By Joan Amenn
Over twenty years ago, Disney did something extraordinarily out of character. They allowed animators to create a world more like a live action film than had permitted previously. No doubt it helped that the directors of “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” (2001) were Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale, who had collaborated on the blockbuster hit “Beauty and the Beast” in 1991. However, the watery world of “Atlantis” was as different from “Beast” as their respective female protagonists, Belle (Paige O’Hara) and Princess Kida (Cree Summer).
Anyone who admires the work of Mike Mignola (and if you don’t know who he is, head over to Google, quick. We’ll wait.) will recognize his influence on the production design of “Atlantis.” The underwater behemoth that guards the lost empire is practically a cousin of Sammael, the slithery menace of “Hellboy” (2004). Interestingly, the tough as nails mercenary Helga (Claudia Christian) of “Atlantis” bears more than a slight resemblance to Elsa (Biddy Hodson), the nefarious acolyte of Rasputin in “Hellboy” as well. In other words, the characters of “Atlantis” are not your typical cute and wide-eyed troupe found in other Disney offerings.
In other words, the characters of “Atlantis” are not your typical cute and wide-eyed troupe found in other Disney offerings.
For one thing, the crew of the steampunk submersible “Ulysses” is surprisingly culturally diverse. Audrey Ramirez (Jacqueline Obradors) as the sub’s engineer is a groundbreaking character. As engineer of the underwater vessel, she is smart, resourceful, and unmistakably Latina. She also develops a bond with Milo (Michael J. Fox)which proves helpful when he needs allies later on in the film.
Kida is an underappreciated Disney princess who many fans have long rallied for to be included in their canon. Simple economics suggest that the film’s lack of box office success would not induce the corporate decision makers to greenlight Kida merchandise, which is a typically myopic omission on their parts. She is a unique blend of playful, curious and empathic that can only perhaps be compared to Pocahontas in the Disney animated catalog. Intriguingly, both Pocahontas and Kida are the offspring of the leaders of their respective indigenous peoples. Of course, both “Pocahontas” (1995) and “Atlantis” have the evils of colonialism as their subtext, even if the latter is more subtle about it.
Water is a metaphor in “Atlantis” as a barrier to knowledge and freedom. Milo is trapped in a dead-end job until he embarks on the Ulysses to find the underwater remains of the mythical civilization. Kida becomes his guide to learning all that he has spent his life looking for. She also is able to use the power hidden underwater to help her people thrive again, free from the threat of outside forces who would exploit their abilities. It’s a remarkably mature plot coming from a studio that is still thought of as making films about anthropomorphic animals. “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” is not without flaws but is certainly deserved better treatment at the box office than it received. If for nothing else, the women of the “Atlantis” make it worth revisiting with a greater appreciation for their diversity, strength and intelligence.