Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)

2001, Disney. Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise. Michael J. Fox, James Garner, Cree Summer, Leonard Nimoy, Jim Varney.

Decent Films Ratings

Overall
Recommendability
?D+
Artistic/
Entertainment Value
?
Moral/Spiritual
Value (+4/-4)
? -2
Age
Appropriateness
?Teens & Up*

External Ratings

MPAA ?PG USCCB ?A-II

Content advisory: Some cartoon action-movie violence; fleeting crude humor; recurring New-Age and neopagan themes.

By Steven D. Greydanus

Atlantis: The Lost Empire represents a major departure from current formula for Disney’s animation studios. Gone are the requisite show-stopping musical numbers, the cute animal sidekicks, and also incidentally the G rating. The usual love-interest element is still here, but it takes a back seat to PG-rated action-adventure, spectacle, and gags.

Atlantis has more in common with other recent animated discovery-exploration epics like DreamWorks’ The Road to El Dorado or Fox’s Titan A.E. than with The Lion King or Hercules. It’s also unusual among Disney animated features (though not among what passes for "family films" nowadays) in featuring flatulence humor (no actual flatulence, just a throwaway line about beans). Years after triumphs like Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, Disney is no longer setting a higher standard, only trying to duplicate what’s worked for others.

The best Disney animated features always had a compelling authenticity to them. They offered an authoritative, almost definitive interpretation of their subject. Watching Beauty and the Beast or Bambi, one somehow felt that this was the Beauty and the Beast, the Bambi. That credibility has been missing from recent Disney features: Trifles like Hercules and Tarzan offered at best a Hercules, a Tarzan — not the real thing.

What about Atlantis? Is this the Atlantis? In a way, perhaps. The vision of the lost city itself is undeniably grand and majestic, a vision far more compelling than Hercules’ Mount Olympus, or even DreamWorks’ El Dorado. On its own level, it’s not incomparable to the great fantasy cityscapes of Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace, Dark City, Batman, Blade Runner, and Metropolis.

The problem is that Atlantis: The Lost Empire never becomes anything like the definitive Atlantis adventure. The pieces are here: an early 20th-century setting; a bookish young hero on the edge of a breakthrough; an unexpected invitation from an exotic, mysterious woman; an eccentric, reclusive billionaire willing to fund the hero’s quest, etc. But it’s all right off the shelf, and never becomes larger than the sum of its parts. The end result feels like an uninspired rehash of Rider Haggard, Jules Verne, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and a dozen Star Trek episodes, patched together by a committee of writers working from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey.

At least Jules Verne knew that if you want to write about a journey into the exotic or extraordinary, you send characters who are themselves unremarkable. If the characters get too exotic, the story becomes about them rather than their circumstances.

In Atlantis, except for hero Milo (voiced by Michael J. Fox, who’s as enjoyably ordinary here as he was in the Back to the Future movies), the wildly diverse crew members are all too colorful, without actually being interesting.

For example, there’s an almost feral, Peter Lorre-like Frenchman (Corey Burton) obssessed with dirt and digging; an Italian explosives expert (Don Novello in Father Guido Sarducci mode — colorful enough for you?) with a fetish for blowing things up; a kooky chuck-wagon cook (the late Jim Varney) with a penchant for lard and beans; and a cranky, chain-smoking old communications officer (Florence Stanley) who doesn’t mind announcing that she sleeps in the nude (prompting another character to warn that she also sleepwalks).

The crew also includes Disney’s first-ever animated black character, an immense, kindly doctor (Phil Morris). Eccentric billionaires may have been putting together diverse expedition crews in 1914, but it took Disney till 2001 to put a black man in a cartoon.

Weirdly, despite the absurd PC diversity, tired stereotypes and conventions remain intact: The Frenchman is dirty and smelly; the German woman is a jackbooted stormtrooper; the black guy is a gentle giant à la Michael Clarke Duncan; the Hispanic girl is feisty and comes across like a teenage Rosie Perez; the old woman is rude and crude; and, most inevitably of all, the military man is evil.

