When it comes to the Post-Renaissance era from Walt Disney Animation Studios and the films they put out between 2000 to 2007, "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" is the one animated film that's one of the most ambitious of that era. A lot of the animated films that the studio put out during that time were both visually and narratively ambitious as the studio wanted to broaden their scope after the success they had in the 90s and this film is certainly no exception. When the animated action film 2001 about a bunch of explorers trying to find the titular lost city came out in 2001, critics were polarized by it and it wasn't the financial success Disney had hoped for. Over the years, people have started to look back at this film fondly and it has grown a decent-sized cult following. I can certainly understand why so many people have reappraised it over the years and I do marvel at the sheer beauty and ambition of the film, but alas, something about the film doesn't fully click with me. I certainly don't dislike the film at all and there's a lot about that I love, but personally it's a film that I don't fully love like I should and leaves me wanting more.
In 1914, a linguist at the Smithsonian named Milo Thatch (Michael J. Fox) has been trying to fund an expedition to try to find the lost city of Atlantis after discovering a journey with Atlantean language that can lead to the city. While no one at the museum is willing to fund him, a millionaire named Preston Whitmore (John Mahoney) who knew Milo's grandfather gives him the funds in the hopes that he can find the lost city and together with the leader Commander Rourke (James Garner), his second-in-command Lt. Sinclair (Claudia Christian), teenage mechanic Ramirez (Jacqueline Obradors) medical officer Sweet (Phil Morris), demolitions expert Vinny (Don Novello), radio operator Packard (Florence Stanley), digger Mole (Corey Burton), and chef Cookie (Jim Varney), they set off into the Atlantic on board a submarine hoping to find the lost city not knowing of what to expect.
This is an animated film I really want to love more than I do. Everything I've heard about the film and from the fun premise to the studio creating it, and all the hard work and ambition that was put into it from the excellent cast, amazing visuals, and lots of research going down to creating a fictional language courtesy of linguist Marc Okrand who created the Klingon language for "Star Trek", this is a film that really should be right up my alley. However, this film has personally never fully clicked with me like it should have and I feel so bad. I should like this film because this film has so much going for it, especially considering this is directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, the duo who previously directed both the terrific "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and the stunning "Beauty and the Beast", the latter being my favorite film from Walt Disney Animation Studios and one of my favorite animated films of all time. And yet, every time I watch the film hoping I can get into it, it loses me. It's taken me a while to pinpoint why I don't click with the film and I think it has to do with the story. The initial premise is brilliant as I love the idea of a bunch of explorers trying desperately to find the mythical lost city of Atlantis and the film does start off on a great note with the sinking of Atlantis and the setup for the journey. The pacing is very rushed and it does feel like on fast forward as immediately after Milo gets home from a bad day at the Smithsonian, he is dragged into getting the funding for the mission and is already on his way and it was too much all at once. But once the journey gets going, it does have me invested. There are great action scenes from a giant mechanical underwater monster to fireflies that literally set things on fire and it's so much fun. Then halfway through the film, the film just loses me and I check out. It's taken me a while to figure out why that is and I pinpointed the problem being that I'm more interested in the journey to Atlantis and yet the film is more invested in the city Atlantis itself, and personally I'm not. Maybe I'm simple-minded, but I'm someone who finds the journey usually more interesting than the destination itself with films like "Raiders of the Lost Ark" being a notable example. The film does have an amazing climax and I do think the humor mostly works, but I just can't get on board with the last half of the film for some reason and I feel bad that I can't. With that said, I will say that the animation in the film is easily the best part of the film because it is simply top-notch stuff. Walt Disney Animation Studios has always done terrific animated films, but this is probably one of the most stunning looking films they've ever put out and I'm just in awe of it. The colors are so eye-catching and the backgrounds are so abstract and have that comic book look thanks to artist Mike Mignola and it really shows. The look of the film is so detailed and awe-inspiring and it really leaves such a visually stunning look. The artists also do some stellar work with the computer animation from the steam-punk submarines and the mechanical monsters and it really looks so good. I even admire the character designs with their jagged looks and interesting caricatures and it's what really helps the film leave an impression on me. As far as the characters go, I'm mostly split about them. I do think Milo is a very compelling and fun protagonist to watch. I always love supporting the nerdy underdog hero and I think he's a very smart and interesting character that really grows stronger by the end of the film and takes more command and Michael J. Fox's performance really elevates it. I find the rest of the crew fun too as they all have interesting quirks like Mole being obsessed with dirt and Vinny despite being no-nonsense and cynical wanting to open a flower shop. Stuff like that really makes them interesting, but I did want more development with the characters and more bonding with Milo as I felt I didn't get enough. I did find the Atlantean princess Kida (Cree Summer) somewhat interesting and I do think she and Milo have good chemistry, but I think her character also needed a bit more development. The villains of the film are lame though as they're only obsessed with money and are obvious who they are right from the start and didn't really feel intimidating or threatening. It's sort of disappointing.
Overall, I do admire parts of "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" but others didn't fully work for me. Despite the animation being amazing and unique for Disney, the story has some great action and fun moments but didn't keep me fully invested and the characters have some good ideas behind them yet don't feel as fully fleshed out as they should. I really feel bad that I don't love this movie more, but alas, the film didn't fully click with me. It's a film that I think I respect more than I love. I totally understand why others love the film so much and completely get behind their love for the film and if you're one of them, I'm really happy for you and I'm glad you found something in the film. For me though, this film has me at some moments but sometimes leaves me feeling, for the lack of a better term, lost.