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Atlantis: The Lost Empire was meant to change the course of Disney

Why the theme-park rides and spinoff series never materialized 

Graphic grid of stills from the Disney animated movie Atlantis: The Lost Empire Graphic: James Bareham/Polygon | Source images: Disney

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Petrana Radulovic is an entertainment reporter specializing in animation, fandom culture, theme parks, Disney, and young adult fantasy franchises.

Your favorite childhood movie might’ve been a total box-office dud. The animated movies that defined the late ‘90s and early 2000s are beloved by a generation that grew up watching them on VHS, but many of these nostalgic favorites were critical failures, box-office disappointments, or both. What went wrong along the way? And why did they gain such love after the fact? The Beloved Animated Failures series is out to dust off those old VHS tapes (or, more accurately, find the movies on streaming) and examine some of these films.

Atlantis: The Lost Empire came from the team behind two sweeping Disney Renaissance musicals, but it intentionally did not feature a single song. Producer Don Hahn and directors Beauty and the Beast’s Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, plus their The Hunchback of Notre Dame screenwriter Tab Murphy, wanted to create a movie that harkened back to Disney’s live-action adventure movies of the 1960s. Atlantis was pitched as an “Adventureland” companion to the Disney Renaissance’s “Fantasyland.” Leaders at the company were excited for what that could mean for Disney animation: just as many movies focused on action and adventure as features focused on fairy tales and songs.

Atlantis didn’t tank upon release in 2001, but it did give an underwhelming performance at the box office. It was supposed to change the course of Disney animation, usher in a television series, and give Disney a new remodeling theme for some of its park attractions. Instead, it went quietly under the radar. But like all the movies in this series, Atlantis found a strong, passionate fanbase among people who grew up with it. In recent months, this movie specifically has ignited a resurgence of appreciation, much to the surprise of the filmmakers, who had no idea that their once-overlooked movie had grown a dedicated, loving following.

kida and milo standing at the entrance to Atlantis Image: Disney

The year is 1914. Cartographer Milo Thatch (Michael J. Fox) has dreamed of finding the lost empire of Atlantis all his life. When a mysterious benefactor fully finances an exploratory mission, Milo and a group of ragtag experts descend into a subterranean world in search of Atlantis and find a lost civilization, a curious princess, and an unimaginable source of power…

A little backstory…

Atlantis was one of the first Disney movies since 1986’s The Great Mouse Detective to be fully formed without a musical element. Disney pivoted away from the Broadway-esque formula in the late 1990s, but even movies that weren’t explicitly musicals, like Tarzan and The Emperor’s New Groove, still included musical sequences with custom-composed songs from prominent rock stars. Certainly part of that change was the Disney formula getting diminishing returns from audiences and critics alike, but as producer Don Hahn told Polygon in an interview, the creators themselves were also getting tired of musicals.

“We’d done so many of them and with such success, but I think it was time to try something different. I think that’s the truth with any artist or writer,” he says. “You get to a point in your career where you want to push out in new directions, and we were all feeling that way.”

Writer Tab Murphy agrees with this sentiment. He joined the Trousdale-Wise-Hahn team during The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which he felt already avoided the typical Disney formula with its more serious tone.

“We had such a great time making [Hunchback]. They wanted to keep their team together and immediately launch into something else,” he explains to Polygon. “But frankly, they were a little burned out of the sort of musical template that Disney had at that time: the songs and talking animals and this and that. They were just yearning — as I was — to do something different.”

Hahn recalls that there was never a mandate to try new things — in fact, he thinks that the studio would have preferred “princess movies for a long time, because they were really successful.” But the writers, directors, and artists at Disney were hungry for something different. It was an exciting time to be at the studio, where pitches were coming in for all sorts of wackier ideas.

“It was trying to really push out in a new direction,” says Hahn. “Gosh, at the time, pitches were coming out for Westerns, for space adventures, and all kinds of things.”

