explorers traveling to the new world in search of gold. They didn't care about who they hurt, they just wanted to fill their pockets. Granted, the whole expedition is in it for the money except Milo.
They all turn their back on him, though they all come back to support him in the end, save for Rourke. And our hatred is basically only for him, as even the people that stay with him are without faces. They wear gas masks ala WWI soldiers and serve as the expendable stormtroopers. Not only does it make them look more sinister, but it makes it less tragic when they get blown up in the end.
Atlantis has some redeeming qualities as I've pointed out, and some interesting themes, but it's too laden with odd plot points and forgettable characters to be anything more than a mediocre Disney film.