In 1914, trained linguist Milo Thatch (voiced by Michael J. Fox) was working in a museum, and with his dreams of discovering the lost empire of Atlantis he was nothing short of ambitious. However, Milo worked in the boiler room of the museum, and nobody took his theories seriously so when he was denied his chance to present his research to the professors there, he was forced to offer his resignation - not that they were too bothered. Once he returned home, he was surprised by a woman who had broken in and was awaiting him. She was Helga (Claudia Christian), and she had a propostiion for him: she would take Milo to someone who knew his explorer grandfather with a view to embarking on a new exploration...
Although traditional Disney animation had a good decade in the nineties, come the twenty-first century things did not look quite so rosy in a field where computer animation was overtaking it. So it was that in spite of its lovingly rendered landscapes, machines and characters, Atlantis The Lost Empire was a flop, as everyone wanted to see Pixar movies and their derivatives instead. As this film was an attempt to cash in on the fanbase for Japanese anime, with a storyline that would not have been out of place in such a cartoon, it was unfortunate that controversy followed when Disney was accused of ripping off specific anime in the journey to the screen.
There were no songs or musical numbers this time around, it was all about the adventure, but in truth this made the plot far too straightforward, and to top it all it could have made a half-decent Saturday morning cartoon instead of a feature. The attractive look of the project apart, it simply didn't feel particularly Disney, alienating a substantial part of the studio's followers who wanted something more than a tribute to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Especially as where that film tackled big questions of morality and how far a man could go in his drive to stop all wars, this replaced themes such as that with a wishy-washy message about not being greedy.
Something else lacking was a sense of wonder, which was down to how brisk and breezy the presentation was. It begins spectacularly with the destruction of Atlantis thousands of years ago, then before you can take that in we're accompanying Milo on his journey to the bottom of the sea, part of a motley crew who tolerate him but don't consider him part of the family at first. In that crew are the ship's lofty doctor Sweet (Phil Morris), more welcoming than the others, a Peter Lorre-voiced dirt enthusiast called Mole (Corey Burton), and a Latina engineer called Audrey (Jacqueline Obradors), whose design looks to be influenced by Ralph Bakshi.
Leading this lot is Commander Rourke (James Garner), and if you're naive you'll be thinking they're all on a mission of pure exploration as their submarine finds a huge hole in the ocean floor that Milo has worked out might lead to their destination. One battle with a robotic leviathan later, and they've lost the submarine and are travelling through underground tunnels, with Milo growing on his companions. They naturally do find Atlantis, but it's in a bad way, and our bespectacled hero makes friends with the resident princess Kida (Cree Summer) who, like her countrymen, has not aged since the cataclysm millennia ago thanks to a mysterious energy. And here's where the twist arrives, though it's well telegraphed, and an example of how the film coasts on its superb visuals while ignoring the disappointing narrative. It's a feast for the eyes, to be sure, but shallow with it. Music by James Newton Howard.