New Age influences

Despite such flaws, Atlantis remains modestly entertaining. Directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise (Beauty and the Beast) keep things moving fast enough to keep them from getting boring, and there are a few laughs along the way. Yet what could have made adequate summer entertainment for older kids and parents with low expectations is ultimately undone by pervasive echoes of New-Age pop spirituality and neopaganism in the film’s imagery and themes.

Disney’s toyed with New-Age motifs before (see my article "Quo Vadis Disney?" for details), but never so extensively. (If you plan to see the film and don’t want to have plot points spoiled, stop reading now.) Among the New-Age elements and neopagan associations in Atlantis are the following:

Crystal spirituality. The quintessentially New-Age notion of crystals as sources of enormous energy and healing power is at the heart of Atlantis. In fact, "the heart of Atlantis" is a phrase in the film referring to an immense, glowing, levitating crystal that not only powers all of Atlantis’ awesome technology (a point I’ll return to), but also extends the lives of the Atlanteans for thousands of years. For example, Milo’s Atlantean love interest, Princess Kida (Cree Summers), was a toddler when the city sank: Milo reckons her age at about 8800 years.

The Atlanteans also wear small crystals around their necks that connect them somehow to the power of the great crystal. Princess Kida heals a small cut on Milo with a touch from her her personal crystal, like a Star Trek doctor waving a "dermal regenerator."

The "Heart of Atlantis" crystal, we are told, is the Atlanteans’ god, and shares a mysterious connection with it. "It’s their deity," Milo says. "It’s a part of them — they’re a part of it!" In fact, the crystal is somehow "alive." Fostered on "the emotions of all Atlanteans," it eventually "developed a consciousness of its own."

In times of crisis, the crystal "chooses" one Atlantean to unite to itself, a person who becomes a sort of avatar of the crystal’s power, but who is at risk, should this union persist too long, of becoming permanently joined with or absorbed into the crystal.

That is precisely what happens to Princess Kida’s mother in the prologue, during the sinking of Atlantis: She’s taken from her daughter’s side, never to return. (Disney characters have lost parents before, but never in such an inexplicable and pedagogically pointless way.) Later in the film, Kida herself is "chosen" by the crystal, though she’s released from the crystal’s grasp before becoming irrevocably absorbed.

Totemism, stone circles, ancestor worship. The "Heart of Atlantis" crystal floats in the air surrounded by a slowly rotating ring of colossal stone head-figures, each of which either represents or actually contains (I was unclear which) one of the past kings of Atlantis. The close proximity of these totem-kings to the divine crystal makes them objects of great veneration, perhaps even worship.

In the prologue, it seems that the whole floating constellation of rocks is located high above Atlantis; but at the time of Milo’s expedition, it has apparently relocated to a secret chamber beneath the city’s streets. When Kida is brought into the chamber and first catches sight of the floating ring of rocks, she immediately falls down on her face. In the end, Kida’s aged father (Leonard Nimoy) dies, and another stone totem is sent to join the others.

This totemic stone ring resembles a combination of the colossal head figures of Easter Island and the ancient stone circles of Celtic Britain (well-known examples include Stonehenge and Avebury), today favorite neopagan pilgrimage destinations. The Atlanteans also wear blue face-paint like the Celts (à la Braveheart). In keeping with the film’s conceit that the Atlantean language is the root of all other human languages, this "Heart of Atlantis" stone circle and the blue-painted Atlantean faces are presumably meant as the origin of the similar features of ancient Celtic culture.

Ancient super-technology. Pseudo-historical proposals about pre-modern civilizations possessing ultra-sophisticated technology — often with UFO tie-ins — are a favorite subject of New-Age speculation. For that matter, the myth of Atlantis itself is widely accepted as fact among New Agers.

