Disney diverts from recent formula

Michael Goller

Though the title Atlantis might invoke thoughts of a magical underwater kingdom, there is no Jamaican crustacean belting out “Under the Sea.” Disregarding the musical numbers, dance routines and extravagant montages, Atlantis’ story isn’t bogged down by narrative-plaguing insets. Instead, Disney Studios has boiled down their latest feature to the two basic ideas of animation and storytelling.

Over Mexican food at a local Los Angeles restaurant, producer Don Hahn and directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale conceived Atlantis. Since the trio had just finished work on The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Trousdale addressed the first issue on their minds. “Do we really want to do another musical or another fairy tale?”

Atlantis is a rich topic. “There is a lot about Atlantis – the idea of Atlantis is a little more fascinating to people than your average fairy tale,” says Hahn.

Approaching Atlantis as an action film, the creators drew inspiration from the live-action adventure films they had grown up with, such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Center of the Earth.

However, Trousdale’s idea of storytelling expanded on these. “They never even made it to the center of the Earth. Everytime something cool would happen – like mushroom forests or mammoths – they would shoot up a volcano and be in Italy. Where’s the fun in that?”

When the story ideas were underway, the trio turned to styling and art direction. For this the filmmakers approached comic book artist Mike Mignola, creator of the Hellboy series, for his edgy style.

“Our idea was let’s take – it seemed so right for an action movie in animation – a comic kind of sensibility and bring that to the screen. And that’s what seemed like a no-brainer for the style of the film,” says Hahn. “Of course, around the office it was called ‘Heckboy.'”

“Mike’s style is very geometric, hard edge, much like his comic novels,” adds John Pomeroy, supervising animator for the lead character of Milo Thatch. “When we first started talking about adapting Mike Mignola’s art styling for the animated characters, we would talk a lot about Sleeping Beauty. We were convinced that Mike Mignola’s style could be adopted in the same way [as Sleeping Beauty] for animation.”

While other recent animated films have been created wholly through digital animation and computer artists, Atlantis attempts to stay as true to the roots of animation as possible. Past Disney features, such as Beauty and the Beast and Tarzan, have enhanced backgrounds – a digital backdrop known as Deep Canvas. While Atlantis does employ some of these digital features, the filmmakers go out of their way to make these rendered objects appear as “animated” as possible.

“There was a lot of stuff that we couldn’t do with pencil and paper, or it would be insane to try to do,” explains producer Hahn. “Things like drawing bubbles, things that are so complex you could never pay anybody to actually sit there and do it. What the computer does really well is renders things in a photo-realistic way. We wrote a software program called INCA that takes [a rendered object] and turns it into flat colors instead of a rendered vehicle and puts an ink line around it.”

After the trio had arranged the art and a story, they began to meld these together into deep characters and rich storytelling.

“Our challenge was to see if we could make an acting performance that was better than you’ve seen before in Disney films,” says Pomeroy.

According to Hahn, storytelling benefits from an animated film. “Sometimes animation has the ability to be more powerful. Since you are not creating reality on the screen, but creating an impression of reality, you can have scenes that are much more visceral, emotional, involving, funny or silly.”

The richness of Atlantis‘ story and characters is deeper than the surface of two-dimensional animation. There is a subjectivity the filmmakers create through these elements, leading to an impact further than the confines of a theater seat.

“Ultimately, what people walk away from the theater and what they take home with them means a lot as a filmmaker,” explains Pomeroy. “We don’t just want to make funny films and make them laugh. We want them to be inspired. We want them to feel better and feel more comfortable about their life, and in some way help them. If the film heals them in some way, if the film inspires them in some way, or gives them hope, fantastic.”

“I’m proudest of [Atlantis] and enjoy it the most because it is true to itself. We didn’t try to insert songs into it and we didn’t try to do something that wasn’t right for Atlantis as a movie,” smiles Hahn. “People will, I hope, love it like a good ride on Space Mountain.”


Atlantis: The Lost Empire opens nationwide today.

Michael Goller is the film editor and invites comments at [email protected]