There are no songs in the latest Disney animated feature, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, but there are lots of explosions. And while I miss the catchy tunes I heard in The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, nothing gets my attention like things blowing up. Atlantis starts slow but soon quickens to video-game speed, with rapidly flying vehicles navigating tunnels and things exploding.
The plot is unremarkable. In 1914, a crew of characters locate the mythical lost city of Atlantis, which sank into the ocean several millennia ago. Still, these characters offer a welcome attempt at race and gender diversity; while there is some heavy ethnic stereotyping, much of it at least shows the characters in a compassionate light. For example, the one character who is identified as black is a big, smiling, happy man; he is also a competent, caring doctor not a likely prospect for a 1914 expedition organized by a wealthy white man, but hey, this is Disney. The Chicana character is small, tough, and ready for a fight, but she is also smart, self-assured, and genius with machine engines. The actors who give voice to these animated bodies do an excellent job. Michael J. Fox is convincing as hero Milo Thatch, and Florence Stanley is excellently dry as the chain-smoking “office administrator” of the crew. The dialogue is clever, with some good jokes for kids and for grown-ups too, thanks, probably, to the writing credit of Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s Joss Whedon.
The story follows hapless low-level Smithsonian employee Milo Thatch. The grandson of a great explorer who had dreams of discovering Atlantis, Milo is trained as a linguist and a cartographer, a nerdy, clumsy fellow who lives alone with his cat. And yet, he is truly Atlantis-obsessed and has a reputation among the bigwigs at his office as being kind of mad. There are two kinds of people in the Disney universe that surrounds Atlantis. Not Atlanteans and Americans no, these tribes are rather similar. Instead, there are angularly drawn people who seem superhuman and have excellent posture.
Then there are the rest of the folks: people drawn with curves, slouches, bellies, and other-than-model proportions. The first group is bad. The second group is good. Atlanteans are dark-skinned and curvaceous (rather than angular). They seem kind of African or Aboriginal tribal, signified by their artwork and the film’s score. But, being located near Iceland, they are all platinum-headed with very straight hair not just very light blond, but silver, like Lil’ Kim and RuPaul. The Atlantean king’s lovely daughter, Princess Kida (Cree Summer), is the love interest in Atlantis, and so is allowed to be an exception. She’s got model good looks (if you go for the fully made-up Lil’ Kim type), but enough body curves to allow her to fit into the soft-lined benevolent gang. Plus, with her gigantic, expressive eyes and long lashes, she couldn’t be anything but Disney saccharine sweet. She’s strong and agile, but there’s not much to Kida.
Scrawny Milo is also of the second type, which means that he’s properly grateful when he’s invited to head up an expedition to find Atlantis by his deceased grandfather’s buddy, a wealthy old man named Preston J. Whitmore, well-voiced as a crazy old coot by John Mahoney. Whitmore has gathered a motley crew to make this journey. Running the endeavor are John Wayne-like Commander Lyle T. Rourke (James Garner) and his trusty, busty sidekick Helga Sinclair (Claudia Christian). Also along are a Chicana teenager in baggy pants named Audrey Ramirez (Jacqueline Obradors); Italian-American firebug Vinny Santorini (Don Novello); strong, strapping African American/Native American Doctor Sweet (Phil Morris); French digging expert and general freak Gaetan Moliere (Corey Burton); and Cookie the cowboy cook (Jim Varney). Milo doesn’t know this at first, but everyone else is in it for the money. By the end, the characters who are either colorful (Cookie) or non-white ethnic (everyone but the commander and Helga) help Milo to save Atlantis. How they do this, however, remains murky. It has something to do with some crystal or energy or power force, the kings from Atlantis’ past, and some robots that sank into the ocean.
Despite the troubles in Atlantis and the lack of explanation as to why it is the way it is, it is obviously preferable to surface life. There are two locations in this film: Washington DC and Atlantis. Washington, DC is south of New York and full of stuffed shirts and evasive, monocle-wearing bureaucrats. Washington is not fun. Atlantis, however, is in an air pocket under the ocean off the coast of Iceland and full of scantily clad characters who spend their time fishing and generally being joyous. There are also fast moving vehicles, adventure, and excitingly apocalyptic occurrences. But, just as Washington is not always happy-land, so too there is a dark side to Atlantis. Kashekim Nedakh (Leonard Nimoy), the king of Atlantis, is growing old no surprise after a few thousand years. His wife was long ago taken by a mysterious force, in what looked to me like an alien abduction, X-Files-style, occurring just as Atlantis sank into the water. It’s a bit confusing why this happened to the Queen. There is some explanation about the king using the mysterious force as an instrument of war instead of just for generating power (a message to the Bush administration regarding nuclear power?), but it is never entirely explained. The culture of Atlantis is dying because nobody knows how to read, having forgotten since the big sinking. Enter Milo, the cunning linguist who knows how to read Atlantean.
The king’s lovely daughter, Kida, who in these long years has become a young woman with huge eyes, bulbous breasts, a miniscule waist and Jennifer Lopez-like ass, falls for Milo. She gets fused with the power crystal, which requires human life to continue to exist and provide energy for Atlantis. (I suppose people could count as a renewable energy source.) It is really nice that Milo and Kida end up in a loving relationship and are likely to live happily ever after, but it is a bit disturbing that some white guy comes in and saves an entire culture by “discovering” it. The fact that Milo is teaching Kida about her own culture should raise some eyebrows, though it is swell that the explorers who end up fighting for the forces of good also end up quite wealthy. But plundering and destroying with good intentions is still not very nice: the physical destruction of the undersea world that occurs as a result of the expedition seems quite a high price to pay for a date, or even for a lasting relationship. Milo is oblivious to all this. Basically, he’s gone native, hoping to teach Atlanteans how to be good and productive Atlanteans, as if moving out of D.C. and wearing a loincloth getting back to someone else’s nature is all he needs to feel he belongs. As he geek, he should have fit in in Washington just fine.