In retrospect, Disney couldn't have picked a worse time to release "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" in theaters back in 2001, as that summer had already been claimed by that giant green juggernaut, "Shrek," and audiences simply didn't know what to make of Disney's decidedly different animated feature film. The film was clearly a departure from Disney's traditional animated fare. It was 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 Disney's first PG-rated animated film since 1985's "The Black Cauldron." Like that earlier film, "Atlantis" was a critical and financial disappointment as the viewing public just didn't know how to react to a Disney flick with a decidedly darker edge.
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 can't refuse.
It seems that Preston B. Whitmore (John Mahoney), a fabulously wealthy old friend of Milo's long-lost adventurer grandfather, has uncovered the fabled Shepherd's 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 night's 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 Atlantis' 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 Murphy's screenplay is an interesting combination of Saturday morning matinee serial, fantasy adventure, Jules Verne, and "The Dirty Dozen." Sure it's 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 Novello's improvised lines as Vinny, the explosives expert, to Leonard Nimoy's 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, especially in the high definition transfer we are presented with on this Blu-Ray release. This is eye candy of the highest order and it doesn't hurt that the story itself is a good old-fashioned epic adventure.
Once again, this is a Disney double feature release that contains the original theatrical movie, as well as the direct-to-video sequel on one disc, "Atlantis: Milo's Return." Not nearly up to par with the original movie, the sequel is a nice addition, but nothing really to write home about. Lines are much more crude, colors are much flatter and the voice acting is more stilted throughout. Not my bag of tea, but still, for those interested in more adventures in the world of "Atlantis," this film certainly gives you some additional entertainment for your buck.
"Atlantis: The Lost Empire" is presented in its 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio in this 1080p transfer and it's a real treat to watch. This is a gorgeous video transfer, perfectly clean, stable and razor-sharp, that is full of life and detail. Colors are vibrant and the palette is wonderfully diverse. Each step along the expedition's 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.
The release features a DTS 5.1 HD Master Audio version in English, as well as Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks for additional languages. Even "Milo's Return" offers up a solid DTS 5.1 audio track.
The release offers a wonderfully immersive soundtrack that has a wide dynamic range and is rich with highs and deep lows, all coming across clearly and undistorted. Dialogue is always clear as well and even the gunfire and explosion riddled sequences don't drown out the spoken word. This is a wonderfully balanced track that can be played very loud without sounding strained or harsh.
Despite the fact that this is a double-feature release, the disc still contains a good number of bonus materials, such as a selection of Deleted Scenes. A "Making Of" featurette, as well as a guid on "How to Speak Atlantean" is also included, along with "Atlantis - Fact or Fiction," a very brief featurette on such diverse topics as submarines and real-world theories about Atlantis. This is clearly targeted toward the younger audience but is nonetheless entertaining.
All in all, this is a solid release. While not as hefty as the Collector's Edition on DVD, which was brimming with bonus materials, this release gives you the opportunity to see the film in all of its spectacular detail, along with its direct-to-video sequel.