Atlantis: The Lost Empire — Twenty Years, and It’s Still One of Disney’s Most Unusual Films

Preface: I was going to post this sometime in June, when the movie would actually hit its twentieth anniversary. However, I feel like my posts have been getting awful lately. I’ve been running out of steam, and have been considering a hiatus. In other news, the Attack on Titan anime is slated to end before the manga. And since it looks like it’ll end with exactly one chapter left, Hajime Isayama will probably just tell MAPPA what happens, making it so that the anime will be one of the first to end before the manga while still being faithful all the way through. As such, to avoid spoilers, I will likely take a hiatus, not just from the blog, but from the Internet. It’ll be in early March, after whenever I publish a review of Raya and the Last Dragon. Well, with that out of the way, let’s get to the actual post!


The early 2000s was when I grew up, and as a result, a lot of Disney’s… er… projects at the time ended up being among my first impressions of the company. I mainly watched Disney Jr. back when it was called Playhouse Disney (nostalgia!), but I also watched some of the classics… sequels. Look, I was a kid, okay?! Fortunately, they didn’t solely focus on straight-to-VHS sequels. In fact, they followed-up their renaissance era of the 1990s by pulling a xerox era and COMPLETELY abandoning their typical formula. This led to what are considered the company’s biggest cult classics. I did say I was not going to do a retrospective of 2001’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire in my Three Musketeers retrospective, but you know what, it did turn twenty this year, so… Yeah. It’s been about three years since I last watched it, but to be honest, I’ve changed a lot even since then. So let’s see how it holds up (btw, unmarked spoilers abound in this one!).

In Atlantis: The Lost Empire, a nerd named Milo Thatch has had it rough. He’s been dead set on the idea that the waterlogged city of Atlantis is definitely real (which it is, since they show you a whole opening sequence of it sinking). Unfortunately, no one cares. Well… no one except for this old coot and his team of explorers who happen to be going on an expedition to find the place. 

Trying to do a fair review of this movie is hard, mainly because I have a lot more nostalgia for it than Three Musketeers. Even if I hadn’t last seen it three years ago, I would nonetheless have a dangerous amount of nostalgia going into it now. I rented Atlantis so many times from Blockbuster, I distinctly remembered a large number of scenes to this day, from Milo’s unique way of starting up a boiler, to Cookie making Rhode Island dance. I’m not a scholar, so all I can do is write about my experience at face value.

But where do I start? There’s a lot to say about Atlantis, mainly because of how different it is from most core Disney animated movies. It’s one of two with a heavy science fiction theme, plus it has no musical numbers, and it’s much more violent than most in the company’s filmography.

Despite that, Atlantis still has some of that Disney magic. It’s got high production values, charming characters, and a great sense of humor. It has one of the best feelings of pure adventuring spirit that I have seen in any Disney movie to this day, even if you know who’s going to survive due to a classic case of Red Shirts vs Not Red Shirts. The music is also great, with a main theme that actually gets played on the Walt Disney World status update channel on the resort room TVs, which is one of two times Atlantis has been acknowledged in Disney Parks (the other instance, unfortunately, no longer exists).

Of course, a consequence of having Disney magic is having those same old Disney tropes. As a kid, the movie felt as deep and layered as Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels. But as an adult, Atlantis is not only straightforward, but lightning fast. A lot of character arcs are rushed, to the point of being glossed over, and the same almost goes for specific plot points. 

For example, in the part when they get to Atlantis, Kida shows Milo around the city, and it looks pretty alright at a glance, but she goes on and on about how the city is dying. You don’t really get a sense of how much is at stake without her telling the audience, which is a case of the good old “tell don’t show”, instead of the more time-honored “show don’t tell”. It seems that the spinning face machine (a.k.a. the Heart of Atlantis) works perfectly fine as long as it’s in the city at all, whether in space or underground, since you don’t see Atlantis actually lose power until after Rourke takes it away. But even then, the fish planes still function perfectly fine (compete with lasers). Other than that overly-analyzed aspect, most of Atlantis‘ other flaws are minor logic hiccups. From the forced romance between Milo and Kida, to the fact that the entire population of Atlantis somehow becomes master pilots of machines that they never used before for convenience’s sake, there are a lot of those little things that you kind of have to laugh off. Perfect with some friends, pizza, and booze!

