There’s a weird twilight period in the history of Disney’s animated movies where they were making films that were pretty successful commercially, but they weren’t hitting it out of the ballpark with the critics like that magical period from the late ’80s through the early ’90s. The decline likely began with Hunchback of Notre Dame, which, regardless of what critics say, is, objectively, the best thing ever, and then continued on with films like Pocahontas, Hercules, and Tarzan (Mulan is an exception to the general trend, at least in my opinion), which were all decent movies, but just didn’t have the same spark that you got from The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin (for everyone’s sake it’s probably best that we ignore Oliver and Company–for now).
The thing that all these movies have in common, besides being made by Disney, is the fact that they’re musicals (also, for the sake of argument, let’s ignore 1990’s The Rescuers Down Under, which wasn’t a musical either; it’s generally not a movie that most people think of in the Disney canon, and I suspect the lack of singing was a big part; Disney didn’t attempt a straight adventure movie again until 2001’s Atlantis). Disney’s animation has a long tradition of doing two specific things: adapting fantasy stories (primarily western European fairy tales) and making catchy songs. Atlantis doesn’t do either.
I remember seeing this movie when I was still in high school, and I thought it was alright, but nothing really fantastic. Now that I’m older, well… I like it better, but I don’t think that’s because it’s a really great movie. I rewatched Atlantis with very low expectations, and those lowered expectations served me well to look at the movie for what it is–a really earnest animated action movie. Generally I agree with the assessments that critics made when it first came out; Atlantis doesn’t know who its target audience should be. On the one hand, you have a lot of cartoony humor that’s typical in children’s animation (perhaps best exemplified by the character of Mole), but on the other hand, people are dying all the time in this movie.
Seriously, it’s ridiculous how many crew members just die onscreen (props to the first onscreen death: a worker in the submarine’s boiler room who gets trapped behind a bulkhead that seals off the flooding compartment).
Of course, killing off characters isn’t something you can’t do in a kids’ movie, but typically it’s not done in such a cavalier fashion. And Atlantis is most definitely a cavalier movie. The plot moves quickly, the characterization relies on stereotypes (like the nonchalant Italian, the grubby, amorous Frenchman, and the spunky Puerto Rican), and the sci-fi justifications for plot holes go by at breakneck speeds (because the Atlanteans speak something akin to Proto-Indo-European, they can just magically understand and speak English? Really?).
But that’s alright, because the voice acting really is top notch; I don’t think there’s a single character who I didn’t enjoy watching on screen, mostly because of the cast. And the animation was beautiful. And the white people were white (while watching Atlantis, Rachael remarked that it was the whitest movie she’d seen in a while; I tried to counter that it was set in 1914, and then quickly realized how stupid that was; of course people of color lived and worked in 1914).
All in all, Atlantis is not a bad movie for what it is. Does it feel like it’s being pulled in two exclusive directions? Yeah. But that’s a problem that crops up with Hunchback too (which, coincidentally, was produced by the same team that made Atlantis), and I’m willing to overlook the childish parts because the stuff that’s geared towards adults is really good. I think that this movie just doesn’t quite reach as high, although that may be my bias in favor of the subject matter of Hunchback more than any innate fault of Atlantis.