WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
In perhaps 10 years, we'll start looking back on Disney's Atlantis: The Lost Empire as a forgotten gem—much like the film's mythical, titular city. But in 2001, this spectacular adventure yarn was overshadowed by the admittedly wonderful CGI animations, Monsters, Inc. and Shrek, and even the ho-hum kiddie adventure Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius. Which is unfortunate, because Atlantis is a rip-roaring tale, full of Jules Verne wonder and exhilaration, and it represents some of the greatest hand-drawn animation work that Disney has done in years.
The scene is Washington D.C., circa 1914. Milo Thatch (Michael J. Fox) is a brilliant, boyish cartographer/linguist whose soul yearns for adventure. He aspires to his late grandfather's legendary love for eccentric exploration and obsession with the mythical city of Atlantis. All but shackled by his museum bosses in the basement boiler room, Milo plans archeological adventures before an audience of dust pails and brooms. His big opportunity arrives in the form of billionaire yoga contortionist Preston Whitmore (John Mahoney), a contemporary of Milo's grandfather who shares the old dude's obsession with the lost city. Whitmore offers Milo the chance to head up a search for Atlantis—and the adventure begins.
Aboard the high-tech, whiz-bang submarine Ulysses, Milo joins a motley crew of jokesters, and one of the distinct pleasures of this atypical Disney film is that none of them ever breaks out into song or discovers adorably furry talking animals lurking in the cargo hold. No, Atlantis is a buoyant human adventure, and even if its characters are a tad prone to stereotype or silly jokes, they're remarkably three-dimensional, both inwardly and outwardly. Milo himself is a smart guy, willing to take risks, eager to prove himself and do the right thing. There are characters in this enterprise that go through impressive arcs, but I'll leave those for your discovery.
The group's journey toward Atlantis through the bowels of the Earth hearkens back to the heyday of great adventure stories, recalling the fantastic work of Verne and H.G. Wells. There's a palpable sense of mystery and delicious anticipation. And when the travelers finally break through the final crust of earth and discover the forgotten city, the film pays satisfying attention to the juxtaposition of the explorers' 20th century mechanical engineering and the Atlanteans' naturalistic and earth-based society. There's much to admire about a Disney cartoon that thinks so far outside the lines.
Of course, it doesn't hurt that Atlantis is packed with some of the most thrilling battles and explosions and chase scenes ever to grace a Disney flick. The staging and pace of these scenes will have you on the edge of your seat, and Gary Rydstrom's sound engineering is particularly stunning. One note about Atlantis: Lots of minor characters die. In the prologue, you witness the nearly genocidal fate of Atlantis, and during the exploration, you watch the (offscreen) demise of most of the Ulysses' crewmembers. A few major characters also meet their end in the film's climax. I mention all this not to warn off parents but to acknowledge the bravery of the filmmakers in not shying away from the reality of mortality in a film intended for kids and young adults.
When all is said and done, Atlantis is a fantastic film—in both senses of the word. It's a thrilling and intelligent tale of exploration and discovery, full of cracking humor and artistry.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Animation is always a particular treat on a large widescreen display. Disney's 2.35:1 anamorphic-widescreen transfer of Atlantis looks simply spectacular, glowing with rich colors, striking in its use of deep blacks, and exacting in all levels of detail. Atlantis isn't as bright and giddy a film as, say, The Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast, so its pleasures aren't as obvious as those of previous Disney offerings. But its darkly rich color palette is accurate and subtly beautiful. I saw no instances of edge enhancement or halos of any kind. I noticed a couple very minor instances of digital artifacting, but really nothing that would make me love this transfer any less.
The film's original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 is uniquely appropriate to the story's wide-open sense of escapism.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
Gary Rydstrom's audio mix is nothing short of aural nirvana. The Dolby Digital 5.1 EX and DTS 5.1 soundtracks both offer aggressively enveloping experiences, with all channels getting a workout—from bubbles to whizzing bullets to full-out explosions. You really can't go wrong with either track, as both are incredibly immersive. Highs and lows are beautifully rendered, and panning effects are very fluid. On my system, the Dolby Digital 5.1 EX track was marginally preferable, because of the slightly more enveloping nature of the extra surround channel and, surprisingly, slightly punchier bass.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
Considering the sheer volume of supplements included with this set, I was very pleasantly surprised that the extras featured little overlap. Another eye-opener is that all of the supplements are anamorphically enhanced for widescreen sets. Let's all stand and applaud that decision.
Commentary. First up is an engaging and informative scene-specific audio commentary from directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale and producer Don Hahn. You can choose to listen to this track as a typical audio commentary or as a Visual Commentary, which offers the bonus functionality of taking intermittent breaks to view storyboards and footage of deleted scenes. After experiencing both tracks, I found that the Visual Commentary is essentially the same audio recording of the three men, with minor introductory differences introduced via seamless branching. These are three funny guys, obviously having a ball pointing out inspirations and hidden gags, as well as filling in back story and describing initial concepts. Before you listen to the commentary, keep in mind that the set's only redundancy occurs here: The commentary mostly contains information that you'll also learn in Disc 2's supplements. So you can decide up front how you want to learn this stuff.
DisneyPedia—Atlantis: Fact or Fiction. This is a frothy little segment devoted to the mythology/history of Atlantis, including tidbits about legends, archeology, ancient writing, and submarines.