The cast of Atlantis is rather interesting for a number of reasons. Milo Thatch is one of the few male lead protagonists out of the core Disney lineup, and I still love him to death. He’s similar to Quazi Moto from Hunchback of Notre Dame in that he’s not exactly a strapping young man such as Prince Eric. But unlike Quazi, who is honestly the same overly ideal Disney man personality-wise, Milo is a lot more flawed. In his mock presentation at the beginning, where you see him struggling to lift a shield, getting chalk all over his shirt and having to make a funny pose to fill in the image on the chalkboard, it is readily apparent that he is one of Disney’s most socially awkward main protagonists, if not THE most socially awkward. As someone who is both lanky and socially awkward, I did relate to Milo as a kid. Because of that, I can’t tell if my continuing love for his character is impartial or not.

The female lead is Kida, who is technically the most forgotten Disney princess of all time. Introducing the female lead protagonist over halfway into the movie is an unusual move for Disney, which is yet another reason why Atlantis stands out. Unfortunately, this does make her the most forgotten Disney princess for a reason. She doesn’t exactly do much outside of a few charming interactions, and she’s not even present during the climax on account of turning into a cryogenically frozen Super Saiyan. With her late introduction, her romance with Milo is even more rushed (fortunately, they don’t have a gross kiss at the end). Disney was not yet at their ongoing feminist Disney princess phase, so Milo still has to save the “damsel in distress”.

Oh, but they aren’t the only characters, not by a long shot. At this point, I’d only have to go over the antagonist and the marketable comic relief character, but not with Atlantis. The rest of the crew that joins Milo is one of the largest in Disney history (and—for the sake of today’s era of P.C.—one of the most diverse). Fun fact: I’ve seen this movie so many times, but it took until I watched it for this retrospective to be able to commit their names to memory. Since there were so many of them, I could never remember them all as a kid.

Every single one of them, from Audrey the tsundere to Vinny the pyromaniac and Best Girl Mrs. Packard, all have personalities as distinct as their character designs. Unfortunately, there was no way to develop a cast this big in the timeframe of a typical Disney movie. As a result, their backstories are given a very rushed run-down during a camping scene (likely made for that specific purpose). Plus, the way they warm up to Milo is way too instantaneous. And of course, them magically going to Milo’s side after Rourke’s Top Ten Anime Betrayal is one of those “because Disney” things that you have to laugh off.

And speaking of Rourke, let’s talk about that sumbitch. Similar to Hans from Frozen, his antagonist role is introduced incredibly late into Atlantis. But unlike Hans, Rourke’s has much more impact because he’s someone who Milo actually bonds with throughout the journey. They go through the same obstacles with the rest of the crew, and it’s heartbreaking to see him betray Milo later.

…Is what I would be saying if it wasn’t an incredibly predictable character arc. I’ve seen a lot of people say that something was “mind-blowing to them as a kid” as if that’s supposed to showcase how good the story is. But honestly, I find that statement to prove the inverse true. Kids are pure and sweet, but very impressionable and gullible. So me saying that Rourke’s betrayal scene—one of my first introductions to a plot twist in my life—blew my mind as a kid means nothing. You don’t even need experience to tell. Veterans would likely figure it out by looking at him, but there are two dead giveaways that he’s bad: Helga telling him “There weren’t supposed to be people here” (which implies that he planned to yoink the spinning face machine right out of Atlantis), and a cutaway to his men arming themselves with shotguns (pretty self-explanatory). Furthermore, the fact that he goes from mourning the men lost to the lobster robot to not hesitating to throw Helga off of a hot-air balloon makes him come off as over-the-top. I don’t want to be that guy who says that “more human” antagonists are objectively better, but they kind of squandered that opportunity with Rourke. It’s a real shame, because he’s pretty up there with Hans for most lacking charisma out of all the Disney villains.

If you still aren’t convinced that Atlantis is one of the most unique Disney animated features, check out the visuals. The characters are much more angular in design than in other Disney movies, and it is very heavy on CGI. Like I said before, sci-fi is unusual for Disney, and there are a lot of setpieces that you do not see often.

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After All These Years: 8.6/10

Atlantis: The Lost Empire is a cult classic for a reason. It might be nostalgia talking, but I think this might be in my Top Fifteen (or Ten?) Favorite Disney movies of all time. It’s got a lot of personality and very unusual choices which make it stand out from the rest, especially in the current era of soul-searching stories that they’re doing. I’d recommend it to people who don’t like Disney, and also to Disney veterans who want something different.