Atlantis specifically sparked from an attempt to recapture a Disney tradition. At a long lunch at a Mexican restaurant in Burbank, Trousdale, Wise, Hahn, and Murphy tried to figure out what kind of movie they wanted to make next. They were all nostalgic for the live-action Disney movies of the past, the action-adventure films of the 1950s and ’60s. Atlantis wasn’t about Atlantis at first — they initially envisioned it as a remaster of Jules Verne’s novel Journey to the Center of the Earth. According to a report on Collider, the story eventually evolved into Atlantis after they read the Verne book, and realized it lacked a strong resolution; the explorers in the book never actually reach their destination. (“It’s a great concept but it just doesn’t go anywhere,” Trousdale told Collider.)

kida greeting the explorers Image: DIsney

The Adventureland-vs.-Fantasyland idea was used to pitch Disney on the idea that different flavors of projects could all exist under the same banner and formula. Hahn’s team felt the Disney formula didn’t have to be restricted to fairy-tale musicals — and that Walt himself had already laid the groundwork for adventure movies by dedicating a section of the theme park to them.

The studio was on board with that pitch — though it helped that Michael Eisner was bitterly feuding with Roy Disney, and most of the higher-ups were focused on Disney Theatrical. That gave the creative team more room for innovation without constant supervision.

“There was definitely a different vibe at the studio,” Trousdale told Collider. “It didn’t feel like Eisner was gone all the time. He was just distracted […] with Roy and the board and a power struggle.”

Hahn says the new genre goals informed the film’s visual style. The production team, aiming to make the movie look more like a comic book, turned to the art of Hellboy creator Mike Mignola for inspiration. The studio hired Mignola as one of the production designers, and his distinct style was used specifically for the character designs, which have a particularly angular look that separates Atlantis from the softer aesthetic of previous Disney movies.

“I remember watching a rough cut of the film and these characters have these big, square, weird hands,” Mignola recalled to New York Daily News in a 2008 interview. “I said to the guy next to me, ‘Those are cool hands.’ And he says to me, ‘Yeah, they’re your hands. We had a whole meeting about how to do your hands.’ It was so weird I couldn’t wrap my brain around it.”

When it came to the lost civilization itself, the team wanted to deviate from the typical depiction of Atlantis as a crumbling Greco-Roman ruin. They turned to other architectural styles from Mayan, Cambodian, Indian, and Tibetan buildings. Hahn says in a DVD supplemental feature that the goal was to “deconstruct architecture from around the world into one architectural vocabulary.” The crew tapped linguist Marc Okrand, who developed the Klingon vocabulary for Star Trek, to create a dialect for Atlantis. It was designed to be a possible “mother language” for the Indo-European language tree, with its own alphabet and numbers.

a panoramic view of atlantis Image: Disney

The final version of Atlantis has Joss Whedon’s name attached with a screenwriting credit, but according to Murphy, Whedon wasn’t involved with this version of the film at all. He’d done a treatment for a musical project involving Atlantis, so the studio thought it prudent to attach his name to the movie — much to the surprise of Murphy, Wise, and Trousdale.

Beyond that, the studio only placed a few constraints on the filmmakers. One, Murphy says, was to dial down the violence.

“My first draft was about 142 pages, and the body count was quite high,” he recalls. (For reference, according to the Game Theorists, Atlantis: The Lost Empire has the second-highest body count of any Disney movie at approximately 35,185, second only to the mass extinction in 2000’s Dinosaur.) After the Columbine shootings in 1999, Disney executives also became wary of the gun usage in the movie. Some of the shootout scenes were toned back, along with some scarier monsters. But other than that, Murphy says, Disney’s executives were gung-ho about the movie’s progress.

The studio’s faith in Atlantis was so high that executives began to envision theme-park tie-ins. They laid out a plan to revise Disneyland’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea-themed Submarine Voyage, and to introduce a totally new roller coaster known as Fire Mountain, which would join the roster of Disney mountain attractions (Space Mountain, Splash Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain, and Expedition Everest).

“In a sense it would duplicate the sensation and the design of the gliders that are used in the final battle of the movie. That was going to take you through the exploding volcano and various other scenarios,” Wise told Collider.

