Here are the facts: Peter Schneider, the President of Feature Animation at Walt Disney Pictures since 1985, and therefore the man who oversaw and to some extent engineered the successful execution of the one-film-per-year plan, was promoted to being president of the whole film division of the Walt Disney Company in 1999. At that time, he was succeeded by Thomas Schumacher, producer of The Rescuers Down Under and executive producer of The Lion King. Two years later, the studio released its first PG-rated film since 1985's The Black Cauldron, in a marketing flurry unambiguously taking dead aim at the teenage boys who had decided decades ago that Disney cartoons were beneath contempt. It was this fateful decision to target the one market sector that was never going to be seduced over to Disney animation that a great many commentators, whose company I shall now join, have declared to be the death knell for traditional animation within that company. At the moment that Disney chose to chase the great unattainable 14 to 18-year-old male, it took an irreversible step on the road to irrelevance.
I'm not saying that it's Schumacher's fault, for this project was something he inherited, well into its pre-production, and perhaps even into its animation. Maybe he had nothing to do whatsoever with the ill-advised shift towards more "adult" themed projects. I simply don't know what went on inside the upper echelons of the Walt Disney Company during these years, and it's just as easy to imagine something like this:
MICHAEL EISNER: "Okay Tom, now that you're in charge, we need you do do something for us: we need to appeal to teenage boys. Give us more sci-fi!"
THOMAS SCHUMACHER: "But, Mr. Eisner, that's not what Disney animation should be about. We should be doing musical fantasies, good ones, with well-developed characters and beautiful songs that are catchy and deep all at the same time. The problem with the recent features is that they've been made like products, not like artistic expressions - and that's what I want to get back to."
EISNER: "Sci-fi! Sci-fi sci-fi! EXPLOSIONS!"
SCHUMACHER: [goes off somewhere to drink gin]
At any rate, the summer of 2001 saw Walt Disney Animation Studios put its name to Atlantis: The Lost Empire, one of the dismalest things in the company's extensive career. It is difficult to say whether its greatest failure is in its story, its characters, or its animation; for in all three of these ways it was a far cry from the heights of the Disney Renaissance so recently ended. Let's put it in some quick perspective: less than ten years earlier, Beauty and the Beast was released to massive acclaim and a groundbreaking series of Oscar nominations, while the outstanding box-office returns of Aladdin and The Lion King were even yet more recent. Ten years isn't that long, and given the lead-times involved with animation, it's even shorter yet; Atlantis must have entered development not too long after The Hunchback of Notre Dame was released to general indifference, given that it shares that film's (and Beauty's) directors, Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise.
It does boggle my mind a bit that, looking at the disappointing returns on Hunchback, the Disney suits decided that the answer was an even more adult-oriented picture; it meanwhile just depresses me that Trousdale and Wise, the most gifted and elegant directors of the Renaissance, would so readily sign up for a project like this. Maybe the pitch meeting was really good. Maybe, for all I know, the directors came up with the idea in the first place (it is a frustrating fact of contemporary Disney research that, the more unpopular a film, the harder it is to find details of its genesis - despite the fact that these are the films whose production history would seem to be the most interesting). Whatever the case, Atlantis demonstrates with admirable simplicity the truism that, to Hollywood types, "more mature" = "darker and more violent", in defiance of all the logic in the world, not to mention the plaintive cries of every half-way intelligent film critic out there.
As with The Lion King, this film has been accused of stealing from an anime series, Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water, and that could very easily be the case; but why bother going all the way to Japan to accuse Disney of thievery when it's so self-evidently the case that huge chunks of the story were lifted, by design or by accident, from Stargate? And, in case you were wondering, any time you can plausibly argue that a film has stolen ideas from a Devlin/Emmerich movie - even if it's the "best" Devlin/Emmerich movie - it is most assuredly the case that the film in question has rather major issues far above and beyond a phantom case of plagiarism. After a putatively thrilling opening in which we see many things that don't make sense yet, involving a little girl watching as her mother ascends into the sky and causes some kind of blue shell to surround a city and protect it from an encroaching tidal wave, the action skips over to Washington, D.C. in the year 1914, at a place that is conspicuously and deliberately never referred to as the Smithsonian, just "the museum". Here we meet Milo Thatch (Michael J. Fox), a linguist and cartography specialist whose mission in life is to complete his grandfather's investigations into the myths of Atlantis, particularly concerning a text called the Shepherd's Journal, which according to legend details the exact location of the vanished civilisation.
