Milo Thatch is an undervalued linguist and cartographer at a museum in Washington D.C. The museum's boiler room doubles as his office and whenever there is trouble with the heating he has to answer the calls and get it to work again. It seems his familarity with the boiler's quirks is the reason he's kept as an employee. Because the moment the board of directors see him coming, they scatter in all directions and dive into hiding to avoid Milo's pleas for funding for an expedition to search for Atlantis.
When Milo finds himself rejected again, he is taken to see a mysterious old man. Mr. Whitmore is revealed to have been a very good friend of Milo's grandfather. The two men had a bet going that if Milo's grandfather ever found the Shepherd's Journal, a detailed description of how to find your way to Atlantis, he would finance the expedition to go there. Unfortunately, his obsession with Atlantis had cost the grandfather his good name in the scientific community and he had died a bitter old man. But, he had managed to secure the Shepherd's Journal after all, and Whitmore had kept it for Milo until he thought him ready for his grandfather's legacy.
Next thing he knows, Milo is sent out to sea with a motley crew of experts in their field in a submarine far more advanced than anything you'd expect to see in 1914. After braving a multitude of dangers and strange creatures in their quest for Atlantis, Milo's moment of triumph is cut short.
King Nedakh (Leonard Nimoy) demands that the strangers leave at once. The man in charge of the expedition, Rourke, manages to persuade him to let them stay at least one night to rest and replenish their resources.
Meanwhile, Milo and the king's daughter, Kida, do some exploring on their own. Kida reveals to Milo that the Atlanteans can no longer read their own language and she wants to learn as much of her own culture from the linguist as she can before he has to go. When both return to the group an ugly surprise awaits them. Rourke takes Kida hostage to force the king to reveal the location of the crystal chamber where he expects to find a major treasure.
There is just one problem with what the Shepherd's Journal calls "The Heart of Atlantis." It says the Heart lies in the kings eyes - the irony being that the king is blind and has been for eons. Before torture becomes an option, Rourke has an epiphany and locates the chamber on his own.
There, Kida is inexorably drawn to the crystal floating above their heads and begins to transform. Before Rourke has her crated and loaded on a truck, she assures Milo that all will be well. All but one from Rourke's team choose this moment to rebel against him. They've done things they're not proud of, but never before has anybody got hurt - or at least never anybody they knew personally. Rourke leaves them stranded by blowing up the bridge spanning the chasm that separates Atlantis from the rock arround it.
Back in the palace the king lies dying. He trusts Milo with information about the crystal and what it can do and implores him to bring it and his daughter back so that she can save Atlantis.
Behind the Scenes
Atlantean is introduced as the basis of all other languages on Earth which is why they're almost instantly able to understand any language the explorers speak. It's described as their kind of superpower. Atlantean was designed by the linguist Marc Okrand, who was also responsible for making Leonard Nimoy wrap his tongue around spoken Vulcan in Star Trek. (1) Drawing King Nedakh almost drove the animators nuts right next to the character of Mole, who was difficult to draw because of the many little gadgets he's carrying around on his head. But, even that seemed trivial to the challenge of keeping the king's tattoos from moving around on his head. The supervising animator for King Nedakh has only one word for Leonard Nimoy: Wow. He was impressed with both his professionalism and his ability to delve into the character. Leonard Nimoy really became someone else in the process, he observes. It was like one could really smell the age and dust on his character, who, he thinks, was truly enriched by it. It also seems to pay to be in a position where you can hire the people you admire. At least it suspiciously looks like the producer and two directors of Atlantis having their picture taken with Mr. Nimoy in the last shot.
The people behind Atlantis wanted to do something different this time. Something that did not have the song and dance numbers that had become a staple of the Disney Films before them. This time they wanted to tell an adventure story in the tradition of the Indiana Jones films. If it were just for that, I would call this movie a success. I have two problems with it, though. Atlantis combines traditional animation with 3 D computer animation and the directors and producer come across as very proud of their achievement in the DVD commentary. But sometimes, I'm afraid, it shows that the film is a chimera of two different aesthetic approaches and it creates a wrinkle in the matrix, to borrow an image from a different film franchise, that impairs its unity of space. The fight with the Leviathan is where I find it to be most obvious and distracting from the action. The one big quarrel I have with the film is with its statement that the Atlanteans can no longer read their own language. To counter this criticism the Egyptians are cited in the commentary as an example, who, after a few thousand years gone by, were no longer able to read Hieroglyphs. Now, languages rise, evolve and disappear, but Atlantis in all seriousness is asking the viewer to believe that everybody living there has lost their ability to read. (Or ride their futuristic bikes, for that matter.) You can't have it both ways. You can't have a loss of culture and knowledge and at the same time postulate a mystical civilisation where people get to be thousands upon thousands of years old and where some have been around since the time of the cataclysm. (2) Please! Kida, who now is 8.800 years old, might have been too young to have learned how to read at the time of the catastrophe, and her father was blinded at that event, but are we really asked to believe that the other survivors wouldn't get some form of education organized for their children? Apparently we are - summed up by a cruel joke the commentators allow themselves to make: That one could say the king was a teacher, but that he had no pupils. I call a number of Disney films my own. I've seen Atlantis at the movies when it premiered but never felt the urge to get it for my collection. Watching it again, I now remember why.
(2) Something for you to ponder: lots of babies and young children running around in the movie. Lots of young adults popping out all those babies. Few middle aged people, one old person. Limited space. One starts to wonder how exactly they deal with the threat of severe overpopulation posed by this setup. Maybe there is a reason for their loss of culture after all...Logan's Run, anybody?