A Look Back at Disney’s Adventure: Atlantis: The Lost Empire 20th Anniversary
Twenty years ago, Disney’s most ambitious animated film at that time, Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001), was released. But the story behind the story was another ambitious adventure.
Call to Adventure
In 1996, a few months after the release of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), the key creative team behind the film, Kirk Wise, Gary Trousdale, Don Hahn, and Tab Murphey, all met at a Mexican restaurant. While having lunch, they all discussed what to do next.
It was there that they decided that, since they had some of the most talented crew assembled to work on Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), that they should immediately start a new project to keep them under one unit. But at the exact time, they decided to depart from what had become synonymous with Disney at that point.
What they decided was that, instead of making another musical fantasy as the past films were, they wanted to push the envelope further.
So, they basically pitched the idea to Michael Eisner of a new animated movie that would have no songs and would be a big Cinemascope adventure. But that was just the start of a another adventure.
Crafting the Story
Early on, they already had the idea of using the mythological continent of Atlantis to be what the team of explorers would look for. After that, they did tons of research into the subject. One of the ideas that they found was the concept of a giant Atlantean crystal that would become a major story point.
For inspiration for the story, they were informed by the works of Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs, in particular Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth.
For the characters, the Disney artist tried to give them each distinct personalities. With the lead character Milo, the artists thought they could have him be little character in the big world similar to the lead character in the classic film Meet John Doe (1941). And through the course of the movie, Milo discovers who he is.
A Different Design
For Atlantis, the creative team wanted to give the film a distinct art direction, in this case they chose to a comic book look. For that, they hired famed comic book artist Mike Mignola to put his style in the movie.
The art director of the film, David Goetz, would use aspects of his design in the finished film. One example is the simple bullet shape silhouettes for the character of Mole.
To design the city of Atlantis, they chose to not use basically a Greek city in the center of the Earth. Instead, they looked at a bunch of different cultures such as India and Tibet for inspiration.
The writings of Plato served the inspiration for the layout of Atlantis, in particular the city’s concentric circle structure.
After four in a half years of work, Atlantis: The Lost Empire had its premiere in June of 2001. Unfortunately, the film was met with mixed reviews. Some praised it as a nice departure from the typical Disney formula and for the Mignola inspired design. But others chided the film because of the story and characters.
While the film did modestly financially, it wasn’t the smash success the studio thought it could be. But the film was able to achieve a fan base with some calling it an underappreciated Disney treasure.