On the day of yet another professional setback, Milo is met by a femme fatale named Helga Sinclair (Claudia Christian, who I imagine got the job because of Babylon 5, because man, the teen boys sure do love the stars of ratings-starved syndicated TV shows), who brings him to a meeting with the reclusive, wealthy Preston Whitmore (John Mahoney). Whitmore was a friend of Milo's grandfather, and he also has a certain desire to see the elder Thatch's dreams become a reality, which is why he sank a huge amount of money into finding the Shepherd's Journal, and an even huger amount into the construction of a ridiculously large submarine to be manned by the finest crew of mercenaries ever assembled, all led by the able-handed Commander Rourke (James Garner). Milo's job is to decipher the Journal and guide the team where it needs to go. Namely, deep under the water, past a giant metal lobster beast that leaves the submarine in pieces, and into a huger deep sea air pocket, a cave system that, according to the Journal, ends up in a vast grotto where Atlantis found itself after the cataclysm.
Inside this cave, the crew finds a large population in decline: after 10,000 years under the sea, the Atlanteans have forgotten most of their lore and their technology lies in decline. Luckily, they are cunning linguists with an innate ability to speak, apparently, any Indo-European language (in fact, I am doing them a disservice by saying so: according to the trivia page at the IMDb, they are masters of Hebrew and Chinese, as well), so they are readily able to communicate with the adventurers, and with Milo in particular, who can speak Atlantean with a certain halting quality, and more importantly, can understand the written Atlantean language, a skill which has been lost by all the people of the city. So it is that the Atlantean princess, Kida (Cree Summer, the first professional voice actor given a really major role in a Disney film in quite some time) calls upon Milo to help her figure out why the city's power supply seems to faltering; meaning that he isn't present when Rourke and Sinclair lead the rest of the uplander crew in an attack on the king (Leonard Nimoy), looking to find that very same power source to sell it to the highest bidder.
So when I say, "rip-off" of Stargate, here's what I mean: an opening scene set in the distant past that presents a cataclysm whose full import we'll learn later, a bumbling linguist whose theories are met with general derision, a woman who brings said linguist to meet with the leader of a secret group of explorers whose discoveries so far have validated his theories, his knowledge of dead languages is the key to helping the team find their way to a lost civilisation, where he again turns out to be the only one who can help the natives decode the secrets of their own past, and the military man leading the expedition turns out to have a dark secret counter-mission that the simpering liberal scientist finds disgusting, but of course everything turns out right in the end, and he stays behind because of his love for a local girl (aww, did I spoil the ending? Good, now you don't have to ever see it). Atlantis was even meant to lead into a weekly series involving the further explorations of the team from the movie. Christ, there's even a show called Stargate: Atlantis, although that came out years after the Disney movie.
But the film's eyebrow-raising number of similarities to an enjoyably shitty '90s popcorn movie isn't inherently a sign of weakness. I think that Trousdale and Wise, and the rest of the story team (including Tarzan and Hunchback screenwriter Tab Murphy, as well as - saints preserve us - Joss Whedon) would at any rate prefer that we think not of James Spader's Daniel Jackson, but of Harrison Ford's Indiana Jones, when we look at Milo, and if your squint enough, the whole bit of Atlantis isn't hugely unlike any of the Indy films.
