Disney couldnít have picked a worse time to unveil "Atlantis: The Lost Empire." The summer of 2001 had already been claimed by that giant green juggernaut, "Shrek," and audiences simply didnít know what to make of Disneyís decidedly different animated feature film. Here was a Disney movie not based on a fairy tale, without a single musical number, lacking a cute and cuddly sidekick, and featuring an actual body count.
"Atlantis" was Disneyís first PG-rated animated film since 1985ís "The Black Cauldron." Like that earlier film, "Atlantis" was a critical and financial disappointment as the viewing public just didnít know how to react to a Disney flick with a decidedly darker edge. My biggest fear is that the lackluster performance of "Atlantis" will lead to another 15-year span before a similarly daring animated project is undertaken. I say this because I thought "Atlantis" was a wonderful film that marked a new direction for Disney and I would hate to see the Mouse fall back on the tried-and-true formula that guarantees it sure-fire theatrical success but which offers very little in the way of groundbreaking animation or storytelling.
The film opens with the city of Atlantis falling victim to a cataclysm of epic proportions. The Atlanteans were an advanced race populating the continent between present-day Europe and North America. They stumbled upon a source of magnificent power and their resulting greed led to their very dramatic downfall.
Fast forward to 1914 Washington, D.C. where archaeologist and museum curator Milo Thatch (Michael J. Fox) is about to present his findings on the fabled lost city. Unfortunately, no one takes him seriously and in a pique of anger he resigns his position. Arriving home he finds the sultry Helga Sinclair (Claudia Christian) waiting for him with an offer he canít refuse.
It seems that Preston B. Whitmore (John Mahoney), a fabulously wealthy old friend of Miloís long-lost adventurer grandfather, has uncovered the fabled Shepherdís Journal -- the key to finding the lost city of Atlantis. Whitmore has rounded up a diverse crew of experts to search for Atlantis and the expedition needs Milo to come along and translate the journal.
Led by Commander Lyle Tiberius Rourke (James Garner), the massive expedition sets off in the gigantic submarine Ulysses to find Atlantis. During the ensuring journey they come across all manner of creatures until finally coming face to face with the Leviathan, a mechanical monster that guards the undersea entrance to the caverns that house the lost city. The monster makes short work of the sub before itself being destroyed and the handful of survivors regroup and continue the journey through the caverns in their various mechanical contraptions.
What follows is the obligatory backstory on each of the expedition members which eventually culminates in the first face-to-face meeting with the Atlanteans. Princess Kida (Cree Summer) leads the group to see her father, King Nedakh (Leonard Nimoy), who grants them one nightís rest before they must leave the lost city and return to the surface.
But Rourke and his crew of mercenaries have other plans. They have signed up for this trip not out of scientific curiosity but in order to uncover Atlantisí magical source of power and bring it home. Can Milo and the Atlanteans put a stop to their plans or will this spell the final death of the lost city?
Like I said, I really enjoyed "Atlantis" for a number of reasons. First, Tab Murphyís screenplay is an interesting combination of Saturday morning matinee serial, fantasy adventure, Jules Verne, and "The Dirty Dozen." Sure itís fairly predictable and wholly derivative but the plot remains exciting and fun from beginning to end.
The voice talent also shines with a stable of well-known Hollywood stars providing the anchor for the tale. From Don Novelloís improvised lines as Vinny, the explosives expert, to Leonard Nimoyís sense of gravity as the King of Atlantis, each and every character brings something unique to the party.
Most importantly, "Atlantis" features a truly wonderful visual style that is quite unlike anything Disney has done before. The creators wanted to do the film in a comic book-like style so they brought aboard famed comic book illustrator Mike Mignola as visual designer and consultant. The end result is an edgy look that imbues each and every character and environment with real life and a dark, edgy quality. While the CGI and traditional cel-based animation are not quite seamless, the two remain similar enough in style to be complementary rather than glaringly opposed as in so many other modern animated films.
"Atlantis" is the type of film I could spend days staring at with the sound turned off as every background -- and even the smallest facets -- are so full of visual detail. This is eye candy of the highest order and it doesnít hurt that the story itself is a good old-fashioned epic adventure.
"Atlantis: The Lost Empire" is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen and itís a real treat to see animation done in this truly widescreen format. This is a gorgeous video transfer that is full of life and detail. Colors are vibrant and the palette is wonderfully diverse. Each step along the expeditionís path is done with its own unique style and coloring. Black levels are very good as well and the abundant dark scenes are full of detail.
Being a new film there are no physical defects and the transfer is mercifully free of edge enhancement. A few sharp, contrasting edges show some aliasing but itís always quite minor. This DVD seems to be a bit finicky on some players and depending on your gear you may notice some compression artifacts and digital breakup in certain scenes although I saw nothing of the sort. This is a beautiful transfer and "Atlantis" is a real sight to behold.
Audio is presented in English and French Dolby Digital 5.1 EX mixes as well as an English DTS 5.1 mix. I donít have EX gear but there are some reports of audio dropouts when certain receivers are used to decode this track. All I heard was a wonderfully immersive soundtrack that ranks among the finest Iíve come across. Dynamic range is broad and detailed with highs and deep lows coming across clearly. The soundstage makes use of all of the speakers and features frequent panning and surround effects. The rear-to-front effects are among the best Iíve heard. Dialogue is always clear as well and even the gunfire and explosion riddled sequences donít drown out the spoken word. This is a wonderfully balanced track that can be played very loud without sounding strained or harsh.
