If there is a lesson that anybody who has been reading my posts about the Disney Canon should take with them to the grave, is that Walt Disney Animation Studios should not try to go after a teenage audience when making their movies. Disney and dark action adventure simply don’t go together in the public’s eyes. Whether or not Disney’s next movie, Big Hero 6 (based on a Marvel Comics property and scheduled to be released later this year) manages to be a financial success remains to be seen, but frankly, the odds are against it. People didn’t show up for The Black Cauldron, and they definitely did not show up for Atlantis: The Lost Empire.
Ever since the rise of the action summer blockbuster in the late seventies and early eighties, studios have marketed their big movies almost exclusively to teenage boys. The exact reason for this eludes me, although I’m sure there must be some stupid marketing research behind such a decision. In any case, someone at Disney must have read that memo, because Atlantis is Disney’s most clear and shameless attempt at making an action-packed boys movie. What you wouldn’t have guessed from the movie’s history, is that it was actually directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, who after starting their career with the magnificent Beauty and the Beast went on to helm the disappointing, but respectable The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and somehow ended up landing on the utter misfire that is Atlantis: The Lost Empire.
To be fair to Trousdale and Wise, the idea of exploring the lost world of an ancient civilization, especially in animation, could have resulted in a thrilling adventure with insanely beautiful visuals. Sadly, that is not the case with Atlantis. Well, not for the most part. On the visual department, Atlantis is not entirely a failure. As a matter of fact, if there is something that I would say is unquestionably good about the movie, it’s its art direction. One of the credited production designers is comic book artist Mike Mignola (who you might know is the creator of Hellboy), and the visual style of Atlantis, while definitely inspired in his creations, is also surprisingly original and inventive both in the steampunk machines of the real-world part of the film as in the design of Atlantis itself, which takes visual cues from all sorts of ancient cultures to emerge with a unique vision of its own.
So, pretty inventive art direction, no doubt about that. The rest of its visuals, though, are not up to the sam standard. With that comment I’m mostly referring to the animation, although character design has a little bit to do with it too. The mostly angular shapes of Mignola’s style don’t lend themselves too well to the kind of polished animation that usually goes on at Disney. Or at least, the animators of Disney at that time weren’t easy to adapt their talent. You can look, for example, at how hard it is for them to animate sexy femme fatale Helga Sinclair mostly due to her angular body. Had she been as round and curvy as a Jessica Rabbit, I think we would have hardly had the same problem. There is no question that Disney was trying to make a movie that looked like a comic-book. The first X-Men movie was released the year before, which is too short of a time span to have been an influence on Atlantis, which was most likely created in response to the growing popularity of Japanese manga and anime during the nineties. As a matter of fact, Atlantis has actually been accused of stealing some of its plot from the anime series Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water*
*I wouldn’t know if there’s any truth to these allegations, since I haven’t seen the anime in question, but it lets me go on a somewhat interesting tangent: This is actually not the first Disney movie to supposedly have stolen from Japanese manga. The first is The Lion King which has been accused of being suspiciously similar to the series Kimba the White Lion from the similarities in the protagonists’ names to the fact that some of The Lion King’s concept art features Simba as a white lion. There is also a rumor that Disney approached the Japanese creators to but the rights to Kimba, and when they refused to sell them, decided to produce a movie anyway, but that is only a rumor as far as I know.
Even if Atlantis weren’t stealing from Nadia, it would be very bluntly stealing from Roland Emmerich’s Stargate. I only watched the Emmerich film in preparation for this post, and the similarities are staggering. If that weren’t enough, Atlantis also has the “white person awakens the potential of a group of natives” kind of storyline that feels so familiar to Hollywood movies. This may sound ridiculous, but I think James Cameron might have taken as much from this movie as he did from Dances with Wolves when he made Avatar. The hole in that theory is why a director as successful as Cameron would steal from such a bad movie as Atlantis. Why indeed. There is really little of substance to the plot of Atlantis, which is not only bland, predictable and boring, but also throws all of the world-building suggested by the production design by deciding that the rules for how this world operates range from unspecific to complete nonsense.
If your response to that criticism is to say that this is only a kids movie, well, then you might have missed the point entirely, since the very existence of Atlantis suggests otherwise. Disney was clearly wanting to get on the boat of action animation as to appeal to the boy audience it was, and I want to emphasize this word, supposedly losing to Pixar and Japanese animation, but completely missed the mark by not realizing that all those animes were becoming popular in America precisely because they were complex narratives that demanded commitment and involvement form part of their fans. Corporate Disney couldn’t go out trying to make an outright science fiction extravaganza, so they compromised at making a mediocre adventure movie. The result was, as you read, a fiasco.
Next Week: Lilo & Stitch, a movie that mostly succeeds in Disney trying to go after the trends of the early 2000s.