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Building Entertainment: The Animated Films of the Walt Disney Studio. Atlantis: The Lost Empire


Welcome to my weekly discussion of the animated films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”

Title: Atlantis: The Lost Empire

Year: 2001

Source materials : Greek myth of Atlantis, recorded by Plato. Also inspired by the works of Jules Verne

Budget: $90–120 million

Box office: $186.1 million

Plot: Many centuries ago, a tsunami threatens to drown the island of Atlantis. In the midst of an evacuation from the capital city, the Queen of Atlantis is caught by a strange, hypnotic blue light and lifted up into the “Heart of Atlantis”, a powerful crystal protecting the city.


The crystal consumes the Queen and creates a dome barrier that protects the city’s innermost district. She leaves behind her young daughter, Princess Kida, as the island sinks beneath the ocean.


In 1914, Milo Thatch, a cartographer and linguist at the Smithsonian Institution, believes that he has found the location of The Shepherd’s Journal, an ancient manuscript that contains directions to the lost island. The museum board declines his proposal to search for the journal.


A mysterious woman, Helga Sinclair, introduces him to Preston B. Whitmore, an eccentric millionaire. Whitmore has already funded a successful effort to retrieve the journal as repayment of a debt to Milo’s grandfather, recruiting Milo to lead an expedition to Atlantis.


The expedition departs with a team of specialists led by Commander Lyle Rourke. They set out in the Ulysses, a massive submarine. They are attacked by the monstrous Leviathan. The Ulysses is subsequently destroyed, but Milo, Rourke, and the surviving crew escape to an underground cavern, described in the journal as the entrance to Atlantis.


After traveling through a network of caves and a dormant volcano, the team reaches the borders of Atlantis, where they are greeted by Kida. Kida enlists Milo in deciphering the Atlantean written language, long forgotten by the natives.


By swimming deep within the city’s submerged ruins and translating underwater murals, Milo helps Kida uncover the nature of the Heart of Atlantis: it supplies the Atlanteans with power and longevity through the crystals worn around their necks. He is surprised this is not mentioned in the journal but recalls that a page is missing.


Returning to the surface with Kida, Milo discovers Rourke has the missing page. Rourke and the crew betray Milo, intending to bring the crystal to the surface and sell it. Rourke mortally wounds the King while trying to extract information about the crystal’s location, but finds it himself hidden beneath the King’s throne room.


The crystal detects a threat and merges with Kida, whom Rourke and the mercenaries lock in a crate and prepare to leave the city.


Knowing that when the crystal is gone the Atlanteans will die, Milo berates the crew, and ultimately convinces some of them them to take his side. The King explains to that the crystal has developed a consciousness, thriving on the emotions of the Atlanteans and will find a royal host when in danger. He then reveals that the sinking of Atlantis was caused when he attempted to use it as a weapon of war. As he dies, he gives his crystal to Milo, telling him to save Atlantis and Kida.


Milo rallies the crew and Atlanteans to stop Rourke. In the ensuing battle inside the volcano, Rourke, Helga, and his accomplices are all killed. Milo and the others successfully fly the crystal back to the city, as the volcano erupts. With lava flowing towards the city, Kida rises into the air and creates a protective dome. The lava breaks away harmlessly, showing a restored Atlantis, and the crystal returns Kida to Milo.


The surviving crew members return to the surface and promise to keep the discovery of Atlantis a secret. Having fallen in love with Kida, Milo stays behind to help her rebuild the lost empire.


Background: Don Hahn, Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise, and Tab Murphy, having recently completed The Hunchback of Notre Dame, wanted to keep the Hunchback crew together for another film. The drew inspiration from Jules Verne’s A Journey to the Center of the Earth and the clairvoyant readings of Edgar Cayce (the idea of a mother-crystal which provides power, healing, and longevity). They visited museums to study the technology of the early 20th century and traveled 800 feet underground in New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns to view the subterranean trails.

Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale

The overall design and circular layout of Atlantis were also based on the writings of Plato,and his quote “in a single day and night of misfortune, the island of Atlantis disappeared into the depths of the sea.” They combined aspects of Mayan, Cambodian, Indian, and Tibetan architecture.

