Friday, May 17, 2013

Atlantis: The Lost Empire Movie Review

 Maybe it's just me, but I don't think anyone really remembers Disney's Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001). I can think of a few good reasons not to see it, but I can also think of reasons you shouldn't miss it.
It's 1914, and Milo Thatch (Michael J. Fox), the grandson of Thaddeus Thatch works in the boiler room of a museum. He knows that Atlantis is real, and he believes he can get there if he has the Shepherd's Journal, which would act as a guide to Atlantis. Milo needs someone to fund a voyage, but his employers don't take him seriously and refuse to fund his expedition. After meeting a mysterious woman, Helga Sinclair (Claudia Christian), she takes Milo to her employer Preston B. Whitmore (John Mahoney), an eccentric millionaire who was a friend of Milo's grandfather. He gives Milo the Shepherd's Journal, a submarine, and a 5-star crew. The crew includes Commander Tiberius Rourke (James Garner), French Geologist "Mole" (Corey Burton), Medical Doctor, Joshua Sweet (Phil Morris), Italian Demolitionist "Vinny" (Don Novello), Puerto Rican mechanic Audry Ramirez (Jacqueline Obradors), elderly and sarcastic radio operator Wilhelina Packard (Florence Stanley), and a Western-style chuck wagon chef called "Cookie" (Jim Varney). After a bizarre voyage through the ocean's depths and through cavernous caves, they find Atlantis, governed by its king (Leonard Nimoy) and his daughter Kida (Cree Summers). Milo is beside himself with awe and wonder at the Atlantean City and doesn't suspect his crew of ulterior motives.
Disney was taking some bold new steps with Atlantis. It was their second animated feature without a musical number (Dinosaur being the first), their first animated sci-fi adventure (followed by Treasure Planet a few years later), one of the few to be shot in the Cinemascope aspect ratio (widescreen) format, and at the time of its release Atlantis used more CGI than any other Disney-animated feature. Disney was pushing the envelope with this movie.
Hellboy by Mike Mignola
The visual style inspired
designs for Atlantis.

The first thing that stands out about Atlantis is the animation. There are lots of details in the backgrounds and props, but the characters all have simple high contrast shading which makes them look flat. I thought that was a bit distracting, but take into consideration the style they were going for. The visual style was strongly based upon that of Mike Mignola, the comic book artist behind Dark Horse comic's Hellboy. The characters look angular and have large, squareish hands. It's very interesting to look at; it gives this animated action movie a satisfying comic book feel. Mignola's distinctive style helped earn Atlantis a cult following among comic book aficionados.
Another fascinating aspect of Atlantis was the Atlantean language. One of my linguistic heroes, Marc Okrand, was hired to develop the language used in the movie. Okrand is famous for developing the Klingon Language for the Star Trek movies and TV series. The Atlantean language employed an Indo-European word stock with its own unique grammatical structure. Okrand would change the words if they began to sound too much like an actual, spoken language. The written form was meant to be read left-to-right on the first line and right-to-left on the second, continuing a zigzagging pattern to simulate the flow of water. The artificial language was fascinating to hear and see, but wasn't utilized to the extent that I had hoped. It seems like a lot of effort was put into this underused aspect of the film.
The action in Atlantis was particularly exciting. Everything was well choreographed and it was easy to follow. While it is suitable for younger audience members, the action was  used to draw the audience in. Unfortunately with such an emphasis on the action, I felt that the story and characters suffered. I wanted to know more about the Atlantean culture and more about the character's histories and motives. There's very little down time in Atlantis, making the movie feel rushed. Yes, it's a Disney family movie, but they've done other animated features that flesh out the story and characters better than they did here. Excusing the lack of story and character development on the fact that it's a kids' movie is a pretty lousy argument. You can do better than this, Disney!
On a side note, I want to commend Jim Varney on his role as Cookie. Varney is known for his titular role in the Ernest movies, playing Jed Clampett in The Beverly Hillbillies movie, and for providing the voice for Slinky Dog in the first two Toy Story movies. Varney began doing the voice work for Cookie while struggling with lung cancer. He passed away in February of 2000, and never got to see the film. He was shown clips of his character's performance and reportedly, "He loved it." For a man virtually on his deathbed, Varney did a great job portraying an upbeat comical character.
Overall, I think the art style and production of Atlantis: The Lost Empire was far more interesting than the end result was. Most of the characters are shallow and conventional, and the story is predictable and unrefined. The art and color palette will blow you away, and the action will likely keep you interested. Due to its poor box office performance, Disney quickly canceled a spin-off TV series and an underwater Disneyland theme park attraction. I think that if more effort had been put into the developing the story, this would have been a much better movie. But if you're a linguistics dweeb like myself or a comic book enthusiast, I recommend seeing Atlantis: The Lost Empire. It will be released on Blu-Ray on June 11, 2013 and I may get a copy just because the animation is so intriguing. If art and linguistics aren't your thing, you're probably better off watching something else.

Here's the trailer to showcase the interesting animation and art style:

Can you think of another movie or book that uses a fictional language? I've already mentioned Star Trek's Klingon language and the Atlantis language. Comment below and tell me about it!

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