Atlantis: The Lost Empire, and Disney's Missing Princess
In 2001, Disney tried something new and very different from their past animated movies. A completely different aesthetic dominates this film; the first PG rated animated film from Disney since The Black Cauldron. Unfortunately, like The Black Cauldron, this movie seems to have disappeared into the Disney vault of failures, and I don't think it deserves it. I especially think that Princess Kida deserves to be included in the line of Disney Princesses, more so than some of the others that are on there.
The entire look of this movie is completely different. I've heard a few reviewers make comments about it - none favorable - that were completely off the mark. The visual aesthetic of Atlantis is based on the art style and contributions of Mike Mignola. Yes, THAT Mike Mignola, of Hellboy fame! The result is an angular style Disney hasn't attempted since Sleeping Beauty and, as it was then, it was a deliberate aesthetic, not an attempt at cost cutting or time saving, as some have concluded. I find the difference refreshing and interesting, and is a credit to Mignola's awesome artistic talent.
Another area Atlantis does well is with its sound. The music and audio special effects are well done. Best of all is the Atlantean language, which was created by Marc Okrand. Who is he? Just the same guy who created Klingon and Vulcan for the Star Trek franchise! That's right; it's not just gibberish the Atlanteans are speaking, but an actual language created for the movie!
The Cast of Characters
Atlantis brings together a wide range of characters, and Disney broke a few barriers that, unfortunately, still exist in movie making. A major side character is half-black, half native, and a well educated doctor. Another is a 16 year old Hispanic girl, who is also their mechanic - and she mentions her sister is a boxing champion. Their Spanish explosives expert is funny as all get out, and is one of my favourite characters. Another is "Cookie", voiced by the late Jim Varney, who died before the film was complete; only a single line from the character had to be voiced by a replacement.
My favourite character of all, however, is the caustic, chain smoking Wilhelmina, the radio operator. She has some of the best throwaway lines of the entire movie, made funnier by their deadpan delivery. If I remember correctly, this is the last time a character was shown smoking in a Disney movie.
The main male protagonist is Milo, voiced by Michael J. Fox. A nerdy linquist stuck working in a museum boiler room, this journey vindicates his grandfather's lifelong search for Atlantis. He is very much the anti-hero; skinny, weak and clumsy. Leonard Nimoy lends his famous voice to King Kashekim Nedakh.
This is an area where the movie has both strong and weak moments. The opening sequence, showing the destruction of Atlantis, is just full of onions. I can't watch it without getting all teared up! The pacing is comparitively poor and parts are quite illogical. There is also a strong similarity to the 1994 Stargate movie that inspired the TV series bearing the same name.
Among the main differences in the story is how it deals with female characters. It has three strong, non-traditional female characters. There is Audrey, the teen mechanic who's tough as nails; Helga, who starts out as the sexy babe in an evening gown but turns out to be a military woman and a badass fighter and, of course, Princess Kida herself. Female characters in Atlantis are not at all typical, yet it's not at all a plot point. As my daughter put it, it's subversion without the fanfare. The women are simply characters, just like men are characters, without the blatant "hey, look! Strong female character here! (who still needs to be rescued by a man, but... well... you know.)"
Now we come to the primary female protagonist, Princess Kidagakash.
Princess Kida is completely different than pretty much every other Disney princess, and not just because she's covered with blue tattoos. To begin with, it's the male protagonist that leaves his life behind to marry the princess instead of the other way around. Kida was a child in the opening sequence and has grown up with her role as leader of her people and future queen firmly established. She speaks multiple languages and, as her father weakens with age, she does not shirk her leadership role. She recognises that her people and culture are dying, and it is her interest in saving them that motivates her decision to assist Milo and his crew, rather than just killing them off. Yes, she is a warrior, too. Again, it's just part of her character and not a plot point, any more than her tattoos or white hair are.
One thing is clear. Kida does not need any rescuing. Even after being consumed by the Atlantean power source and seemingly captured, she is far from the helpless damsel in distress.
What Went Wrong?
Earlier, I referred to The Black Cauldron, which has its own missing princess in the character Eilonwy. This is a movie that was made during a tumultous time within the Disney corporation, got chopped to pieces in editing until the final release had little to do with how it was originally intended. As a result, it fluttered away and disappeared.
Nothing like that was going on with Atlantis. So why did Kida share Eilonwy's fate?
I think the primary reason is, marketability. Or, should I say, the lack of it.
If you look at the princesses that have made it into the Disney Princess line, you'll note that they're not there for their characters. Rather, they're there for how they show up on a lunch box. Even Mulan is featured in her matchmaker dress, not her armour, or even the clothing she chooses to wear on her own time, and Pocahantas is a horrible charicature that is rather insulting to the real person she is supposed to be based on.
There's nothing about Kida that you can stick glitter on. She has no ball gown to dress her up in. There were a few action figures and books that came out, but that's about it.
I think it's a shame, because Princess Kida would make an awesome role model for girls - and boys, too! She is a character of integrity, loyalty, and a strong leader. Plus, she kicks butt. What's not to like?
As for the movie itself, I recommend viewing it, if for no other reason than to see Disney straying off the beaten path, and to see what might have been. It's well worth it.
And I'm still waiting for my Princess Kida lunch box.