Sunday 30 October 2016

Atlantis (Popular) Rising #4: Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)

I don't think I've ever had it in me to want to write about a Disney film. Let alone put one in the inspirational sources section of a role-playing game I wrote. There's always a first time, I say, as I shrug and begin the qualifications.

As a kid, and the cartoons came on the TV, I always preferred the frenetic slapstick of Tom and Jerry and the Road Runner. There was something about Disney cartoons that always creeped me out,1 something to do with the assumptions they made about the world, and at some point I realised that The Wonderful World of Disney simply didn't have room for me in it. I particularly remember seeing The Lion King in the cinema as a student with a bunch of contemporaries who were somewhat more privileged than me, who didn't understand why I hated it so much, or why I was rooting for the hyenas.2

So while I saw my fair share of Disney movies over the years, I missed Atlantis: The Lost Empire first time round and never really saw the point in seeing it. Last year though I was looking through Netflix for a film to watch with my kids. And there it was. They get to see a cartoon movie, and hell, I get to see an Atlantis movie, I thought. A plan with no flaws.

And... well. It's not like other Disney movies. Reading up on it, I found it was an attempt to make a Disney film to appeal to an older marker. The last time they tried that was The Black Cauldron, back in the 1980s, which I still haven't seen, which puts me in a group that includes the vast, vast majority of people, even people who like Disney movies. Atlantis: The Lost Empire flopped. Not as horrendously as The Black Cauldron, a film that tanked so badly Disney very nearly gave up animation altogether, granted, at least Disney talk about Atlantis sometimes, but it's interesting that while Pocahontas, Mulan and Merida from Brave get a shot at being part of the Disney Princess brand, Kida, the obligatory princess of Atlantis, doesn't.

The plot – OK, well I need to describe it. So Atlantis falls at the start of the movie, only part of it gets surrounded by a magic forcefield. Then the credits roll and we're in New York in the year 1914, and an aspiring archaeologist named Milo Thatch, ignored by the Scientific Establishment, is hired by a reclusive millionaire who knew Milo's archaeologist grandfather to find the secret location of Atlantis. So Milo and a bunch of rag tag "specialists" travel down in an amazing steampunk submarine and there it is, in a cave beneath the sea, and still inhabited by the original Atlanteans – the same ones, not their descendants – and they witness some of Atlantis's wonders. The captain of the sub, Rourke and his First Mate Helga turn out to be baddies and try to steal the secret crystalline heart of Atlantis, threatening to destroy the civilisation forever, but Milo, falling in love with the Atlantean princess Kida, discovers the keys to long-lost Atlantean technologies, and convinces the other crew members to help him stop Rourke and save Atlantis.

The Lost Empire, much like Warlords of Atlantis, takes about half the movie for the heroes to get to Atlantis, while at the same time trashing all the steampunk finery that is the highlight of the first half. The Nautilus-shaming sub gets trashed within ten minutes of its first appearance, which seems a waste of good design. Journeys have their own pleasures, but I do wish "lost world" movies wouldn't do this. If you're going to make a film about visiting Atlantis, do actually spend some time there. It's only fair.

The part I have the biggest problem with is how the plot hinges on Milo teaching the Atlanteans how to use Atlantean technology and to read Atlantean. As I said, it's made explicit that these aren't the descendants of the original survivors, these are the original survivors. While I appreciate that Atlantis has been under the sea a while, forgetting how to use the sky-chariots is one thing. Forgetting how to read your own language is quite another, and needing a white American to do it for you is... not right.

The Atlantis of the film is one I recognise. They clearly have some idea of the New Age conception of the Atlantis legend. Sky chariots of various kinds whizz around; giant robots made of stone form a bulwark against sea and volcano. Enormous cyborg sea monsters defend the tunnel. A crystal computer surrounded by levitating monoliths holds the spirits of the Atlantean people. The Atlanteans speak a language that is the root of all human languages... so they speak all languages, instinctively. And it looks beautiful; it has a real sense of wonder and while they could have given the protagonists' visit to Atlantis much more breathing space, what you see, aided by Mike Mignola's design and a healthy drawing on Churchward and co, is another sci-fi Atlantis that, while different from my own, extrapolates from the same source material as my own to come to a place of wonder.

Atlantis: The Lost Empire's design is actually weirdly jarring. On the one hand you have this wonderful Atlantean aesthetic and crazy steampunk equipment, but on the other hand it's a Disney movie with Disney characters – except not all of the characters even look like Disney characters. it's a weird mix of tone and animation styles. Apparently Mike Mignola, who one naturally associates with Hellboy, did a whole lot of the design on a film directed by the same guys who made Beauty and the Beast. And what that means is that you have characters standing next to each other who don't look they're supposed to be in the same film. Snarling femme fatale Helga and the anonymous gasmasked soldiers (a Mignola signature) simply don't look right beside fresh-faced Milo and would-be Disney Princess Kida.
Helga does not look like a Disney character.

Have you seen Laputa: Castle in the Sky? The Miyazaki movie? Atlantis: The Lost Empire has several points of similarity: flying machines you ride, giant robot guardians, crystal energy, steampunk bad guys, and a long-lost kingdom. Granted, to find Laputa you have to go up and to find Atlantis you go down but watch the two films back to back and you can see exactly what the Disney people were trying to do. Also, it's a much better film.

I mean, I can see why The Lost Empire was a flop. It's not terrible (and the whole "white American tells natives how to do their own culture" thing has hardly prevented a movie from being a hit in and of itself). It has much to commend it, in fact, but you can't help feeling a lack of nerve in the execution, a wish to make it more kid-friendly and cuddly than it could otherwise have been. Which is weird, because this film has quite a considerable body count. They could have made it a kids' film, or they could have gone all the way and emulated Laputa: Castle in the Sky as much as they evidently wanted to. Instead it sits in a weird half-way place that pleased no one: too offbeat and dark for the Disney Princess market, too cute for the anime-loving teens they wanted to reach.

Still, when I decided to write this series and got the Blu Rays and DVDs in, my youngest son was super-keen to watch this film with me again, so what can I say? I have a feeling I'll be watching it yet again, sooner rather than later. And frankly, it could be a lot worse.

It could be the bloody Lion King.

1Snow White and Fantasia are all right, I suppose. And I've sat through Frozen about a half dozen times and the thought of having to do it again doesn't fill me with horror, so I think that means I can cope with it. (back)

2When I was in uni, so we're talking from about 1994, cinema tickets on student concession were £2 at the Odeon and £2.50 at the UCI. So I went every Friday with a group of people and I saw some godawful films, I can tell you. Some of the very worst films I sat through as a student were because of group votes. Aside from having to sit through The Lion King, I recall paying good money to watch Event Horizon (no, it's terrible, and I stand by that), The House on Haunted Hill (the terrible, terrible remake), Dragonheart, Alien Resurrection and the Emmerich Godzilla. On the other hand I got to see Starship Troopers on the big screen and I went to see The Shawshank Redemption twice, so it wasn't a complete parade of disappointment. Now the UCI is gone and the Odeon is where the UCI was and there's a Vue around the corner and I can expect to spend a tenner on a film, and I have kids, so I don't go so much, and 90% of all the films I get to see in the cinema these days are kids' films, dammit. (back)