Finding Atlantis

June 01, 2001

-By Peter Henne


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No song numbers or talking animals, no amusing sidekicks, no source material you can put your finger on, a visually flat style, and subtitles; and all this brought to you in Cinemascope. Probably not one of those qualities brings to mind a Disney animated production. At a pinch, many might distinguish a Disney film by its realistic flourishes, a soundtrack you can sing to, lovable animals, and unfailing comic relief. In recent years, too, most Disney animated features—including Hercules, Pocahontas, Mulan, Aladdin and Tarzan—have been based on popular legends or published classics. Looked at one way on paper, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, produced by Don Hahn and directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, can sound stripped-down if not plain, and unfamiliar. Yet Atlantis counts as one of the boldest innovations the Magic Kingdom has issued in years; not because it's alienating—it isn't—but because it marks such a strong departure in content and form while keeping fun and excitement for the audience. Featuring the voice talent of Michael J. Fox, James Garner, Leonard Nimoy, David Ogden Stiers, Jim Varney, Don Novello, Phil Morris, Cree Summer, Claudia Christian, John Mahoney, Jacqueline Obradors, Corey Burton and Florence Stanley, Atlantis arrives in theatres nationwide on June 8. Atlantis marks the third teaming of Hahn, Trousdale and Wise, following their collaboration on Beauty and the Beast and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Atlantis, the producer and two directors agree, is an instantly recognizable subject—up to a point. After identifying it as a lost continent, people can't agree where it originally was, or when and how it disappeared—or if it was ever real to begin with. The wide difference of opinion provided an opportunity for the filmmakers to let fantasy take flight, but also presented a challenge to touch upon anything firm in the public's imagination; in any case, it insured a lot of research had to be carried out. 'Early on, we were fooling around with Jules Verne ideas,' Trousdale recalls, remembering back to the project's formative stages in late 1996. 'We found that Atlantis was a subject [of which] everyone knew the title, but no one knew the story. That was liberating, exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. We didn't have the safety net of a fairy tale or published material to fall back on. If you dug a hole, you were going to have to pull yourself out of it.'

One of the few items that could be agreed on in the historical record is that Plato was one of the first to record a continent named Atlantis, destroyed, according to the Greek philosopher, by a powerful wave sent by gods as punishment for the greed of its inhabitants. 'We read, not only the original Plato, but some of the recollections that he had heard, that were already generations old by his time,' Hahn remarks. 'It's almost like each generation takes the myth of Atlantis, adds something of their own, and passes it on.' Wise was intrigued how the gamut of ideas written on Atlantis ranged from the thoughtful to the ridiculous. 'There was a lot of fun to be had, because of the wide range of information that's out there on Atlantis—from the most scientifically thought out, very logically approached, historian's point of view on what Atlantis might have been, all the way to the wackiest stuff on pyramids. We thought, somewhere between those two, there's good material for a story.'

Hahn was aware as well that the freedom and diversity the subject held also meant that the team would have to work that much harder to create a backbone story of their own. 'The risk for us was, when you can create a civilization out of a blank piece of paper, there's a responsibility that goes along with it! You still had to feel like these were living, breathing people, with a spoken dialect and architectural language, and all of the things that we associate with the great cultures of the world.' What finally firmed up the conception of Atlantis was the recognition that they were inventing an ancient society, often portrayed as a precedent to others. 'A lot of the myths guided us on our approach,' Hahn reckons. 'We didn't want to do the Greco-Roman Atlantis, with guys walking around in togas, because you had seen that before. We didn't want to do the Aqua Man kind of version of it. We thought: Let's take the idea that Atlantis is the mother civilization. So what does that mean? If it was truly a Tower-of-Babel, advanced civilization, that meant its architecture, language and culture must have inspired all the other great cultures of the world. That was our beginning of taking Mayan, Cambodian and Indian architecture, and devolving them, almost, into what Atlantis was like. Or taking spoken dialects and doing the same thing to them, so that you get the Atlantean language. At first, that was scary. But later, we thought: No, that's the way to approach it. Because that gives you a plausible universe.'

Avoiding any trenchant postmodernism, this Atlantis blends together the traits of many societies from across the world. The land of Atlantis, when viewed from a mountaintop, resembles the temple structure Angkor Wat, while masks that the princess Kida (Summer) and her consorts wear might be described as a cross between Polynesian and West African. 'The fact that you can't quite place it is a good thing,' Hahn notes. Wise indicates the lengths the studio and crew were willing to go to fill in the almost countless details of a fictional, root civilization. 'From the get-go, we were committed to designing it top to bottom. [Our attitude was] 'Let's get the architectural style, clothing, heritage, customs, how they would sleep, and how they would speak.' So we brought people on board who would help us develop those ideas. Marc Okrand came to help us create Atlantean.'

Lest one expect the usual, moviemaking dalliance in cooking up a foreign language, by compiling two-dozen strange sounding nouns and verbs which are quickly translated into English by the characters and jettisoned, Wise builds a case to the contrary. Okrand, he points out, is a linguist who invented Klingon for the 'Star Trek' television shows and films. 'He wasn't just sitting around thinking up nonsense words. He created a hypothetical language based on his research. He used Indo-European [the language postulated to underlie most European and Middle Eastern languages], and bits of Hebrew and Chinese. But whenever he created a word or grammar structure that sounded too much like something in an actual language, he would change it.' Atlantean is conversed in at length, giving it a realistic weight; it's spoken enough that it requires subtitles in several scenes.