Elsewhere at the studio, an animated television series based on the movie started development. None of the filmmakers were very involved in the show, but it was designed as an X-Files-esque adventure series, where the characters reunited and visited a different location with a different legend each episode. There were plans to eventually cross over the series with Disney’s Gargoyles TV series.

According to Wise, budget setbacks meant that some of the more expensive set elements and action sequences had to be scaled back a bit, but nevertheless, Atlantis got a hefty marketing push. It was one of the first Disney movies to use internet marketing, with a website with mini-games and mobile games based on the film. The film was a risk, but the studio was confident it would be worth the investment. It was meant as a bold venture into the unknown, like the one the explorers in the movie undertake. And just like in the movie, it didn’t pan out exactly the way they envisioned.

What went wrong

helga making a face with rourke right behind her Image: Disney

Atlantis didn’t tank, but it made considerably less money than Disney expected. The theme-park plans were shelved, and the animated series was quietly smushed into a direct-to-video sequel when it became clear that this movie wasn’t hitting the way Disney had anticipated. Though some critics praised the unique animation style and the more mature storyline, others lamented that without songs, and with a focus on dialogue and action, it felt “too adult,” and that its story dragged.

Many attributed Atlantis’ failure to audiences just being more interested in CG animation, pointing to Shrek, which came out earlier that year, and made $484.4 million on a $60 million budget. During that era, where animation was changing, whenever a fully computer-animated movie succeeded while a hand-drawn film ebbed, it was easy to simply use CG as a scapegoat for the failure of hand-drawn movies. After all, CG animation currently dominates the industry, and these less-than-successful traditionally animated movies could very well seem like a funeral bell in retrospect. As previous entries of our Beloved Animated Failures series have noted, though, Shrek’s CG visuals weren’t as significant as its hipper, edgier tone. While Atlantis deviates from the Disney musical formula, with more explosions and fewer songs, it’s still a quaint heroic-fantasy family story. Shrek’s crass, referential humor and obvious digs at Disney completely departed from the earnest hero’s journey, and aimed at an older and more knowing audience. But that didn’t keep second-guessers from blaming Atlantis’ failure on its animation.

Even so, Hahn says that, at the time, no one thought that hand-drawn animation was dying, per se, “but we knew we had to push the envelope. And we had all these great new technology tools at our fingertips. So just like the artists want to push the story, the artists wanted to push what they can do with those tools. Then they just [used] them in different ways: camera moves and cinematography and interesting vehicles and submarines and leviathans and all that stuff.”

But even though the movie pushed the boundaries of technology, parents taking kids to catch a new Disney movie would primarily be concerned with the story, not the visuals. With a more adult cast, a heavier storyline, and emphasis on action and adventure, Atlantis was also a harder sell. Murphy attributes the disappointing box-office results to one simple issue.

“It was different. Anytime you do something different, you take a risk. This is the downside of it,” he says. “Atlantis was a great leap of faith into the unknown for the studio.” And like many leaps of faith, this one didn’t hit the landing back in 2001.

Why we love it today

A glowing, translucent blue woman walks forward along the surface of a pool of water, surrounded by gigantic fallen masks with carved faces. Image: Disney

Nearly 20 years after Atlantis came out, Murphy said he didn’t think much about the movie. Its underperformance was disappointing, but it had more or less left his mind. He figured it came and went back in 2001, with few people paying attention to it after the fact.

So imagine his surprise when he learned of a Facebook group dedicated to the movie that sports more than 20,000 members.

“I just kind of assumed that it walked away and into the movie graveyard,” says Murphy. “There is a tremendous fan base that I was completely unaware of.”

The group in question, Atlantis: The Lost Empireposting, was created in 2019 and is one of many “shitposting” Facebook groups dedicated to creating memes about underappreciated animated movies of the early 2000s. Jordan Waterfield, the Atlantis group’s admin and co-creator, is a 28-year-old who watched the movie for the first time when it came out on DVD in the early 2000s.

“I actually never saw it in the cinema!” he tells Polygon. “I used to watch it on repeat with my little brother, and it was a staple favourite of ours.”