The narrative flaws in Atlantis are not a function of its willful lack of imagination in any case, but simply the kind of slipshod storytelling that transcends originality. Take for instance, the Shepherd's Journal. The first time we see Milo, he is nervously preparing for a presentation to the heads of "the museum" (one of them voiced by Disney regular David Ogden Stiers), about his desire to search for that artifact in Iceland. This scene makes a whole big deal about it: no-one has looked in Iceland! It is only Milo's cleverness that has led him to unlock the truth, that it is in Iceland! He must find it! For like ten minutes, the whole movie revolves around Milo's desire to get to Iceland and find the Journal. It's clearly being set up as the first-act MacGuffin, like the knight's tomb in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. So what happens when Milo meets Whitmore? "Oh, by the way, we found the book, here you go". Gee. What an awesome way to get us invested in the high adventure and exploration of the romantic age before the Great War, team of seven credited story writers.
That irritating but ultimately forgivable little skip hasn't got anything on what happens once the action reaches Atlantis; and more particularly, once the action reaches Atlantis's myths. Maybe if I sat down and watched the film a couple times, instead of seeing it twice in eight years, I'd be able to follow what goes on a bit more readily, and really understand and delight in the whole matter of the Atlantean power crystal and absorbing the body of a member of the royal blood and giant protector statues and people living for millennia and barely aging and, and, but I do not. It all unspools like a great wet "blargh" of narration that, insofar as it makes sense at all, is largely because I have played the same video games as the writers. Really, I can't think of what to say about the second half of the movie, other than that it's so chaotic and busy and I don't know what. Too many ideas, and not a one of them expressed in anything like a clear, straightforward manner.
What sucks is that this is clearly meant to be a story-intensive movie, the kind where we're so wrapped up in the twists of the mythology that we don't care quite as much about the characters' personal journeys; not a formula that suits Disney terribly well, as we've seen elsewhere. And so, naturally, the cast of Atlantis is largely made of broad cartoon stock types, with only Milo given legitimate depth (the film even has the rampant indecency to pull that hoary old "let's sit around the campfire and swap backstories" routine). Let's see, we've got: Dr. Sweet (Phil Morris), a fast-talking black guy; Vinny Santorini (Don Novello), a sardonic Italian pyromaniac; Mrs. Packard (Florence Stanley), a tart-tongued old woman; Cookie (Jim Varney), who seems to have wandered in from 1870s Wyoming perfectly intact, and who makes inedible meals; Audrey Ramirez (Jacqueline Obradors), a snotty teen mechanic; and "The Mole" (Corey Burton, another proper voice actor), the French digger who is disgusting and everybody hates him. Sound like the ready-made "everyone has an instantly recognisable quirk so you can keep them all separate easily" platoon of any given crummy war film? Or the cast of a bad ensemble TV show? You know what it doesn't sound like, is the basis for an interesting character-driven movie, which is good, because Atlantis isn't.
Like I said, only Milo of the whole cast (and maybe Whitmore, owing almost exclusively to John Mahoney) gets to have a definite personality, and it's mostly the stuttering, nervous, ambitious underachiever routine that isn't, to say the least, a horribly innovative approach to take for the protagonist of an adventure movie, especially one aimed at kids. But at least he's somewhat likable and sympathetic, which is much more than can be said for any of the tedious comic types with whom he shares the screen.
The last time we had a) a Disney feature that was trying, ill-advisedly, to appeal to teen boys by, b) indulging in a trite fantasy adventure populated by, c) terribly flat characters, it was The Black Cauldron, a movie that despite everything I still enjoy and even respect a little bit, because of the impressive quality of its design and animation. So even now, I could not positively declare Atlantis: The Lost Empire to be a hopeless case. It was still being made by the artists tried and proven during the Disney Renaissance, after all, and could thus be relied upon to make a bunch of pretty pictures, at least. You'd hope. You'd be let down.