Marc Okrand, who developed the Klingon language for the Star Trek films, was hired to devise the Atlantean language and John Emerson designed the written component, The written language was boustrophedon: designed to be read left-to-right on the first line, then right-to-left on the second, continuing in a zigzag pattern to simulate the flow of water.

Don Hahn pointed out that the absence of songs presented a challenge for a team accustomed to animating musicals, as solely action scenes would have to carry the film. Kirk Wise said it gave the team an opportunity for more on-screen character development:

“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.”

The original version featured a Viking war party using The Shepherd’s Journal to find Atlantis and being swiftly dispatched by the Leviathan. The opening was replaced by a sequence depicting the destruction of Atlantis.


Atlantis was among Disney’s first major attempts to utilize internet marketing. The film was promoted through Kellogg’s, which created Atlantis breakfast cereal. McDonald’s promoted the film with Happy Meal toys and Frito-Lay offered free admission tickets for the film on specially marked snack packages.


Animation: The film’s visual style was strongly based upon that of Mike Mignola, the comic book artist behind Hellboy. He provided style guides, preliminary character and background designs, and story ideas.”Mignola’s graphic, angular style was a key influence on the ‘look’ of the characters,” stated Wise.

The final pull-out scene of the movie was described by the directors as the most difficult scene in the history of Disney animation. The scene begins with one 16-inch piece of paper showing a close-up of Milo and Kida. As the camera pulls away from them to reveal the newly restored Atlantis, it reaches the equivalent of an 18,000-inch piece of paper composed of many individual pieces of paper (24 inches or smaller).

Several important scenes required heavy use of digital animation: the Leviathan, the Ulysses submarine and sub-pods, the Heart of Atlantis, and the Stone Giants. After Matt Codd and Jim Martin designed the Ulysses on paper, Greg Aronowitz was hired to build a scale model of the submarine, to be used as a reference for drawing the 3D Ulysses.The final film included 362 digital-effects shots.

Kida’s supervising animator, Randy Haycock, stated that Summer was very “intimidating” when he first met her; this influenced how he wanted Kida to look and act on screen when she meets Milo.

Kirk Wise and Russ Edmonds, Vinny’s supervising animator, noted Novello’s unique ability to improvise dialogue. Edmonds recalled, “[Novello] would look at the sheet, and he would read the line that was written once, and he would never read it again! And we never used a written line, it was improvs, the whole movie.”

Music: James Newton Howard to composed the score. He decided to have different musical themes for the cultures of the surface world and Atlantis. In the case of Atlantis, Howard chose an Indonesian orchestral sound incorporating chimes, bells, and gongs.

Voice Cast:

Michael J. Fox as Milo James Thatch. His break out role was as Alex P. Keaton on the series Family Ties, followed by his portrayal of Marty McFly in the Back to the Future trilogy. He appeared in the TV series Spin City and The Good Wife. He starred in Teen Wolf, Light of Day, The Secret of My Success, Bright Lights, Big City, The American President, Mars Attacks!, and The Frighteners. 1 James Garner 2 as Commander Lyle Rourke. He’s best known for his roles as Bret Maverick in Maverick and Jim Rockford The Rockford Files. 3 He appeared in many films including The Great Escape, The Americanization of Emily, Grand Prix, Victor/Victoria, Murphy’s Romance, 4 Space Cowboys and The Notebook. Garner received the Purple Heart in Korea.

Cree Summer as Kidagakash “Kida” Nedakh, the Princess of Atlantis. She is known for playing Winifred “Freddie” Brooks on A Different World. She was the original voice of Penny in Inspector Gadget. She also leant her voice to Tiny Toon Adventures, Rugrats, All Grown Up!, Danny Phantom, Batman Beyond, Drawn Together, Codename: Kids Next Door, X-Men Legends, Mrs. Munger’s Class, Clifford the Big Red Dog, Guardians of the Galaxy, Voltron: Legendary Defender, and Teen Titans Go! 5 Don Novello as Vincenzo “Vinny” Santorini. He is best known for playing Father Guido Sarducci on Saturday Night Live where he was also a writer. He also appeared in The Godfather, Part III.

