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Journey to 'Atlantis' 'a roller coaster ride'

Michael J. Fox is the voice of "Milo Hatch" in "Atlantis: The Lost Empire"  

By Jamie Allen

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Don Hahn, the producer of the new Disney animated adventure "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" and an artistic force at the studio for two decades, admits that in a world of technological advances, the secret to making a good animated film comes down to one simple element: the ability to tell a good story.

He realized this when he was executive producer on "The Emperor's New Groove" (2000). He'd come home from work and pitch the ever-changing story line to his young daughter, who's now 9.

"Every night I'd come home and say, 'OK, try this: There's this prince that's turned into a llama and he's this vain, spoiled guy,'" recalled Hahn during a recent "Atlantis" publicity tour in Atlanta. "And she'd say, 'Oh, that's good.' And the next night, after the story would change, I'd say, 'OK, now the llama is kind of like this.'"

Hahn finds nothing out of the ordinary with basing productions costing millions of dollars on his daughter's varying opinions.

"That's all we're doing anyway" when we're making movies, he said. "You're setting a child on your knee and reading them a story. 'Atlantis' happens to be a big roller coaster ride of a story."

'A broad-based adventure'

Michael J. Fox and Cree Summer star in Walt Disney Pictures' 'Atlantis: The Lost Empire' (June 12)

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"Atlantis: The Lost Empire" is also a trip into the past and the future. It's based just before the first World War, and it follows a linguist named Milo (voiced by Michael J. Fox) and an archeological team as they dig their way to the lost city of Atlantis, a society that's not only still alive, but still possessing technology that dwarfs anything seen today, thousand of years after myths and scientific hypothesis tells us it sank into the sea.

When the "Atlantis" archeological team reveals its true plans -- to steal the Atlantis power source and leave them for dead -- Milo must come to the rescue. There's also a love interest for Milo -- Princess Kida, voiced by Cree Summer.

"We just wanted to make it a broad-based adventure film that everyone could enjoy," said Kirk Wise, co-director of "Atlantis."

While many popular animated films these days use computer animation -- DreamWork's "Shrek," in fact, has been a top grosser this summer -- "Atlantis" uses old-school animation to bring the characters to life.

It's a painstaking process, and depending on whom you talk to, the experience of the creators is completely different. The producer, the director, and the animator have completely differently version of the creation of "Atlantis."

"You stay at a little cubicle day after day, month after month, year after year," says John Pomeroy, the lead animator on the project and the one in charge of Milo.

'Exhausted and bruised'

It took four years to make "Atlantis," but it was worth the hard work and wait, said Pomeroy.

"Atlantis" directors Kirk Wise, left, and Gary Trousdale  

"Our reward is when we get to sit in the halls of the dark theater amongst a crowd and watch a direct reaction of our work."

Meanwhile, Wise spends an energetic day at the front of the battle lines.

"On Mondays, for instance, you'd find me with a red Radio Flyer outside my office, stacked about four feet high with scenes I had to hand out to animators," explained Wise. "And the line of animators stretches out into the hallway. And they would come in individually, and we would open up the scene and look at the layout and start talking about the acting and the choreography and the blocking of the shot.

"Nine times out of ten, if you opened my door on any given day you might find me standing on a table and jumping off and rolling onto the floor to illustrate how Milo should be thrown from the truck when it explodes.

"By noon, I would be exhausted and bruised," he said.

And Hahn says his producing duties take on psychotherapy responsibilities.

"It's 350 egos and people who have tremendous artistic drive and aspiration and passion," he said. "And you have to herd those calves into a little niche. That's what I do all day long."

'An insane occupation'

The work environment is intense, but it's also a fun time at Disney's studios. Hahn tells of the animator who arrived to work one day with his Cadillac covered with Q-tips. And then there was the time another worker dressed up as a gorilla to pass out candy.

And then there are the recording sessions, working with actors like Fox and James Garner and Leonard Nimoy, who also voice characters in the movie.

Hahn praised Fox in his lead role.

"Michael is a great actor with a lot of range and could not only give us a lot of warmth and heroism, but could give us a lot of comedy, because he was a great improviser," said Hahn.

Now, it's up to summer movie audiences to decide for themselves. Hahn, Wise and Pomeroy aren't sure what Disney project they'll work on next. But they're certain of one thing: They work in a rewarding profession.

"I love the fact that I'm making a movie that's going to make my nephew's eyes bug out," said Wise. "And considering I started this movie when he was four -- I said to myself, when this movie is done, he's going to be the perfect age."

"Trying to make a movie one frame at a time is an insane occupation," said Hahn. "But I think I have the best job in the world."

• 'Atlantis: The Lost Empire'

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