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By Chris dos Santos
22nd May 2021

There are certain films - and we see this more nowadays - that are manufactured to sell. While kids films especially come with a level of marketing that involves flooding every store and fast-food chain with their characters, there are a few films that seem to have a huge merchandise push for a market that isn't there. I'm talking your 'Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets', 'Dick Tracy' or even 2017's 'The Mummy'. Studios just threw too much money at these titles, from Funko Pop lines to fill the clearance bin at Zing stores across Australia to novel tie-ins that not even libraries want.

These kinds of films not only lose big at the box office but literally everywhere else - and also a lot of these films (even if they were good) don't need hundreds of t-shirts made for Hot Topic. I think studios are getting better at this. Look at Disney with 'Frozen' and 'The Mandalorian'; both, for different reasons, had a huge lack of merchandise at their respective launches, but now bring in the billions for Disney without needing to fill clearance bins. While big films like 'Avengers: Endgame' take up a lot of retail space, it never feels overwhelming... that's left to Illumination and their 'Minions'.

There's a good reason I bring all this up. For Disney, 'Atlantis: The Lost Empire' was meant to be the company's next big franchise, the decade's version of 'Aladdin' - but grander and skewing to adults even more than before. As we discussed with 'The Emperor's New Groove', the Disney Renaissance faded as the 90s came to an end after the success of 'The Lion King', and as computer-animated films become more and more mainstream with Pixar and rising rival DreamWorks Animation, the studio was in need of a revamp. 'Atlantis' was released on the 15th of June 2001, and came with a huge push from Disney to show that they could be edgy and not just make princess musicals.


The film was intended to springboard to two big projects for the company, one being a huge Disneyland tie-in. The biggest being reviving Disneyland attraction 'Submarine Voyage' to be 'Atlantis'-themed, including a meet-and-greet with characters in the park and a dedicated themed area. The next was a show named 'Team Atlantis' that further expanded on the characters in the film as they explored 'Atlantis' and its secrets, similar to the 'Aladdin' and 'Hercules' animated series. Both of these plans were pulled almost immediately after the film's disappointing opening weekend. The series was quite far into the development process, with plans for it to crossover with other Disney Animated shows like 'Gargoyles' and plans to feature legends like the Loch Ness Monster and the Terracotta Warriors. A theatrical sequel was also planned, but it seems they didn't get another further than thinking it would happen. The only things that remain of Disney's Atlantis Expanded Universe (the AEU, if you will) is the god-awful direct-to-DVD sequel 'Atlantis: Milo's Return'. The film takes the worst tropes of these direct-to-DVD films, stringing together three completed episodes of the unproduced Disney show and bringing them together to form a film. It's some of the worst animation to come out of any of the umbrellas at Disney.

As for the film itself, it's an underrated marvel for Disney. It definitely feels unlike anything the studio has ever done (even 'Treasure Planet', which this film is often bundled with, stills looks like it fits into the Disney world), with such a unique look. Milo, Kida and the world of Atlantis stand out in the animated studio's line-up.

It also has a really memorable ensemble cast from Vinny the demolition expert, Strongbear the big medic, Audrey the mechanic, one of the first Latino characters for Disney, Mole the digger, and my personal favourite, the chain-smoking radio operator Bertha. While they may have small roles, they all are really individually memorable and all perfectly voiced acted. Michael J. Fox, who voices Milo, is absolutely perfect in the role and adds so much charm and likeability to the character. As one of the only bigger names in the film, it doesn't feel like stunt casting, and he fits in perfectly with the rest of the voice cast.

As for the film itself, it's an underrated marvel for Disney. It definitely feels unlike anything the studio has ever done, with such a unique look. Milo, Kida and the world of Atlantis stand out in the animated studio's line-up.

The film also technically reached new heights for Disney Animators, with all three animation studios (Burbank, Orlando and Paris) working on the project; at its peak having 350 hands on deck. The film is also one of the only Disney Animated films to be shot in 35mm anamorphic format, which is also one of the biggest reasons the film needed to succeed. Due to it being shot in this bigger format, the studio had to purchase animation desks and equipment that were big enough for widescreen. The final shot in the film - a pull-out shot similar to the ending one in 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame', which the animators' thought was too simple and want to expand on it - starts on a close-up of Milo and Kida a small 40.5cm piece of paper and pulls out to reveal Atlantis in all its glory with a whopping 45,720cm piece of paper. It became the most difficult shot in the history of Disney.

The film was noted for its use of CGI, which was the most Disney had ever used at the time, with 362 digital effect shots. While they had utilised CGI before with the gears in 'The Great Mouse Detective' and the Ballroom scene in 'Beauty and the Beast', this was a big deal for both the company and the public. It was the first time Disney had really leaned into the new technology that was slowly eclipsing them. While it was only used on things like the Submarine or the Stone of Atlantis, the way it blends with the 2D animation quite seamlessly even 20 years on is quite impressive.

So why didn't 'Atlantis: The Lost Empire' succeed? There are many reasons - the biggest being CGI was just too big at the time, with 'Shrek' releasing a month before and having a much wider appeal. With 'Monsters, Inc.' released in cinemas later that year, it's easy to see how it got lost in the mix. There is also that fact it's a Disney film and it didn't look like one. You ask why 'The Emperor's New Groove' or even 'Lilo and Stitch' worked; those characters still look like they fit in a Disney line-up. 'Atlantis' also had a much darker and more serious marketing campaign that, to some extent, alienated a lot of families.

In the years since, the film has gained a huge cult following, which is awesome that it's now getting the love it deserves. Simply put, the Crystal Chamber sequence is one of the most beautifully animated sequences in history. For this 20th anniversary, dust off those old Happy Meal toys, connect your PlayStation back up to the TV to relive the video game, and dive back into the forgotten world of 'Atlantis: The Lost Empire'.

RELEASE DATE: 08/06/2001
RUN TIME: 01h 35m
CAST: Michael J. Fox
Corey Burton
Claudia Christian
James Garner
John Mahoney
Phil Morris
Leonard Nimoy
Don Novello
Jacqueline Obradors
Florence Stanley
DIRECTORS: Gary Trousdale
Kirk Wise
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