Sneak Peeks. This is a collection of Disney trailers, including Beauty and the Beast, TRON, Schoolhouse Rock, Hunchback of Notre Dame 2, 101 Dalmatians 2, and Cinderella 2 (those lovably craptacular Disney sequels).
Disc 2 opens with an entertaining introduction (narrated by Preston Whitmore himself) called Whitmore Industries Industrial Film. This piece essentially tells you about the three ways you can navigate the disc—Explore, Tour, and Files. The Explore route offers a typical graphical-interface menu, common to most DVDs, with which you can access all of the DVD's supplements. The Tour option lets you watch all the video extras in one 2-hour presentation. The Files option is a text-only menu in which you can choose the extras you want to view. I chose the Explore option, which took me to an animated menu offering the following sections:
History. This section contains four features. The Journey Begins, a 9-minute featurette, talks about the film's origins in works such as Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth and such films as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Creating Mythology, an 8-minute featurette, concerns the production team's Internet-based research about Atlantis and the fictional mythology that sprang from that. The Shepherd's Journal provides terrific still close-ups of the book and its text, as well as its art design. How to Speak Atlantean is a humorous 2-minute piece in which Mark Okrand talks you through some basic Atlantean phrases and their English equivalents.
Story and Editorial. This section contains three features. Finding the Story, an 11-minute featurette, is all about the collaborative nature of the making of an animated feature. The team talks about storyboarding and whittling down a good story from brainstormed ideas. The Deleted Scenes section contains "The Viking Prologue," a fully completed alternative opening to the film. You also get storyboarded roughs of three more scenes: "The Squid Bats," "The Lava Whales," and "The Land Beast." Finally, you get a text presentation of the film's Original Treatment.
Art Direction. This section contains five features. Designing Atlantis, an 11-minute featurette, focuses on the comic-book "look" of Atlantis and is focused on the job of the production designer. The spotlight is on Mike Mignola, the renowned comic artist whose designs are the basis for the film's characters. This piece also talks about real-life influences for the film's machinery, as well as influences for the Atlantean architecture. The Explorer's World contains still images of the film's settings ("Washington DC," "The Mothership," "Aboard the Ulysses"). Atlantis contains still images of the underground world ("The Road to Atlantis," "The City," "The King's Chamber," and "The Crystal Chamber"). An Art Direction Style Guide shows you five pages of character images with which the animators worked while creating the film. Mike Mignola Designs shows you some of the artist's original concepts.
Animation Production. This section contains seven features. Under the submenu The Characters, you get a great 10-minute featurette about voice casting called The Voices of Atlantis. I always love to see footage of the voice actors in the studio, and this piece profiles every one of them—Michael J. Fox (Milo), Cree Summer (Kida), Leonard Nimoy (King Nedakh), James Garner (Rourke), John Mahoney (Whitmore), the gorgeous Jaqueline Obradors (Audrey), Corey Burton (Moliere), Don Novello (Vinny), Phil Morris (Sweet), Florence Stanley (Mrs. Packer), Claudia Christian (Helga), and Jim Varney (Cookie)—complete with mini interviews. In the 25-minute Creating the Characters, you'll learn how character design goes from doodling to "acting." A fascinating quote I took from this one is how animators "equate emotion and personality with motion and mass." This piece wraps up with a thorough character-by-character examination of the film's many personalities. The text-based The Whitmore Expedition and The Atlanteans provide extensive dossier files for the characters, as well as design concepts, animation tests, and production progressions (from rough animation to cleanup animation to final color). Next, a 12-minute featurette called Setting the Scene talks about layout, staging, cinematography, background paintings, effects animation, and scene planning. Under the Layouts and Backgrounds submenu, Color Script offers seven pages of color guides for the film, and Layouts and Backgrounds offers seventeen pages of—you guessed it—layouts and backgrounds.
Digital Production. This section contains six features. The 10-minute Digital Production featurette shows you how the animators used digital animation for the film's more complex shots, as well as some visual effects, backgrounds, and background characters. This is a fascinating piece about how traditional hand-drawn animation can coexist with current digital techniques. The 6-minute Digital Productions Tests basically illustrate some of the points made in the previous featurette. In The Expedition Vehicles and The Atlantean Armada, you can page through many still images of the Ulysses, the Sub Pods, the Aqua-Evac, the Convoy Vehicles, and the Atlantean fleet. The 40-second Vehicle Size Comparison is a nifty little reel that shows you all the films' vehicles, from smallest to largest. Finally, Characters shows you stills of the film's digitally created characters.
Music and Sound. This section contains one 9-minute featurette of the same name. The focus here is on Gary Rydstrom, the film's sound designer. He talks about the natural, pure, earthy sounds of Atlantis versus the hard, mechanical sounds of the explorers. The filmmakers also discuss the large contribution of James Newton Howard's score.
Publicity. This section contains four trailers, all in anamorphic widescreen, but two of them strangely window-boxed at 1.85:1.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
I've collected all of the Disney Collector's Editions, and each one seems to better the efforts of the last. This time out, I am particularly impressed by Disney's use of an anamorphic widescreen presentation on the extras disc. As is to be expected, the film's picture and sound are reference quality, and the supplements are uniformly fascinating without producing too much overlap. Although Atlantis didn't seem to catch on with the public, we all know there's no accounting for taste. Some day, we'll look back on this intricate joyride and realize our mistake.