With the sort of slam-bang storytelling found in old serial adventures and the films of Ray Harryhausen, Atlantis tells the tale of Milo Thatch, a young linguist and history buff who thinks he’s found the key to finding the remains of Atlantis.
Atlantis in Depth
Kirk Wise explained the film’s premise as follows: “Our idea was that during the great flood that engulfed the world, Atlantis protected kind of a small portion of itself with this force bubble, with this force shield, which enabled it to kind of melt down through the crust of the earth while the water came in above it, swallowing up entire continents above it.
“When the force field dissipated and all that kind of hot lava rock around them cooled,” Wise continued, “they ended up in this cavern, beneath the floodwaters. So it’s kind of like in a cave beneath the bottom of the ocean.”
The key to unlocking this sequence of events is an incredible book called the Shepherd’s Journal. It’s an amazing piece of history that has traveled through time and around the world, falling from one set of hands to the next and ultimately finding itself in Milo’s possession.
As Wise explained, “One of the things that was fun about this movie was that we were able to use a little history and a lot of imagination.” With the two mixed up and the edges blurred, a canvas reminiscent of the Indiana Jones movies was created.
“The notion of a Shepherd’s Journal being this artifact that’s passed from generation to generation, and kings and scientists, and da Vinci, and Ben Franklin and all these visionaries all possessed it,” Wise enthusiastically expounded, “that’s pretty much a lot of hokum, but it makes for a more credible story, I think.”
That story was concocted between Wise, producer Hahn, co-director Gary Trousdale, and screenwriter Tab Murphy over dinner in a Mexican restaurant in Burbank. They were discussing the movies they liked as kids; titles like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Swiss Family Robinson, Jason and the Argonauts, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, and The Time Machine filled the conversation.
Adds Hahn, “I think we all at the same time came to the conclusion that we couldn’t keep repeating ourselves and that we felt, as much as we adored Beauty and the Beast or Hunchback of Notre Dame, or Lion King, or those films, we felt like personally we needed to stretch out again and create something fresh.” He also recalled being stuck with the food bill.
Shot in CinemaScope, Atlantis has ambitions that took even Disney years to get properly prepared. The Lion King at one point was going to be in CinemaScope, but the team just didn’t feel they were ready, they “weren’t grown up enough,” Hahn said. Now that they have more creative maturity to draw upon, they felt they could approach the larger format from a smarter place.
“Our pitch really was: We have to make this movie something you can’t get on your sofa at home watching TV,” Hahn continued. “We have to make it visceral, and involving, and we want to add that periphery to your viewing area to make you feel like you’re in, strapped next to the explorers on this ride, and they seemed to understand that.”
Noting the departure from what had been done in the past, Pomeroy added, “You just assumed you wanted to make something powerful and totally different than anything that had been done in the past.”