Borrowing from Steven Spielberg's 'Indiana Jones' sagas, directors decided to 'chuck the tried-and-true' for 'Atlantis: The Lost Empire.'
By MILAN PAURICH
Sometimes a creative brainstorm can occur in the most unlikely of places.
When Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, directors of such modern-day animated classics as "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," began tossing around ideas with veteran Disney producer Don Hahn about what they wanted to tackle next, inspiration struck in a neighborhood Mexican restaurant over a pitcher of margaritas.
Four-and-a-half years later, "Atlantis: The Lost Empire," the fruit of their labors, is gearing up to make its debut in movie theaters across North America. To commemorate the occasion (and do a little PR on their film's behalf) Trousdale, Hahn, and supervising animator John Pomeroy stopped off in Cleveland recently to discuss the 'toon Walt Disney Pictures is counting on to be a summer blockbuster.
According to Hahn, the "Atlantis" creative team wanted to make an "Adventureland Movie" in the spirit of such classic live-action Disney films as "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" and "In Search of the Castaways." Truth be told, Trousdale admitted, they were getting a little sensitive about criticism that Disney's animated features were becoming too formulaic with their customized Broadway-style musical production numbers, cute animal sidekicks, etc.
So, borrowing a page from Steven Spielberg's "Indiana Jones" sagas, they decided to chuck the tried-and-true and start over with something completely different.
"Our research was strong," Hahn said. "We logged in a lot of time on the Internet, toured Carlsbad Caverns and even went back to Plato for the first recorded history of Atlantis. Plus, we visited a lot of aquariums and looked at a lot of fish," he added with a laugh.
Changing style: Determined to bring a new look to the film, they ventured outside Disney's patented "housestyle" by enlisting the services of "Hellboy" comic book artist Mike Mignola to assist with concepts and designs.
To create "Atlantean" (the imaginary language of the lost city of Atlantis), linguist Marc Okrand, who helped develop both Vulcan and Klingon lingo for "Star Trek," was brought on board.
Plus, the filmmakers made the unusual decision to shoot "Atlantis" in widescreen Cinemascope. "For a big story like ours, it's better to have a wide canvas to tell your story on. In 'scope, the images literally wash over you," Hahn said.
In discussing the "life-giving process" of bringing Milo Thatch (the hero of "Atlantis," voiced by Michael J. Fox) to life, Pomeroy explained that he first studied the films of Frank Capra.
"I wanted to make Milo a combination of Gary Cooper in 'Meet John Doe' and Jimmy Stewart in 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,'" Pomeroy enthused. Eventually added to Milo were Harold Lloyd's eyeglasses, as well as some physical comedy inspired by old Danny Kaye movies and Dick Van Dyke's 1960s TV show.
Animated Fox: Of course, choosing Fox to star in the film was the first step to drawing Milo. "I set out to capture Michael J. Fox's soul and infuse it into the animation. Of course, Michael's already an animated character," Pomeroy joked. The 28-year animation vet confessed filming himself acting out all of the character's actions. "We tried out 40 to 60 different Milo prototypes before picking the one that had the most appeal," he said.
Hahn, who produced such milestone achievements as "The Lion King" and "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" in his quarter century at Disney, admitted that replacing songs with action sequences in "Atlantis" was "very liberating."
When asked if the "PG" rating (for mild intensity) might inhibit some parents from bringing toddlers to the film, Hahn seemed unfazed. "Three-year-olds belong at home anyway; but for kids six and up, there's nothing in it that they can't handle." Being the good Mouse House employee that he is, Hahn had the preview audience test scores to back up his statement.