There are several reasons why these concepts are so appealing to New Agers. For one thing, the whole idea of being in on a big historical or cosmic secret plays to the same gnostic desire that draws people to the New Age (and its historical predecessors, like Manichaeism) in the first place. This is the wish for some exotic and mysterious knowledge revealed only to an elite few, some grand unifying hidden truth that overturns accepted ways of looking at the world.

Beyond this, there’s a built-in appeal for New Agers in the notion of mystery super-technology existing beyond the confines of modern Western civilization: Such technology, if it existed, would confer cultural bragging rights on antiquity (which of course New Agers claim as the foundation for their own pop spirituality) while simultaneously undercutting the unique accomplishments of the scientific age (with its Judeo-Christian roots).

This last point is especially important for those New Agers who are techno-optimists — those who hail the Internet as a meeting-ground for disembodied minds freed from the barriers of gender, race, age, and so on (a picture that appeals to the world-denying spiritualism in which the New Age is rooted), or who speak of worldwide networking technology giving rise to an emergent global consciousness.

Obviously, for gnostic thinkers who view technology in such prophetic terms, the historical origins of modern technology in the Judeo-Christian West rather than the esoteric East must be awkward to say the least. The super-technology of ancient Atlantis smooths over this awkwardness.

In the opening sequence of Atlantis: The Lost Empire, we learn that the ancient Atlanteans possessed Star Wars-like flying ships more than six thousand years before the birth of Christ. (Apparently they didn’t possess radios: When scout ships catch sight of the giant wave that will sink Atlantis, they race to warn their great city, but seemingly have no way to get a message through immediately.)

Tragically, nearly a millennia later, the Atlanteans have forgotten how to use their nifty gadgets, or even how to read their own written language — despite the fact that many Atlanteans who were functioning adults at the time of the catastrophe should still be alive. (Kida, who was a toddler, has only aged into a nubile Disney heroine.)

As a side note, I couldn’t help noticing the UFO pop-culture influence on the imagery in the two scenes in which Kida and her mother are "chosen" by the crystal: In a vision straight out of "The X-Files" or the trailer for Fire in the Sky, a bright beam of light from above transfixes a person in her tracks, and she is drawn up, lazily spinning like a butterfly on a pin, into the light source. The first abduction is permanent; the second abductee is returned.

These "abductions" are carried out by a hovering crystal, not a hovering extraterrestrial ship; but the inspiration for the visual itself is clearly UFO pop culture. UFOs, like Atlantis and other proposed sources of non-scientific-age technology, are wildly popular among New Agers, especially because UFOs also hold the promise of revealed knowledge from a higher power that sidesteps the unique claims and demands of divine revelation.

All of a piece

The point here is not, of course, that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with stories involving UFO imagery — or stories involving actual UFOs, for that matter. The same is true of ancient super-technology. These motifs, by themselves, don’t automatically evoke the New Age.

On the other hand, no one who has any awareness of the dangers of the New Age movement can fail to make the connection when confronted with a crystal that not only possesses enormous energy-giving and healing properties, but is worshipped by an ancient civilization, shares a mysterious union with its members, and even possesses an emergent consciousness.

This connection is reinforced by the neopagan associations of the stone-circle imagery, totemism, and suggestion of ancestor-worship. And, with all that on the table, it’s hard to avoid making further connections when the story adds ancient super-technology and UFO-culture imagery.

These themes and motifs are all of a piece; they express an imaginative outlook that’s as immersed in New-Age culture as the fiction of J. R. R. Tolkien or C. S. Lewis was in the Christian tradition. Thoughtful Christian parents will not wish the imaginative inner worlds of their children to be shaped by the sort of imagery found in Atlantis.

The best that can be said about Atlantis is that mature devoteés of animation sufficiently secure in their faith might find some spectacularly animated sequences (especially an almost apocalyptic grand finale) worth putting up with all the New Age claptrap. Even so, rather than support Disney’s ongoing animated descent into pop spirituality, they might wish to consider catching the film on cable, or watching for it on ABC.

Tags: Adventure, Animation, Family, Fantasy

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