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Atlantis: The Lost Empire


One of those Disney animations (the 41st) I felt no great urgency to see. I’m all for them trying something different – I didn’t much care for most of their feted ’90s resurgence – but attempting an animated take on a storyline that would surely have been better suited to live-action (“ATLANTIS – Fewer songs, more explosions” read the crew t-shirts) probably wasn’t the way to go. This and Treasure Planet helped put the nail in the studio’s cell-animation coffin, just as Pixar was doing no wrong (and selling adrenochrome/ loosh addiction to a generation of kids). Unlike the previous experimental Disney – the troubled Emperor’s New GrooveAtlantis: The Lost Empire is a bit of a stiff, neither especially inventive visually nor in terms of plotting. But then, Atlantis does generally seem to get a bit of a bum movie deal.

It seems directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise – Beauty and the Beast, The Hunchback of Notre Dame; this rather blotted their copybook – played fast and loose in their approach to the subject. They were inspired to attempt a Raiders of the Lost Ark-type picture but stinted on the due diligence, much of which came via the Internet. Heading the picture with a Plato quote is all well and good, and dropping in a Book of Job reference to “leviathan” somewhat arbitrary but fine, but there’s otherwise zero sense of literary acumen. 

I feel sure Edgar Cayce must have been skimmed over at some point, hence the suggestion of crystal-based technology and its misuse bringing destruction raining down on the Atlanteans; it seems the makers of anime Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water felt there was outright plagiarism involved. One of the cited reasons is that, in contrast to the mutually suggested Jules Verne as a source, only Nadia has crystal tech. However, if it’s the anime makers’ contention that they plucked their conceit out of thin air, they don’t have a leg to stand on.

Of course, if Cayce was being used, the actual plundering seems like slim pickings. Yes, there’s a great crystal as a power source, and there are flying ships. And the misuse of the crystal technology leads to Atlantis’ destruction (“In my arrogance, I chose to use it as a weapon of war”). And Atlantis thrived in prehistory (“10,000 years before the Egyptians built the pyramids” suggests Milo; the movie itself has destruction occurring almost 9,000 years ago).

However, the crystal developing its own consciousness, merging with humans (of royal blood) and promoting longevity is all Disney (or perhaps akin to the anime), some of it suggestive of a kind of crystal-tech transhumanism in tone. Aspects also appear ill thought out; love interest Kida (Cree Summer) being thousands of years old is rather daft, mainly because it’s dealt with in a single line of dialogue and appears to have no ramifications or importance whatsoever with regard to her relationship with doofus hero Milo (Michael J Fox). 

The screenplay, credited to Tab Murphy (the story bears six names, including Joss Whedon), throws in references to Atlantis being off the coast of Ireland, then the coast of Iceland, Norse text, the fictional The Shepherd’s Journal, and vague intimations of Atlantis as the source of all civilisation. None of it really takes on convincing Indiana Jones, treasure-hunt lustre, though (Atlantis was the subject of 1992 computer game Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis – which does appear to have involved some legitimate research in the making – and would surely have been much more of a no brainer than crystal skulls… or dials of destiny). 

Obviously, there’d be no plot without Atlantis’ survival of the catastrophe; in The Lost Empire, it’s thanks to the crystal forming a protective dome (firmament?) Indeed, one might draw parallels to a peace-loving society intentionally removing itself from contact with the known Earth, and further parallel the crystal tech-enhanced Atlanteans with a society that has moved into a higher (5D) consciousness. To that extent, The Lost Empire might be granted a loose track on the actual civilisation’s development (give or take the account of its destruction through degeneracy).

Rourke: You’ve read Darwin. It’s called natural selection.

The corrupting humans are thus front and centre, led by James Garner’s Commander Rourke. Why, he even brandishes stamped-and-approved evolutionary theory as justification for taking control of superior Atlantean science (their loss of knowledge of how their own tech works, in a society that hasn’t aged since, rather escaped me, but then, there are various elements, such as Rourke turning into a crystal monster, that don’t bear close analysis). Notable too is Disney’s taste for traumatised children, with Kida separated from her mother in the prologue (sounds a bit like the machinations at Disneyland generally). And Milo works for the Smithsonian, curators of official doctrine regarding sanctioned/ invented history (so a mission to search for Atlantis was never getting funding).

Rourke: Mercenary? I prefer the term “adventure capitalist”.

The design work and animation are all rather sketchy. Calling on Mike Hellboy Mignola as a stylistic template was fine in theory, but rather like Gerald Scarfe and Hercules, it’s rather watered down by the lack of inspiration in the storytelling itself. There’s nothing very wondrous or visually commanding about this undersea world. Fox does his patented thing, but appears taller than usual. Also in the eclectic voice cast are Claudia Christian, David Odgen Stiers, Jim Varney (his last film) and Leonard Nimoy. There are various jokes about puke always having carrots in it, baked beans inducing farting, and urine samples, but you’re unlikely to recall The Lost Empire being very funny.

Some have drawn attention to certain similarities with Stargate, not least a bespectacled science whiz protagonist (Milo wears his glasses underwater, which is curious); the Stargate: Atlantis spinoff would be commissioned a few years after Atlantis: The Lost Empire’s release. The picture’s fate was sealed by going up against a live-action Indy wannabe on its first weekend: Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. Which may have been rubbish, but it was nevertheless lucrative rubbish.

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