Disney: Looking Back At ATLANTIS : THE LOST EMPIRE - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Disney: Looking Back At ATLANTIS : THE LOST EMPIRE

Alexander Wallace dives in.
It’s a shame that Disney's 2001 feature Atlantis: The Lost Empire was a flop, as it's a movie that did not deserve to be. Admittedly, I say this as someone who brings certain biases: I like period pieces and steampunk and dieselpunk, and so I am predisposed to like this genre. Twenty years, though, can change how people see a movie. So enough finicking: let’s take the plunge.

As I said, I love these aesthetics, and Atlantis: The Lost Empire throws you into an Edwardiana paradise. It is set just as Franz Ferdinand is either about to be shot or has already been shot, sparking a conflagration that will set the world aflame. Even in the beginning in Washington D.C., you have this nagging feeling that you’re at the end of an era, the dying days of la Belle Époque, the feeling that the lights are going out all over Europe and that we shall never see them lit again in our lifetimes. The trucks look like old Fords, and the massive submarine Ulysses feels like something that could have been deployed to hunt the Lusitania. So much of the joy of these punk aesthetics is to allow the reader or viewer, for just the most fleeting of moments, feel whisked away to a more elegant time. This movie does that and does that well.
But aesthetics, as charming as they are, cannot make a movie on their own. You need writing and characterization and all those good things. Fortunately, in these aspects Atlantis: The Lost Empire mostly holds up.

You have your everyman protagonist Milo Thatch, voiced by Michael J. Fox, who wants to discover whatever secrets that Atlantis may have. In this regard, he evokes many protagonists of the great adventure writers of the period, like Pierre Arronax of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or Edward Malone of The Lost World. He is not cynical; rather, he is an honest man setting off on a fundamentally honest quest for fundamentally honest goals; to make a more contemporary comparison, he’s something like Finn Jones’ portrayal of Danny Rand in Netflix’s Iron Fist. Like Danny, Milo must work with those who are less honest and less benevolent.

This brings us to the film’s main antagonist: Rourke, voiced by James Garner. It’s clear that the writers wanted the fact that Rourke is the villain to be a surprise, but I caught it within two minutes of watching him; you don’t have a character that uptight in a movie like this one without that being the case. Fortunately, he delivers a performance with real gravitas, one that oozes scorn and condescension. He represents the vulture capitalism of that era; he is the slave driver of the Belgian Congo and the Pinkerton chief at Blair Mountain, the reckless bosses that created the Triangle Shirtwaist fire and the general that sent scores of men to die in No Man’s Land. He is encroaching, stinking modernity that has come to impose ‘civilization’ on those who would be much happier without it.
These humans are counterbalanced by the Atlanteans, represented foremost by princess Kida. They are a fictional example of a real phenomenon: a people minding its own business, not idyllically but in a very human manner, whose world is shattered by the arrival of pale-skinned men with iron horses and barrels that spew fire. Kida is innocent, but not without practicality; she figures out quite quickly who she can and cannot trust. The Atlanteans turn the plot from a simple exploration tale into one about colonization, a brutally violent culture clash, a theme that the film’s pulp adventure antecedents often shied away from.

There are many other characters, many quite amusing, and the writers deserve credit for making them diverse, and never devolving into mere stereotypes. Unfortunately, they often become rather one-note, and never attain the depth of more major characters.
There is one other thing that I found to feel off: the pacing. There are a great many points in Atlantis: The Lost Empire that would linger a few more seconds if they were elsewhere; rather, it feels like the plot does not rest as much as it could have. In that sense, it reminds me of Roland Emmerich’s Midway, which likewise is pedal to the metal without any use of the brakes.

But those aspects do not derail what is ultimately a wonderful little film. Atlantis: The Lost Empire is short, sweet, and to the point, not trundling on two and a half hours when it isn’t necessary. It is a joyful little movie, one that is both a sterling adventure tale and a story that is willing to probe the inadequacies of its era. It’s a shame that this didn’t become bigger than it was; we could have had many, many more stories from Atlantis.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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