It’s interesting to me how the best Disney films, or at least the ones that I connect with most anyways, don’t get talked about too much. Atlantis: The Lost Empire is always one I was kind of dimly aware of, I had the McDonald’s toys as a kid even though I never saw the film and always thought of it as just another rote Princess storyline from the studio. How wrong I was. This is an absolutely sensational SciFi adventure fantasy on all levels, boundlessly imaginative, strikingly mature as far as Disney goes and the kind of intricately designed experience you can get lost in. In the early 1900’s young scholar Milo Thatch (Michael J. Fox in a lovely, exuberant turn) dreams of finding the lost city of Atlantis as his peers and superiors at the Smithsonian mock his efforts. When an eccentric and very rich tycoon (the late John Mahoney) agrees to fund an elaborate deep sea exploration with Milo spearheading the research aspect, it’s off to the races as a beautifully designed mega-craft descends into the Atlantic Ocean with our hero and a whole team of ragtag experts, grunts and grease monkeys onboard. The film is very realistic and fair with its characters and we get an entire fleet of fascinating individuals including an African American former civil war surgeon (Phil Morris) with indigenous roots, a cantankerous cook (Jim Varney), a Mediterranean explosives guru, a vivacious French geologist and the crew’s mercurial captain Rourke, given the commanding, affable yet vaguely menacing voice of James Garner who does a terrific job of the villainous arc. There is a Princess here but she isn’t doe eyed, sing-songy or cloying for romance every second. Her name is Kida (voiced wonderfully by Cree Summer), she’s the daughter of the Atlantean King (Leonard Nimoy, of all people) and she’s assured, strong willed and cares deeply for the plight of her race, who have fallen on hard times. There are eventual romantic sparks between her and Milo but they feel organic, earned and born out of a genuine, character development based relationship as the two get to know each other and she shows him around her striking world. The visual design and animation here is something else, even before we see Atlantis there’s a steampunk vibe to their equipment and vessel, and when we see the otherworldly biodiversity, detailed architectural splendour and tattoos/costume design it’s an atmosphere like no other. Not to mention the ballistic gong show of a climax, born out of capitalist fuelled betrayal, the very fate of Atlantis and every living thing in it at stake. This isn’t your average Disney flick and while there are the usual beats like comic relief and romance etc, it all feels far more down to earth than I’m used to from this kind of output. I’m reminded of another Disney one that has a similarly grounded, spectacularly imagined world, the wonderful Treasure Planet. I think the studio has never been as good or as inspired as their work with that one and now Atlantis too, it has to be up there as my favourite.