It’s hard to say any Disney animated feature is a “lost gem.” How lost can it be? It’s a movie released by the biggest media conglomerate in the world. Even the least successful of them, at the very least, probably did OK at the box office and are readily available for discovery on a juggernaut of a streaming service. As such, there’s a good chance you’ve already seen Atlantis: The Lost Empire, one of the more fascinating entries in Disney’s later canon. You probably don’t need me to tell you to watch it again, but alas, that’s what I’m here to do. Because here’s the thing, y’all: Atlantis rules.
It’s hard to say what Atlantis is. Cult classic? Squandered opportunity? Cursed with the genius of being a decade ahead of its time? It’s all of those things and more, and given the abundance of free time so many of us find ourselves with these days (and no new movies to see in theaters), it’s perhaps as good a time as ever to revisit Disney’s brilliant adventure epic and wonder what could have been.
Originally released in 2001, Atlantis was a big swing for Disney in just about every conceivable way. With the famed Disney Renaissance (beginning with 1989's The Little Mermaid and ending with Tarzan in 1999) beginning to burn out, the company’s future was very much up in the air. Atlantis seemed to draw notes from two prior Renaissance films, Mulan and Tarzan, and simultaneously chart a tonal shift from Disney’s wheelhouse. Rather than princesses, romance, and music, Atlantis took on a classic adventure story, drawing equally from pulpy science fiction comics, classic mythology, and Jules Verne novels.
The result is a thrilling adventure film full of memorable characters (the whole crew of the gargantuan submarine the Ulysses stands out in particular) and exciting set pieces. It follows a young, down-on-his-luck linguist named Milo Thatch who’s recruited by an eccentric billionaire to accompany a ramshackle crew of weirdos on an undersea voyage to discover the lost city of Atlantis. Upon discovering it, though, it becomes clear that certain members of the crew have slightly less altruistic motivations for the endeavor than they’ve let on. The animation, a groundbreaking blend of hand-drawn animation and CGI, holds up incredibly well nearly two decades after the film’s release, and the world of Atlantis is as thrilling to explore as ever.
To aid in creating the world surrounding Atlantis (and that of the lost city itself) Disney famously brought on legendary comic creator Mike Mignola. The brain and proverbial brawn behind Hellboy, Mignola brought an aesthetic sensibility to the film wholly unlike anything Disney had created in years past. Largely gone were the soft lines of Disney Renaissance films, and with them the desire to create a world that in any way resembled ours. Mignola’s work on Atlantis is, like his comic work, hard and angular, but doesn't lean into the minimal abstraction Hellboy’s visual language operates through.
Perhaps the greatest testament to what Mignola brings to the table is that the film’s run time is one of its few detriments. Atlantis, like most Disney animated releases of the era and prior, has a crisp running time, in this case an hour and 36 minutes. While the length by no means serves as an impediment to the film, it’s the rare Disney flick that could largely benefit from an extra 10 minutes spent allowing the characters (and the audience by proxy) to take in the majesty of Atlantis — it would make the eventual attack on the city from the film’s villain feel all the more personal in terms of stakes. Alas, the world Mignola and his collaborators craft is so fully realized that the biggest shame in the film is that we aren’t given more time to spend in it.
To be fair, there seems to have been a real intent to give us more time to spend in the world of Atlantis by Disney, but it hedged its bets on this property in a big way. Atlantis was set to be the next big Disney multimedia franchise. A sequel rumored to have been titled Shards of Chaos was planned, along with an animated series to be called Team Atlantis (which, fun fact, would have featured a crossover with the hit Disney animated series Gargoyles!). There was even a ride at a Disney park in the works that would have taken the passengers underwater (presumably in a ride pod or glass tube).
Unfortunately, the progress on these projects was halted when Atlantis failed to set the box office on fire. It’s hard to say for sure what caused the film to underperform, but it likely came down to audiences not being used to a Disney film defying the norm to this extent. Even its contemporary adventure-heavy films like Mulan and Tarzan had the cushioning of traditional Disney romance and a few good musical numbers. Atlantis was, all things considered, perhaps too ahead of its time. The produced episodes of the TV show were combined into a passable straight-to-video film sequel called Milo’s Return, and then it was over.
However, nothing ever really dies, thanks to the streaming era. Both Atlantis films are currently available on Disney+. It’s as good a time as ever to revisit Disney’s most ambitious failure. Heck, if those viewership numbers go up, who’s to say someone won’t take notice? There’s always a chance the famed Lost City won’t be lost for much longer ...