As for the inevitable Dolby Digital vs. DTS comparison, I found the DTS track to offer a fuller-sounding mix while the Dolby Digital track has a more robust LFE channel. Whichever format you decide upon, "Atlantis" wonít fail to make a favorable impression on your ears.
As the latest in Disneyís line of 2-disc collectorís editions itís a given that "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" comes packed with bonus features. I actually found the extras for this film to be much more interesting and better organized than those on previous efforts and I can honestly say that I didnít mind the amount of time required to plow through the myriad of features.
The new navigation system used for this set may have had something to do with my overall enjoyment. Users are offered three options for perusing the bonus disc. They can select "Explore" to navigate the nicely animated menus to find what they want, they can select "Files" to see a very basic text guide to everything on the disc, or they can choose "Tour" and sit back for a 2-hour presentation of all of the video interview segments presented uncut and with full chapter stops. The "Tour" is a real godsend for those of us used to having to endlessly click our way through these Disney DVDs. After the guided tour, all thatís left is to go back to either one of the other paths to uncover the remaining bonus features. Oh, and did I mention that almost all of the extras are presented in anamorphic widescreen?
While the bulk of the extras reside on disc two, there are some nice features on the movie disc as well. Foremost is a commentary track featuring producer Don Hahn, and co-directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale. This is a lively track and the filmmakers are unabashed in their enthusiasm for what they accomplished with "Atlantis." While much of what they discuss is repeated in later supplements, this is still an entertaining and informative commentary.
The commentary can also be heard using the "Visual Commentary" option. With this feature enabled the commentary occasionally pauses so that a short video segment illustrating the point of discussion can be viewed before the film resumes. These 22 minutes of footage can also be directly accessed using the "Video Commentary" menu so viewers can watch all of the extras even if they donít feel like sitting through the commentary. There are some nice little gems in the mix so this feature is well worth checking out.
Also on disc one is "DisneyPedia -- Atlantis: Fact or Fiction" which offers very brief featurettes on such diverse topics as submarines and real-world theories about Atlantis. This is clearly targeted toward the younger audience but is nonetheless entertaining. The first disc also contains some DVD-ROM content consisting of links to a special "Atlantis" website with games and assorted other goodies.
Letís tackle the rest of these extras in the order in which they appear on the second disc. First up is a short "Whitmore Industries Industrial Film" that runs when the disc is first inserted into the player. This sepia-toned pseudo-newsreel gives some background on Mr. Whitmore and serves as an introduction to the DVDís navigational system.
From the DVD menus the first option is the "History" section which offers up featurettes outlining the genesis of the idea that became "Atlantis" and how the filmmakers strove to make this fictional world as real as possible. First up is "The Journey Begins," a 9-minute bit on how "Atlantis" came to be. Next is "Creating Mythology," presenting 8-minutes worth of background on the research that went into making the lost city believable. "The Shepherdís Journal" is a nice bit which offers some background on this key book as well as presenting numerous pages for closer examination. Finally, "How to Speak Atlantean" is a 2-minute pseudo-newsreel with linguist Marc Okrand teaching some basic Atlantean phrases. This is the same fellow who created the Klingon language for "Star Trek."
The next section on the disc is entitled "Story and Editorial." "Finding the Story" is an 11-minute piece examining some of the early "Atlantis" concepts. Next up are four deleted scenes. Of primary interest is the "Viking Prologue," a completed piece that was excised from the film late in the game and which was to be the original opening to the movie. The remaining deleted scenes are all presented via storyboards with rough audio and include "The Squid Bats," "The Lava Whales," and "The Land Beast." "Original Treatment" is a still gallery featuring some early art for selected scenes in the film.
Next up is "Art Direction" and herein lies the real meat of the extras for fans of the filmís visual look. "Designing Atlantis" is an 11-minute featurette that provides a great amount of information on the process that led to the eventual design philosophy for the film. The remaining subsections are all in-depth sill galleries that highlight many of the aspects mentioned in the featurette.
"Animation Production" is the next section and it is further subdivided into three subsections. "The Characters" area deals with everything from the voice talent hired to the design process for all of the major and minor characters through the use of interviews as well as still galleries. "Setting the Scene" is 12-minute piece that further explores the design of the lavish environments. "Layouts and Backgrounds" provides still galleries focusing on, well, the layouts and backgrounds.
"Digital Production" covers the vast amount of CGI used for "Atlantis" and opens with a 12-minute featurette. Next up are 6 minutes worth of digital production tests. This is followed by still galleries offering rotating 3D as well as static images of the vehicles that appear in the film. "Characters" offers much the same kind of look at the Leviathan, the Stone Giants, and the digital extras. A very nice animated "Vehicle Size Comparison" gives the viewer some idea of the scale of these vehicles and critters in relation to each other.
"Music and Sound" consists of a 9-minute featurette covering composer James Newton Howardís and sound designer Gary Rydstromís wonderful contributions to the film. Last up is "Publicity," containing four theatrical trailers and a still gallery of various print and poster art.
Wow. The folks at Disney have really outdone themselves with this deluxe 2-DVD collectorís edition. "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" may have been a bit of a disappointment but itís clear that those involved in bringing this unique project to life are justifiably proud of their hard work. The powers that be at Disney took a real chance in greenlighting such a departure from their typical animated fare and itís nice that those same folks were also willing to give "Atlantis" the type of DVD release that it deserves.
Featuring stellar audio and video presentations, a wealth of truly informative bonus features, and a wonderfully intuitive and flexible user interface, "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" is a collectorís edition DVD of the highest order and comes very highly recommended.