After the death of Walt Disney in 1966, the Disney company was left without its original guiding force. For twenty years, the company, especially the animation department, struggled to cope with the loss of their visionary leader. Animated movies were released here and there, but they were usually critical or commercial flops. It wasn’t until the release of “The Little Mermaid” that a new era of prosperity was ushered in. Stretching from “The Little Mermaid” in 1989 to “Tarzan” in 1999, the Disney Renaissance was a period of technical and stylistic innovation, rich with quality storytelling and layered characters. This was the era of “The Lion King,” “Aladdin,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Mulan”, some of the most moving, powerful, iconic works of art the Disney company has ever produced were released during the Renaissance period.
Then the animation department got weird.
Well, maybe “weird” is too strong a word, “experimental” might be a better way to put it. The era following the Disney Renaissance is usually referred to as the “post-Renaissance period” or the “Neo-Disney era,” and it lasted up until about 2009. (“The Princess and the Frog” marked the start of the Revival Era of Disney history, which is the era we’re currently living in.) The post-Renaissance period featured such films as “Lilo and Stitch,” “Fantasia 2000” and “The Emperor’s New Groove.” All of these films represented a slight shift away from Disney’s animation traditions. Artistically, since their conception, Disney’s animated features tended to fall into the realm of hyper realism: they mirror real life and real people, but with slight exaggerations in style and aesthetic so as not to fall into the creepy, uncanny realm of photorealism. (i.e. Disney has always had a thing for really big eyes, whether it be on their princesses or their baby deer. But the characters always look realistically human and never do anything a realistic human couldn’t do, unless there’s some explanation for the behavior, like magic.) However, several films of the post-Renaissance era edge away from that: for example, “The Emperor’s New Groove” is markedly more cartoonish. It continuously breaks the fourth wall, with one of the boldest sequences featuring the main character “pausing” the film and drawing on the screen.
A cult favorite from the Neo-Disney period is “Atlantis: The Lost Empire,” which turned 15 this year. Following a crew of scrappy misfits on a mission to find the lost city of Atlantis in 1914, “Atlantis” was a departure from traditional Disney animated features, but never quite strayed into territory as experimental as “The Emperor’s New Groove.” It embodies the best of the Renaissance era (quality storytelling, entertaining characters, and beautiful animation) with the spirit of the post-Renaissance period: a willingness to try something new.
With “Atlantis: The Lost Empire,” Disney set out to make an action movie in the same vein as “Indiana Jones” or “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” And it certainly has a few more explosions than you’d find in a traditional Disney movie, and a lot fewer songs. “Atlantis” has an original score, but doesn’t feature any musical sequences, as in, at no point do characters stop and break out into song. (This was a first in the history of Disney animated features, and it was a sore spot among critics of the film. But it’s really not a dealbreaker for most viewers.)
There was fair amount of innovation and creativity put into the making of “Atlantis: The Lost Empire.” The animation style of “Atlantis” is noticeably more angular than with other Disney films, and that has been credited to Mike Mignola, the creator of the “Hellboy” comic series and the production designer for “Atlantis.” And the Atlantean language used in the film was invented by linguist Marc Okrand, who also designed the Klingon language in “Star Trek.”
“Atlantis: The Lost Empire” is also ripe with great characters, great female characters, in particular. “The Little Mermaid” launched a wave a of strong, complex, relatable female Disney characters that continues to this day, and that’s especially evident in “Atlantis.” Kida, the female lead, has an intimidating presence, she’s a fierce warrior, a protective leader and an intelligent soul. She’s the princess of Atlantis, but she’s not concerned with balls or falling in love; she worries about her people and her home. The supporting characters are also something to admire: Audrey is the lead mechanic on the expedition, despite the fact that she’s a girl, a teenage girl, no less, in 1914. Not to detract from the great male characters in “Atlantis,” either; the protagonist, Milo Thatch, is one of the most delightfully geeky main characters Disney has ever created.
If you’re unsure what Disney movie to watch for the four-hundredth time this weekend, why not revisit “Atlantis”? With a collection of entertaining characters, an ambitious story and truly impressive animation, it’s definitely worth a rewatch.