As it turns out, there’s a lot to love about Atlantis: The Lost Empire. For starters, it’s an adventure movie shaped in a narrative style we don’t see much anymore, animated in a cel-animation style we don’t see much anymore. The archaeological adventure genre has been around for a long time, but flourished it in the 1980s and ’90s with movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Mummy. With few exceptions, like the 2018 Tomb Raider film and the 2017 Mummy remake, these movies tapered off into the 2010s. Much like Titan A.E. exposed a generation of children to hard science fiction, Atlantis opened some kids’ eyes to the study of ancient cultures. Murphy says he was absolutely floored by the number of individuals in the Facebook group who spoke to him about how Atlantis inspired their love of archaeology or linguistics.

It’s also visually striking. The lost city itself is a lush, natural place full of earth tones and striking blues and greens. The entire movie taps into a distinct steampunk / dieselpunk hybrid, especially with the designs of the vehicles and weapons. The submarine that the crew boards is a behemoth of a contraption to behold on screen.

one of the submarine pods in atlantis Image: Disney

Murphy says a lot of the decisions about when to set the movie were simply based on what seemed cool at the time. The Jules Verne adventures that inspired the movie are set in the late Victorian era, just a wee bit earlier than the movie’s final setting of 1914. But positioning Atlantis right at the cusp of World War I (a fact that’s easily forgettable, until Milo mentions the Kaiser toward the end of the movie) blends the exploration vibe of steampunk with the with more militaristic dieselpunk weapons. Much like the following year’s Treasure Planet, Atlantis had a look that just hadn’t been done much in Western animation, a look seemingly inspired by anime like Studio Ghibli’s Castle in the Sky.

And then there are the characters. One of the hallmarks of Atlantis: The Lost Empire is the large cast, specifically the misfit group of explorers who accompany Milo on his journey. They’re a surprisingly diverse group of individuals for a Disney movie made in 2001, all with interesting, unique backstories, from former flower-shop owner turned demolitions expert Vinnie (Don Novello) to mechanical-engineering prodigy Audrey (Jacqueline Obradors). Hahn says the filmmakers wanted a Mission Impossible-style team.

“We wanted this to be an international group of explorers,” explains Murphy. “Preston Whitmore, the reclusive billionaire, had drawn from around the world and got the best of the best. And that gave us an opportunity to do something that was in many ways ahead of its time, to put together a cast and a crew that was extremely diverse.”

One of the best scenes of the movie isn’t a big chase scene or shootout, but a quiet moment by the fire as the explorers bond. They trade origin stories and lightly tease one another. It’s a smaller character moment nested amid the great adventure — and something the filmmakers would not have been able to do within the Disney Renaissance musical framework.

As Kirk Wise told Film Journal International back in 2001, “We had more screen time available to do a scene like where Milo and the explorers are camping out and learning about one another’s histories. An entire sequence is devoted to having dinner and going to bed. That is not typically something we would have the luxury of doing.”

Atlantean princess Kida (Cree Summer) and Milo themselves depart from the archetypal heroes of the Disney Renaissance. Milo isn’t particularly handsome, strong, or charming, while Kida isn’t a wide-eyed dreamer wishing to escape an arranged marriage. They are character types we see often in adventure movies — the determined scholar and the warrior princess — but they’re firsts in the pantheon of Disney animated heroes. To kids growing up with the movie, Atlantis offered an alternative sort of hero that they cling to all these years later, and took to meme groups and other online spaces to celebrate.

Hahn — along with Wise, Trousdale, and some of the other members of the production team — joined the Atlantis Facebook group after Murphy discovered it. It’s been a thrilling experience, Hahn says, to discover that this movie had such an impact.

“A lot of these fans that are now coming out of the woodwork and keeping this movie alive are all in their mid-20s, mid-late-20s,” says Murphy. “The fact that I had no idea for 20 years [that] there was a whole fan base out there that reveres this movie — it’s really been gratifying to come full circle.”

And Waterfield says he watches the movie with his own children now, keeping the legacy of the movie going. “Every time I watch Atlantis now, I can feel the warm nostalgia of my childhood,” he says. “And I hope that’s something my children will feel too one day.”

Atlantis: The Lost Empire is available to stream on Disney Plus.

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