First Theatrical Release: June 15, 2001
First Home Viewing Release: January 29, 2002
My Rating: 4.5/5 stars
Where I Found It: My sister’s DVD collection
Bechdel Test Score: Passed. Female characters include Helga, Audrey, Kida, and Kida’s mom. Kida’s mom and Kida talk about the scary bright light at the beginning of the movie.
Now begins the brief stint within “The Forgotten Years” that I think of as “The Sci-fi Experiment.” The next three movies all veer toward the science fiction end of the sci-fi fantasy continuum, and geek that I am, they are the trio from this decade I have most been looking forward to.
Throughout this project, I have been excited to re-experience old favorites, but also hoping to rediscover forgotten treasures. I finally achieved the latter, fittingly, with Atlantis. Although it lacks the Disney music I so adore, it makes up for it in gorgeous animation, a racially diverse cast (and a passing Bechdel score), and the Man from the Disney Canon I Most Want to Marry. With its blending of fantasy, science fiction, steampunk, historical fiction, and alternative history — not to mention its uber-geek lead — its box office performance may have been underwhelming because it premiered before the explosion of geek culture. Or perhaps, as the critics suspect, it simply missed its target audience: the PG rating, absence of animal sidekicks, subtitles, and storyline involving a sentient crystal all suggest a film for folks who have attained the double digits, but unfortunately, too many of them refuse to take seriously anything animated that did not come from Japan. (My own husband “regretted” not watching this movie with me after learning it was co-written by Joss Whedon and featured Michael J. Fox’s voice — even though I told him a jazillion times he should watch it. Disney movie = written off. 😦 ).
Here are the reasons I loved rediscovering Atlantis, and why you, too, should bemoan the fact that the spin-off TV series and underwater Disney park ride were axed.
Geeks Will Save Us All
This movie does carry an unfortunate whiff of colonialism, despite its diverse cast and its overall message of respect for other cultures. I couldn’t help but notice that Milo’s and Kida’s romance is also reminiscent of John Smith and Pocahontas. But similarly to Tarzan, this movie redeems the love-story-from-two worlds trope. Unlike in Pocahontas, where John Smith “mansplains” Pocahontas’s own culture to her, Milo is eager to learn about Kida’s culture directly from her and he doesn’t play “expert” even though he has devoted his life to studying Atlantis. It is still somewhat disconcerting that he has to “rescue” the Atlanteans by teaching them to read their own language and drive their own vehicles. For me, the most irritating part of the movie was the lack of explanation for why the Atlanteans could no longer read. It just didn’t make SENSE — if people could read before the fall of Atlantis, and the same people were still alive AFTER the fall of Atlantis, then why did the ones who could read suddenly forget how? Sure, Kida was probably young enough to be preliterate when Atlantis fell, but all the adults around her could have taught her to read, couldn’t they? IT JUST DOESN’T MAKE SENSE to have a culture that is fluent in a zillion languages and yet has “forgotten” how to read, and overall it seems to act as a convenient excuse to let Milo “save” Atlantis, which is pretty annoying.
But what I DO like is that, in this movie, brains win out over brawn. The hero is a scrawny nerd who isn’t taken seriously by the museum board where he works OR by the crew that has assembled to help him. Like many Disney leads, he feels like an “outsider” — this “outsider” status was so important to the “type” of story Walt Disney wanted to tell that he codified it while he was still alive, letting his studio know that THIS was the theme he wanted to keep working with going forward, and the studio has honored that remarkably well. But I’ve often found myself rolling my eyes just a little as yet one more absolutely gorgeous girl or guy bemoans “not fitting in.” But because Milo looks like a real-world geek — and is treated like one (“I used to steal lunch money from guys like this”), his outsider status feels much more believable than the long line of outsiders that came before him. The scene where the rest of the crew is chatting around the fire while Milo sequesters himself with his books and compass especially hit home, since I have often been the one holed up writing or wrapping up a project for a client long after everyone around me has mentally “clocked out” for the day.
And it’s no wonder that Disney got this aspect right, because some of the Gods of the Geek World worked on this movie. Joss Whedon (of Buffy and Firefly Fame) was one of the writers, and Marc Okrand, inventor of the Klingon language, also invented the Atlantean language used in the film.
In the end, it’s not only Milo’s knowledge of the language (and, implicitly, the power of literacy) that saves Atlantis, but also his devotion to preserving and honoring their culture and his insistence on seeing them as people that wins over the rest of the crew. It is not surprising that someone who has been an “outsider” his whole life is much more able to see the Atlanteans, the ultimate “outsiders” to the crew, as people worth protecting. Perhaps that was part of Disney’s intent in its surprisingly diverse cast for this movie, all of whom have probably experienced being an “outsider” at some point. (Except perhaps the old, straight white dude leading the expedition who is, spoiler alert, the dickhead who almost commits genocide — luckily, he gets his just desserts, at the hands of the woman he has wronged, no less.)
A Geek Knows How to Treat a Lady
When I first saw Atlantis in the theater, my main complaint was that I felt that it had too many characters. I am a “character” person — I read for character development, and it’s my main strength as a writer. So in a movie with a cast this long, none of the characters (except perhaps Milo) get a very in-depth arc (which is one of the reasons I’m really bummed that the TV series never got made, since that would have been a better forum to explore the characters more deeply). As I’ve mentioned before, I was all about the Disney Feels when I was younger, and I think the feels in this movie were just too subtle for me. But watching it again this week, I could see that they are definitely there.
Milo and Kida’s cross-culture romance, unlike Pocahontas’s and John’s which takes center stage, is established firmly in subplot territory. But enough of it is there that I hope young boys AND girls will take notes on how a guy ought to treat a lady. For one thing, Milo doesn’t condescend to Kida even though he has the power of literacy and she doesn’t — and when he does try to explain to her how to operate one of the fish vehicles, she is annoyed at him (rather than soaking up all his wisdom) because he is suggesting things she’s already tried. Lest his literacy place him in too much a position of authority, Kida is allowed to bring him down a few notches by critiquing his Atlantean accent — which he takes like a man, by the way. (“I’ll work on that.”) And in what I think is the most touching scene in the whole movie, Milo stands silently by while Kida prostrates herself in what appears to be religious devotion at the sight of the ancient kings and the “power source,” reluctant to disturb what is clearly a sacred moment to her despite the brashness and impatience of the crew around him. And when Kida comes out of the crystal all glowy and transformed, the others reach toward her and Milo commands them, “Don’t touch her.”
I think we should send him back in time a few years so he can teach Prince Phillip a thing or two about consent.
When he takes her in his arms after the power source gives her back, he does so hesitantly and tenderly, with no sense of entitlement. And he decides to give up his culture to support Kida in her role as queen.
Unlike when Jane decides to stay in the jungle with Tarzan, Milo’s choice to stay in Atlantis seems like the right one for him. We’ve already seen that he does not “belong” in his own world, and he has spent his life yearning for Atlantis in much the same way Ariel yearned for the human world. He has not “given everything up” for the sake of a relationship, but has instead arrived at the place he has been searching for his entire life.
And yes, this is why Milo is the Disney man I most want to marry. But I didn’t hit too far off the mark.
Not bad, right?
*Disclaimer: I should note that I did not approach my dating life looking for the man most like Milo Thatch — instead, my crush on Milo was borne out of my real-life realization that a woman can’t go wrong when she succumbs to a geek’s love.
For Further Reading
- Was Kida Disney’s first Black princess?
- One blogger’s treatise on why Atlantis is the best “hand-drawn” Disney movie