A week ago, news broke of an unmade sequel to Disney's Atlantis: The Lost Empire. A few days later, SYFY WIRE found itself chatting with screenwriter Tab Murphy, discussing his script for an upcoming remake of The Changeling. As fate would have it, Murphy also wrote Atlantis (celebrating its 19th anniversary this week), so as our horror conversation wound down, we headed to The Lost Empire for a bit.
Ever since the Mouse House started bringing its animated classics into the realm of live action, many fans have wondered why the company doesn't tap into its wellspring of more obscure/underrated films that didn't make a ton of money or fanfare upon release but have gained massive followings in the years since. The Black Cauldron and Treasure Planet immediately come to mind, but Atlantis — a dieselpunk adventure that doesn't shy away from mature concepts — has always seemed particularly well suited for live action.
"I think of all the ones that I had a hand in writing, that one would make the most sense, because it just had an aesthetic that was so cool. We always treated it as a live-action movie," Murphy exclusively tells us. "I remember [producer] Don Hanhn and Kirk [Wise] and Gary [Trousdale], the directors, sending me [to write] the script, saying, 'Write it like a live-action movie.' And that's what I did. My first draft was 142 pages long and they were like, 'Don't leave anything out that we've been brainstorming.' From Day 1 on that project, it never felt like an animated movie."
Set in 1914 (the same year World War I broke out in Europe), the movie centers around an expedition to find the eponymous lost continent. With the help of an ancient diary, bookish linguist Milo Thatch (Michael J. Fox) guides a technologically advanced crew through unimagined perils and nefarious double crosses. Aside from an epic scope and grand visuals (think Jules Verne meets BioShock), Atlantis is also quite remarkable for its unprecedented level of representation in an animated project, delivering a cast of characters who don't all share the same culture, background, or skin color.
"I watched it not too long ago ... and I sat there watching it like, 'God*amn, this movie was made ahead of its time' in terms of certain things like the diversity of the team of explorers," Murphy explains. "We had Disney's first non-Caucasian princess, and a very different kind of princess at that, in Kida [voiced by Cree Summer]. I just became very proud of that movie all over again."
Over the last year or so, there's been rumors about Tom Holland playing Milo in a live-action remake of the film, and while that sounds like perfect casting, you probably shouldn't get your hopes up too high. Murphy describes those whispers as "bogus" and "a lot of fan-driven speculation," which makes sense when you consider that Holland is already set to play a different Indiana Jones-type explorer in Sony's Uncharted adaptation. Even so, the fan-based fervor that's grown around Atlantis: The Lost Empire isn't something to wave off.
"I have become aware, in the last couple of months, that there are a lot of fans of that movie out there," Murphy says. "It's so ironic to me, because for the last 20 years I haven't thought about that movie at all. Of course I'm proud of it, very proud of it. But that movie came out and was perceived at the time as not performing very well. And it just kind of went away and I was really disappointed, [along with] everybody involved in the making of that movie, because I thought we had a really cool, progressive, throwback movie to the kinds of movies that Disney made in the days of yore."
It wasn't until the screenwriter found a Facebook group called Atlantis: The Lost Empireposting (a page boasting over 20,000 members) that he came to realize the film has an immense fan base made of people, now in their mid-20s, who grew up watching and loving Milo & Co.
"I made a little post and, of course, sh** hit the fan, and then I started giving away signed posters," Murphy continues. "It just amazed me how many people [love the movie]. In my inbox, I get these messages from people like, 'That movie was my childhood, thank you so much.' And here, I've been for 20 years going, 'Well, I guess [no one really liked it].' I had no idea, it was crazy ... For me, it was really cool to find that it actually was successful in so many ways. It's a movie that's been carried forward in a very loving way by people that grew up on it as kids, and they still are big champions of the film, so it was really cool."
At this time, Disney is working on remakes of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Murphy penned the 1996 original, by the way), Peter Pan, Snow White, The Little Mermaid, Pinocchio, Bambi, Hercules, Robin Hood, Lilo & Stitch, and The Sword in the Stone. That's not even mentioning Mulan (set to open next month), Cruella, and the sequels to The Jungle Book and Aladdin. Spinoffs based on Cinderella (Prince Charming) and Aladdin (Prince Anders) are in development as well.
And yet, Atlantis (currently streaming on Disney+ along with its direct-to-video sequel, Milo's Return) remains mysteriously unplumbed.