When you were a kid, did you ever want to be an adventurer and discover the lost civilization of Atlantis? Because I sure did. Then I grew up and became terrified of the ocean, so that put an end to that dream. But I always had a soft spot in my heart for Disney’s 2001 film, Atlantis: The Lost Empire. At least, I did until I rewatched it recently. Spoilers for an old Disney film after the jump.
In Atlantis: The Lost Empire, our protagonist, Milo Thatch, teams up with a group of mercenaries to go find the lost empire of Atlantis. Milo’s a nerdy linguist, and after his grandfather spent his whole life searching for Atlantis (to the ridicule of his coworkers), Milo’s determined to find some proof that Atlantis exists for his grandfather’s memory. He finds way more than just some old artifacts—the people of Atlantis are still alive, and Milo has to help them revitalize their civilization, while stopping his own group from plundering Atlantis’s resources and killing everyone.
Atlantis is an extremely fun action-adventure film, and it does a lot of good things, which is why it’s so terrible that the movie fell down so hard on its primary plot. Milo, of course, is the archetypal nerdy white guy, and somehow, he can read Atlantean—a skill that all of the other Atlantis citizens have lost. Milo needs to read some ancient murals in Atlantis so that he, and only he, can find out how to use ancient Atlantis technology. So Milo is cast in the position of the Mighty Whitey, a very common trope in which a white male savior comes to save a civilization from crumbling from within or from an outside plot (see: James Cameron’s Avatar, etc). But this doesn’t make any sense. Atlanteans live an extremely long time—even the princess, Kida, has been alive for some eight thousand years—and it’s ridiculous to think that everyone older than her at the time of the empire’s collapse couldn’t read. So Kida’s dad, the king, didn’t know how to read? Okay, then.
The writers’ general misunderstanding of language and culture shows through in other ways as well. Everything Milo translates for his crew comes out in appropriately ~mysterious~ phrasing, despite the fact that language relies on context and nuance and doesn’t always translate so cleanly. The Atlanteans can easily speak a ton of modern Earth languages because their language is “based on a root dialect”, which is not how language acquisition works. And then we have Kida’s name, which struck a particularly bothersome chord with me on a more personal level. When Milo and Kida finally get a chance to talk, they have the following exchange:
Milo: By the way, we were never properly introduced. My name’s Milo.
Kida: My name is Kidagakash.
Milo: Ki-Ki-Kidamaschnaga. Uh, hey, you got a nickname?
Milo: Okay. Kida. I can remember that.
Like, did you know Milo is supposed to be good enough at Atlantean that he can save a whole civilization with his knowledge?! And yet he can’t pronounce the princess’s name? It doesn’t make sense on a very basic character level. But further than that, it’s a typical insensitive microaggression that has no place in Disney movies. If they needed to introduce a more pronounceable name for their kid demographic, there were several other ways to do it. Kida could have offered her nickname of her own accord, or she could have just been named Kida to begin with—we certainly don’t get many other Atlantean names to compare it to, so it might well have been a normal name for them. Milo could have pronounced Kidagakash correctly, only to realize that other people called her Kida and then easily switch between the two, like one might do for a name like Nick or Nicholas. There was no reason for Milo the scholar to follow up “you got a nickname?” with “I can remember that”, as if Atlantean was way too hard a language for him.
All of these missteps are more unfortunate when you take into account all the good things that Disney did with Milo’s crew. They’re a diverse bunch across race, gender, and age—there’s Mrs. Packard, the old, chain-smoking radio operator, who’s constantly on the phone with her friends, Audrey the genius Latina mechanic, Sweet the half-Black, half-Native medic, and even Helga, Commander Rourke’s talented second-in-command. Every one of these characters are uber-competent, even the bad guys—Helga plays a vital part in Rourke’s defeat. Even Packard, who is easy to write off as the comic relief, shows this, telling Helga off when Helga misidentifies the Leviathan as “an echo off one of the rocks”.
The movie even makes some attempt to connect with Audrey’s and Sweet’s heritage, though it’s clichéd: Audrey uses Spanish phrases like “no toques nada” (don’t touch anything), and Sweet says he learned some of his medicine from “an Arapaho medicine man”. It’s tropey and certainly not the best representation, particularly on Sweet’s part, but the characters make up for it by actually doing things: Audrey’s trusted with all the mechanical equipment of the multi-million dollar expedition and is the first one Rourke calls on for damage assessment, while Sweet’s morals lead him to help the Atlantean king and encourage Milo to do the right thing. It’s more than I can say for the native Atlanteans, who, unfortunately, are reduced to being captured or killed by Rourke (as Kida and her father were) and being ordered around by Milo (as all of the unnamed ones were). Atlantis’s creative team hired the same guy who created the Klingon language to create a workable Atlantean language, yet they didn’t seem interested in putting any more thought into the Atlantis civilization than that. If the writers could have put even as much effort into Atlantean culture and history as they did with Milo’s crew, the movie would have been greatly improved.
Atlantis: The Lost Empire is still a fun movie for the part of me who still secretly wants to discover an ancient civilization, and despite everything, I still love Milo’s team members. However, the movie’s general failure with its plot leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Why talk about the perils of imperialism by using a protagonist who’s also complicit in said imperialism, thus making the movie more about a white guy’s naivete than the indigenous culture’s struggles? Maybe someday they’ll remake the franchise with Kida as the protagonist, and she can save her own family and her own culture. Until then, I’m afraid I have to leave this one behind.