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How Disney's animators lost their way on the road to "Atlantis: The Lost Empire"

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How Disney's animators lost their way on the road to "Atlantis: The Lost Empire"

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It's all that people in Hollywood can talk about these days. The continuing success of Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl."

Folks who were supposedly in the know about the way things really work in Tinsel Town had predicted that this pirate picture wouldn't have any legs. (Which -- given how many movie pirates are depicted as having peg legs -- is a somewhat ironic comment, don't you think? Anyway ...) That Disney's "The Curse of the Black Pearl" might have one really good weekend, then quickly fade from view.

Well, here we are -- 4 weeks after "Pirates" first came sailing into theaters nationwide. And Jack Sparrow & Co. are still going strong. Just last week, this Walt Disney Pictures release was second at the box office. To date, this Jerry Bruckheimer production has grossed $214 million. Which is considerably more than anyone in Hollywood had ever expected this Disney movie to make.

But -- then again -- when it comes to making box office predictions, it's genuinely difficult to predict which picture is ultimately going to come out on top in the summer cinema sweepstakes.

Take for example what happened back during the summer of 2001. Most Tinsel Town insiders felt that Walt Disney Pictures had a pretty decent shot at success with its animated action-adventure film, "Atlantis: The Lost Empire." But "A:TLE" turned out to be a real disappointment, grossing only $84 million (which hardly came close to cover its production costs, never mind the tens of millions more that Disney poured into the marketing of the movie).

So what went wrong with "Atlantis: The Lost Empire?" Well, to hear Disney Studio insiders tell it, "A:TLE" really was a project with plenty of promise. At least when the production initially started out. But then "Atlantis" lost its one real chance at box office success as the project's film-makers -- under the guidance of WDFA's allegedly Creative VPs -- kept second-guessed themselves. Fixing and futzing with their film until "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" had become a pale shadow of what it once was.

I mean, back when work first began on "A:TLE," this movie truly had some balls. "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" started out with a prologue that showed a crew of blood-thirsty Vikings meeting a grisly fate in the North Atlantic. Their longboat obliterated by some immense mysterious creature with tentacles. (This sequence was to have been the audience's initial introduction to the Leviathan, the massive mechanical creature that guarded the one remaining gateway to Atlantis.)

Killing off a whole boatload of Vikings may seem like a pretty odd way to start off a Disney animated film. But that's just what veteran animation directors Gary Wise and Kirk Trousdale wanted to do. Back when these two first met with WDFA producer Don Hahn in October 1996 (over a bowl of cheesy nachos at a Mexican restaurant in Burbank) to decide what sort of picture they all wanted to make next, Kirk and Gary said to Don: "We don't wanna do another musical. We've already done that with 'Beauty & the Beast' and 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame.' We wanna do something new, something different this time. An adventure!"

But not just any kind of adventure. A Ray Harryhausen kind of adventure. A Saturday matinee sort of movie -- in the tradition of "The Mysterious Island," "Jason and the Argonauts" and "The Golden Voyage of Sinbad." Loaded with exotic locations, colorful characters ... and lots and lots of really cool monsters.

Well, Wise and Trousdale seemed pretty passionate about their idea. And given that Walt Disney Studios actually used to make live action films like this (EX: "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," "Swiss Family Robinson," "In Search of the Castaways," "The Island at the Top of The World"), Don thought that he might be able to sell the Mouse House brass on making a movie like this.

As it turned out, Hahn was right. Given Wise and Trousdale's track record, the powers-that-be at Disney Studios were willing to let Kirk and Gary begin development of their Ray Harryhausen tribute movie. (Which -- by the way -- was initially supposed to have been an animated version of Jules Verne's "Journey to the Center of the Earth." So what happened to that movie? Sadly, after just a few months of development, Wise and Trousdale were said to have lost all interest and enthusiasm with the idea of making a movie that would have been based on that particular Verne novel. So they opted instead to go forward with an "original" cinema story that "borrowed" quite heavily from Jules' "Journey." That's Hollywood for you ... Anyway ...)

Getting back to Wise and Trousdale's Ray Harryhausen tribute film ... Just as Ray used to load up his stop motion epics with lots of bizarre creatures, "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" was originally supposed to have had a lot of monsters.

Lots and lots of monsters.

I mean, if Kirk and Gary had just stuck to their guns, "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" would have had the crew of the Ulysses -- once they survived their deadly encounter with the Leviathan -- battling squid bats, lava whales as well as bugs the size of school buses as they made their way deep down into the bowels of the Earth. (Those of JHM readers who'd like to get some sense of what these sequences would have been like would be wise to go pick up a copy of the 2-disc collector's edition of the "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" DVD. Here, hidden among the disc's extras, you'll find deleted storyboard versions of these various scenes. Which should give you some idea how truly exciting "A:TLE" COULD HAVE been -- had these sequences been left in the movie.) In short, this film would have been just the sort of production that Ray Harryhausen could have been proud of.