Atlantis having been devised, the story lay in its discovery by outsiders. In 1914, Milo Thatch (Fox) is a na™ve but energetic staff worker at a museum, eager to prove, based on the incomplete research of his grandfather, that Atlantis is not only a legend but really exists. His boss (Stiers) thinks he's a nut, but an intrigued billionaire, Preston B. Whitmore (Mahoney), hears him out and puts up the needed expenses to go continent-hunting. Whitmore builds a submarine, the Ulysses, for Milo, and assembles a crew: Commander Rourke (Garner), his assistant Helga Sinclair (Christian), dirt-crazed geologist 'Mole' (Burton), demolitions expert Vinny Santorini (Novello), chef Cookie (Varney), Dr. Sweet (Morris) and fix-it woman Audrey Ramirez (Obradors). Arriving at last after a turbulent journey, Milo makes friends with Kida and discovers that Atlantis holds a unique power source—and that some of his crew harbor ulterior motives.

'I suppose what we wanted to do is take something very Disneyesque, an adventure movie, but not stay attached to some of the conventions we've grown accustomed to, like songs, sidekicks or whatever. Be true to the genre and celebrate what action-adventure can do,' Hahn observes. 'The kinds of movies we were inspired by were The Dirty Dozen, The Great Escape and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. We thought, 'We may never have a submarine as cool as the Nautilus, but let's have the second coolest.'" The team wanted to bring multifaceted, sympathetic characters to an action-packed story; by their own admission, that doesn't happen often. 'Even though we wanted to do an adventure piece,' Trousdale adds, 'you can go to any video store and look in the action-adventure aisle, and see how many of them don't turn out that well. They've got a lot of great chases and explosions, which is something that we really wanted. But you have to have a good story and characters, as well, and that's what always comes first. That's probably where our greatest challenge lies, a compelling story. And having the story incidentally involve giant stone, flying fish might make it more worthwhile.'

Likeable characters are a Disney strong suit, but to make the action side of Atlantis work, the crew found themselves moving in directions to which the studio was unaccustomed. Sizing up the scale of the adventure, the filmmakers saw Cinemascope as the only befitting screen size; but this ratio, while often employed for live-action adventure stories, is seldom used in animation, and Walt Disney Pictures at first only saw a proposal for a 30 percent larger screen—and 30 percent greater expense. 'It caused a few beads of sweat to come out on the foreheads of accountants when we proposed it,' Wise wryly notes. 'We just suggested they look at it a different way. We said, 'What if we just say it's the same amount of drawing and painting, and we change the shape of the window we look at it through.' Everybody kind of backed off after that, and breathed a big sigh of relief. We studied widescreen films to death before embarking on this film. Our head of layout put together a kind of Cliff's Notes guide for composing the Cinemascope format, which helped the layout artists compose for that shape of window.' According to Wise, two widescreen masters from whom he personally drew inspiration were David Lean and Akira Kurosawa.

Another break from convention was leaving out song numbers. Hahn cites this decision as one of the most challenging. 'We were so used to saying. 'Here's a couple of songs, let's start animating these, and then we'll eventually catch up with the connective tissue that goes between them.' In this genre, of course, there was nothing like that,' he explains. 'We learned after a while that the big action scenes were the headposts that keep the movie up, and in a sense they almost replaced the songs. The songs would always catapult our characters to the next dramatic level, and now our action sequences were doing the same thing.' An action-based story also meant sticking to human characters, and curbing over-the-top comic relief, such as of the Robin Williams variety. Yet Wise saw the new form as a luxury. 'The different qualities of a character will be revealed by how they bounce off other characters, by the friction that's created. We had more screen time available to do a scene like where Milo and the explorers are camping out, and learning about one another's histories. An entire sequence is devoted to having dinner and going to bed. That is not, typically, something we would have the luxury of doing.'

Add to those surprising changes a slick storytelling pace that keeps the audience on its toes. Atlantis employs rapid scene changes that could qualify as jump cuts. Wise intimates that the filmmakers encountered some resistance to the swift style of editing. 'It's something we struggled a little bit with at the studio,' he notes, 'because the tendency is to tell the audience everything three times: Tell them once, tell them again, and then tell them that you've told them. We scaled back on that for this movie.' Hahn reasons, 'You don't have to show all the connective dots. The audience doesn't need to see all that, and the movie doesn't talk down to the audience. I like to think there is a certain sophistication to it. We find that the kids in the audience are way ahead of us, anyway, and that they get it completely. It gives the adults in the audience something to latch onto, and enjoy from a cinema point of view.'

At least as jolting must be the film's relatively flat, sometimes angular drawing style, inspired by graphic artist Mike Mignola, making a contrast to the enfolding, mostly soft look of Disney animation. Going back to the early classics Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Fantasia and Pinocchio, the studio has sought deep, engulfing, Expressionist uses of space to conjure its animated worlds. Short of a radical about-face, Atlantis nonetheless marks a dramatic reversal. Neither producer nor directors soft-pedal this pronounced departure from tradition. Ironically, a flat style of animation, precisely because it is patently unreal, lends itself to make-believe. 'This may sound like a controversial point of view,' Hahn cautions, 'but in the end, realism can be kind of boring, because you can look out your window and see it. We're fascinated with computers right now. We have this love affair, and we think, 'Gosh, if we could only recreate reality with computers.' Someone will do that, and we will see reality created in a virtual world. But that's so uninteresting for me. I'm more interested in creating impressions of the real world—as opposed to the real world. The best way to do that, and to kind of take the audience along with us, was to create an almost comic world. From that, you get the graphic style, the colors, the angularity, the Mike Mignola-type drawings. And yet, there are plenty of computer graphics and whiz-bang stuff.' Wise and Trousdale emphasize that they were after a seamless combination of 2D and 3D effects for the whole film, instead of set-pieces for the latter staggered between stretches of more conventional animation. 'Ten years after Beauty and the Beast,' Hahn insists, 'we should have grown up enough to integrate all the tools."


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