Phil Morris as Doctor Joshua Strongbear Sweet. He is best known for playing Attorney Jackie Chiles on Seinfeld. His first acting role was as a child when he appeared in the 1966 Star Trek episode “Miri”. He also appeared as Martian Manhunter in Smallville. As a voice actor, he appeared in Legion of Superheroes, Justice League, Black Panther, The Secret Saturdays. The PJs, Dead Space: Downfall, Love That Girl!, Green Lantern: The Animated Series, and Sofia the First Claudia Christian as Lieutenant Helga Sinclair. She is known for her role as Commander Susan Ivanova on the science fiction television series Babylon 5. She has guest starred in several television series and is a published author.

Jacqueline Obradors as Audrey Rocio Ramirez. She has appeared in films such as Six Days, Seven Nights, Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo, Tortilla Soup, A Man Apart, and Unstoppable. She is best known for her role as Det. Rita Ortiz on series NYPD Blue. Florence Stanley 6 as Wilhelmina Bertha Packard. She played Yente in Broadway’s Fiddler On The Roof and Neil Simon’s The Prisoner of Second Avenue, directed by Mike Nichols. On film, she appeared in Up the Down Staircase, The Day of the Dolphin, the film version of The Prisoner of Second Avenue, and The Fortune. She went on to appear on Barney Miller and its spinoff Fish as Bernice Fish.

John Mahoney 7 as Preston B. Whitmore. 8 He was best known for Martin Crane on Frasier. His first major film role was in Tin Men. He went on to appear in Moonstruck, Eight Men Out, Say Anything…, In the Line of Fire, Reality Bites, The American President, Barton Fink, and The Hudsucker Proxy. He provided the voices for Antz and The Iron Giant. He provided the voice of Dr. Robert Terwilliger, Sr. in The Simpsons episode “Funeral for a Fiend.” 9 Corey Burton as Gaëtan “Mole” Molière. He has had a long career in voice acting starting with The Transformers in the 80s. He has appeared in several Disney projects and is the current voice of Ludwig von Drake. Seriously, check out his Wikipedia page


Leonard Nimoy 10 as Kashekim Nedakh. He became famous playing Spock in the Star Trek franchise. He also appeared in Mission:Impossible and a reoccurring role on Fringe. He leant his voice to Transformers: the Movie and a very popular episode of The Simpsons, “Marge vs. The Monorail.”

Juliana Margulies returns as Kashem Nedakh, David Ogden Stiers as Fenton Q. Harcourt, and Jim Varney as Jebidiah Allardyce “Cookie” Farnsworth. 11

Critical Reception: When the film was released, some viewers noticed that Atlantis: The Lost Empire bore a number of similarities to the anime television program Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water and the film Castle in the Sky from Studio Ghibli, particularly in its character design, setting, and story. Kirk Wise posted on a Disney animation newsgroup in May 2001, “Never heard of Nadia till it was mentioned in this [newsgroup]. Long after we’d finished production, I might add.” Critics also saw parallels with the film Stargate.

Legacy: Atlantis: the Lost Empire was meant to provide a springboard for an animated television series entitled Team Atlantis, which would have presented the further adventures of its characters. However, because of the film’s under-performance at the box office, the series was not produced. Disney released a direct-to-video sequel called Atlantis: Milo’s Return, consisting of three episodes planned for the series. Disneyland planned to revive its Submarine Voyage ride with an Atlantis theme. These plans were canceled and the attraction was re-opened based on Finding Nemo.

Video Games

  • Atlantis The Lost Empire: Search for the Journal published by Buena Vista Games, a subsidiary of Disney Interactive. It was released on May 1, 2001, for the Microsoft Windows platform
  • Atlantis: The Lost Empire—Trial by Fire published by Disney Interactive, and was released May 18, 2001, for the Microsoft Windows platform.
  • Atlantis: The Lost Empire is an action game developed by Eurocom for the PlayStation console which was released June 14, 2001.
  • Disney’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire for the Game Boy Advance and Game Boy Color.


My take: The thing I really like about this film is the Mike Mignola style. It gives the film a look that is unlike any other Disney film. My favorite scene is the camping scene. It gives the team solid characterization in a short amount of time.

Next Week: We scare some kids