But then ... well ... Wise, Trousdale and Hahn began getting all of these inane notes from WDFA's cadre of allegedly-Creative Executives. These useless series of suits regularly bombarded the film-makers with mindless memos that often asked lame-brained questions like "Isn't it taking Milo and his friends far too long to get to Atlantis? Can't we speed things up a bit in this part of the picture?"

Plus the movie's monsters -- what with all of their numerous legs, wings and antennae -- were proving to be pretty darned difficult to animate. Expensive too. And -- given that Kirk, Gary and Don were coming under continuing pressure from above to streamline "A:TLE"'s production as well as keep costs down -- the easiest thing to cut back back then was the squid bat attack, the crew's deadly encounter with the lava whale sequence as well as the bug hunt (Kida's original introductory sequence, which was to have shown the Atlantaen princess -- to the audience, anyway -- as this truly awesome warrior).

The only problem was ... once these three sequences were cut, Wise and Trousdale's animated adventure film -- supposedly crafted in the style of Ray Harryhausen -- was now decidedly light on adventure and monsters. I mean, now that the encounters with the Lava Whales, the Squid Bats and the enormous caterpillar were cut ... it only took Milo and the crew of the Ulysses about a half an hour to reach Atlantis.

Kirk and Gary tried to paper over this hole in their picture's plot by upping the amount of human drama in "Atlantis: The Lost Empire." They did this by trying to turn Kida and the people of Atlantis into characters that movie-goers could genuinely care about.

At least, that was what Wise and Trousdale were trying to do -- back in March 2000 -- when they suddenly opted to cut the film's original prologue. (Remember? The sequence where the Vikings got attacked by the Leviathan?) But this just resulted in a large logic lapse in "A:TLE"'s convoluted story line that animation insiders are still chuckling over.

What am I talking about? Okay. Try and follow along here. This gets kind of complicated. To explain:

At the start of "Atlantis: The Lost Empire," Kida and her father (the King of Atlantis) are alive and well inside of this supposedly highly evolved civilization. As are hundreds of other Atlanteans. Then some unexplained calamity (allegedly caused by the crystal that powers the city, which the King -- in his arrogance -- tried to use as a weapon against Atlantis's enemies) befalls the city. Which results in Atlantis being buried deep inside the Earth.

30 or 40 minutes later, Kida and Milo are talking. And -- as part of this dialogue -- the Atlantean Princess fills in a lot of the film's back story. Among the points that Kida touches on is that:

She's a survivor of the original calamity that sank Atlantis. Which makes her 4548 years old.

Kida then claims that there's no one left in her world who can still read Atlantean. Which is why all of her civilization's advanced technology (AKA those snazzy flying stone fish) are just lying around unused.

Well, correct me if I'm wrong, but if Kida and her father, the King, were alive when the initial cataclysm happened ... well, the King could read back then. And I bet that a lot of his subjects who also survived this disaster can read too ...

So what exactly happened here? An entire civilization spontaneously forgot how to read and/or how to make use of their society's snazzy hi-tech technology? I mean, I could possibly buy that -- if a couple of dozens generations had gone and gone in Atlantis since the initial cataclysm. (By that I mean, there's actually some historic precedent for an event like this happening. Knowledge slipping away. Which explains why -- as Napoleon marched his troops into Egypt in the late 1790s -- there was no one left alive in that Middle Eastern country who could still read hieroglyphics.)

But Kida, her father, the King as well as the rest of the Atlantean survivors were supposedly alive with Atlantis was sunk .. and they could read back then ... well, it just stands to reason that they should still be able to read their own language now. (I mean, if Kida and her fellow Atlanteans can still summon up the ability to speak in French, German, Chinese and Hebrew just seconds after they encounter the crew of the Ulysses, that means that they still have their powers of retention. So that means that these folks should still be able to read.)

It's plot holes like this (which I should point out here, weren't initiated by Wise and Trousdale. But rather, were forced on Kirk and Gary by lame-brained Disney Studio executives. Who were insisting that the film-makers do something to introduce the Atlanteans earlier to movie-goers. To try and make people care about Kida's plight) that made "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" particularly difficult for people to embrace. But this is what happens when you start out making one kind of movie and -- in mid-stream -- decide that you really should be making another kind of movie.