I shall concede that the movie's production design (with input from several men, including Hellboy's Mike Mignola) is awfully hard to fault. Blending influences from a number of different cultures, most obviously Meso-American and Chinese designs, the film's idea of Atlantis is rather intriguing and distinctly not what we expect from cinematic representations of that city. Even before that, there have been some pretty exceptional concepts: while I don't really understand the point of setting the story in 1914, at least it enabled the artists to design a really swell massive submarine with definite late-Victorian/Edwardian lines and a certain hint of steampunkish innovation.
The character design, however, is absolutely appalling, easily the worst in any Disney feature since the first phase of xerography ended in the 1970s. Allegedly, the designers took inspiration from comic book figures, and the population of Atlantis is consistently very graphic, very linear; everyone save the round Mole is defined as a collection of absolutely crisp, straight lines, with strong, solid colors. They really do look like comic book characters, at any rate, which isn't necessarily a bad thing; the problem is when the lines of the comic book come into conflict with the discipline of the Disney animator, which privileges a different kind of body language than is used on the comics page, leading in a number of cases to disquieting, unpleasant character movements - particularly in the case of Helga Sinclair, supervised by Tamura Yoshimichi, one of the Paris-based animators who had become an increasingly important part of the Disney animation team since the mid-1990s. I don't mean to say mean things about the work of any of these artists, but Helga just looks awful: she has awkward little eyes that keep shifting position on her head, and the way she's meant to suggest "I am a seductive woman" is almost laughable, given how damn rectangular her shoulders and breasts are. I single her out as the worst bit of animation in the film, but none of the characters look especially good; it's probably the case that the more cartoony a character is (like Dave Pruiksma's Mrs. Packard, Anthony de Rosa's Mole, or Shawn Keller's Cookie), the less obnoxious they are to the eye, but at the same time it is these characters who contrast most awkwardly with the predominately realistic aesthetic of the rest of the film. Once again, only Milo seems to really work; animated by John Pomeroy, whose newfound relationship with the studio that once drove him into the wilderness with Don Bluth was still going strong, years after Pocahontas, Milo is the best blend of realism and caricature in the movie, with just enough de-emphasis on the "realistic" end of things that he isn't so gross to look at as Helga, Kida, or Rourke. In Milo's case, the graphic comic book lines are a bit less stark than in those characters, so his movements don't seem as unnatural.
I think, to stand back and look at the whole project from a distance, Atlantis was meant to be Disney's "anime" film; but the thing is, the studio didn't make anime. It made Disney pictures. And the generic requirements of anime, in terms of narrative and character, are so fundamentally different from Disney's traditions that it's hardly surprising that they couldn't do it well (in particular, I think the awful character animation is the result of anime-style design philosphy mixed unsuccessfully with Disney's customarily greater frame-rate and different approach to physical acting). It's not a complete wash-out, visually - the much subtler use of Deep Canvas than in Tarzan is nice, and Atlantis really does look like nothing you've ever seen before, exactly - and at least, as an adventure story, it has a pretty fast pace that keeps you going even as logic and meaning keep dropping away by the side of the road. Still, it's a pretty dreadful movie, one that came from seemingly nowhere when it was new.
It couldn't have come at a worse time. 2001 was the year in which DreamWorks animation finally got their act together, as a business if not as artists, and released Shrek: a pretty lousy movie if you ask me, but it raked in pots of cash, and won the first-ever Best Animated Feature Oscar. Coupled with the continued rise of Pixar with Disney's own backyard - November's Monsters, Inc. was nearly as big a hit as Shrek domestically, and handily surpassed it internationally - the meager takings that Atlantis managed to pull in (even factoring in foreign receipts, it only barely made back its production and advertising budget) made it look like 2-D Disney animation was past its moment in the sun, well and truly. Never mind the fact that Atlantis was a PG-rated action movie, where Shrek was a PG fairy tale and Monsters, Inc. was an insanely cute fable; never mind that Atlantis had story and character problems the size of a semi-truck. That would require some personal responsibility from people not willing to give it. Anway, the first seeds of doubt were sewn; the axe had not yet fallen on the studio, but only now was it apparent that the axe existed in the first place.