Which is a real shame. Because -- its flaws aside -- there's a lot to like about "Atlantis: The Lost Empire." From the film's distinct design to its wonderfully loopy supporting characters. I mean, how can you dislike a picture that features Gaetan Moliere, perhaps the weirdest individual to ever appear in a Disney animated film? Short, round and bi-spectacled. Totally obsessed with dirt and digging, Mole steals virtually every scene that he's in (Though -- I suspect -- a lot of Moliere's charm comes from the wonderful quirky voice that Disney voice vet Corey Burton provides for this character.)

Yes, I know. A lot of you animation fans were very disappointed with "Atlantis: The Lost Empire." That -- in spite of the promise of its premise -- the picture basically failed to deliver the goods.

I say ... if Wise and Trousdale had actually been allowed to produce the picture that they had originally pitched to Don Hahn -- a film in the Ray Harryhausen tradition -- this story might have ended very differently. "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" might have actually found the success at the box office that it deserved.

Which would have meant that WDI would have been able to go forward with construction of those "Atlantis"-themed attractions that the Imagineers had been planning for Disneyland and Walt Disney World.

Which would have meant that -- this summer -- WDW visitors would have been able to scream their way through "Fire Mountain," Disney World's first transforming coaster (which was to have been built -- inside of a giant volcano-shaped show building -- out behind Adventureland's "Pirates of the Caribbean" ride). And guests at Disneyland would have been able to reboard that theme park's Tomorrowland subs to go out on an undersea treasure hunt in Atlantis (and -- with luck -- avoid an encounter with the Leviathan).

And toon fans would have gotten to see the animated equivalent of "The X Files," once the follow-up TV series for "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" -- "Team Atlantis" -- began airing. The ambition of that particular Disney Television Animation series (which had only completed work on three episodes prior to the project being unceremoniously shut down in the Summer of 2001) was just staggering.

Perhaps -- sometime in the not-so-distant future -- I'll fill you in what you missed when "Team Atlantis" got canceled. But for now ... well ... perhaps it's best just to mourn what might have been with "Atlantis: The Lost Empire." Here was a film that could really have been something special. Something really different from WDFA.

But because those supposedly-Creative execs at Disney Feature Animation felt that they really had to have their say. They had to justify their basically useless existences by meddling in the creative process ... a potential great idea for a motion picture got derailed, watered down and second guessed into becoming a pale imitation of itself.

Your thoughts?

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  • Interesting, but I prefer human interaction and character development to LOADS AND LOADS OF MONSTERS.  

    And I always thought Kida's father knew how to read and operate their technology, but didn't want to (and even forbid people to do it), believing that's what caused the catastrophe in the first place.

    Back when I first saw it I thought this movie was badass - but lacked songs. And I was already beyond Disney's usual demographic.

  • I found this article fascinating, as "Atlantis" was one of my favourite Disney films as a child (indeed, it began my life-long love of Atlantean myth, and the history behind it).

    Interestingly enough, it wasn't until I was older that I really noticed the issue with the reading and writing, because I had always just assumed that only the royal family lived thousands of years, as the Heart of Atlantis specifically needed them to be kept alive for times of trouble, while the other Atlanteans had more normal lifespans. I figured this based on two simple logical principles: a) If all of the Atlanteans were effectively immortal, the whole city would be severely over-populated by now (since the film shows children, we can assume that they were indeed breeding)--it wouldn't make sense for the Heart of Atlantis to let the population get so out of control otherwise; and b) It's perfectly possible that Kida was too young to have fully learned how to read when her mother was taken away, and the king could easily have simply banned the teaching of reading and writing in order to try to avoid further catastrophe, and similarly banned the use of the fish vehicles. Over the ensuring generations, the language was lost. Furthermore, if the king had actively punished those who WERE found to have learned reading/writing/flying, then it makes sense that these abilities are now lost. Kida needn't remember her father making these decrees, if she ages at a slow and steady rate over her 8800 years and they were made when she was quite young. Perhaps he did not consider banning the teaching of language?

    The biggest plot hole that always bothered me was that the Atlanteans could speak English, as linguistics don't work that way. Since Atlantean was a fully developed conlang, I wish the film had simply had all of the Atlantean dialogue in it. Otherwise? I am actually glad that the film was not a creature-fest. I actually did love the Atlantean characters--enough so that, now in my 20s, I actively research the mythology of Atlantis and Thera. I wish we could have seen Kida show more badassery, and maybe extended the journey to Atlantis to include one more exciting event so that it doesn't seem so rushed (these two things could easily be put together by including Kida's original introduction).

    Otherwise? This seems to be one of the few cases in which I actually side with the executives. Character-driven, with a complicated plot? For a kid who was sick and tired of Disney treating me like an idiot, it was a breath of fresh air, and it remains one of my favourite children's films to this day.

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