This article has two aims and two parts. First, I want to enumerate the many ways that Disney’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet are uncannily similar. Released only a year apart — Atlantis in 2001 and Treasure Planet in 2002 — both are 95-minute action-adventure animated films with a steampunk aesthetic. Both feature wonderful scores by James Newton Howard. Both are heavily influenced by Raiders of the Lost Ark (especially Atlantis) and Star Wars (especially Treasure Planet). However, what American audiences may not realize is just how much of that Spielberg-and-Lucas influence is channelled to both films through Hayao Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky. But these commonalities only scratch the surface. When the two films are analyzed side-by-side, it turns out there are few characters, elements, or story beats in the one that don’t have a counterpart in the other. The two films share the same DNA, and they are like the complementary strands of a DNA sequence.
For that reason, the second part of this article aims to make the case that Treasure Planet can be viewed as a revised and improved version of Atlantis. While Atlantis is still a very good film, it has some weaknesses and limitations that Treasure Planet sidesteps and transcends. Did the two films develop interdependently, with the writers and directors sharing notes? Did the team making Treasure Planet see problems emerging as Atlantis developed that they deliberately avoided in their own project? I don’t know. But in any case, comparing the two films is an instructive lesson in storytelling. The films present two different ways to tell almost the same story, and anyone with an interest in filmmaking or film criticism could benefit from comparing their relative strengths and weaknesses.
Part One: Structure
I’ve identified twenty major plot points, sections, or chapters that occur in both films. The following diagram shows how each film divides and arranges those twenty chapters across three acts, and how much time the film spends on each act.
ACT ONE — ATLANTIS
Act One establishes the legend of Atlantis; introduces the hero, his questing companions, and a significant character they leave behind; and ends with the crew setting out into the unknown. The Prologue opens with a quotation from Plato and teases mysteries that will not be solved until the third act: why Atlantis was destroyed; how some of the city was preserved underground; why Kida’s mother, the Queen, was taken up into the sky; and what the whirling circle in the sky means. This is a lot to set up in a frantic two-and-a-half minutes.
The story then jumps to 1914 to introduce its Present-Day Protagonist. Like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Atlantis takes place on the eve of a World War, and like Indiana Jones, Milo Thatch is seen giving a chalkboard lecture on an ancient civilization. (The Last Crusade provides another, subtler commonality: both Indy and Milo share a cluttered office with a boiler.) Milo is a social outcast, and this has something to do with his deceased grandfather, Thaddeus Thatch, with whom he had an unambiguously positive relationship. (Like Kylo Ren in The Force Awakens, Milo has a shrine for his grandfather’s Vader-like headgear.) Both Thaddeus and his grandson have been ostracized for their belief in Atlantis. Milo wants to find a book, the Shepherd’s Journal, which will reveal information about Atlantis and what may be found there: a power source. He chases after an authority figure — Mr. Harcourt, his boss at the museum — to request funding for his expedition, but loses his job instead. Harcourt (decidedly not like Indy’s boss Brody) has had enough of Milo’s shenanigans; he warns him he’s throwing away his potential chasing after fairytales. So Milo’s mission is to prove Atlantis is real and bring back the power source, vindicating himself and his grandfather.
His job lost, Milo despairs while it begins to rain and thunder. He returns home to find a Mysterious Visitor, Helga, in his living room. Helga takes Milo to a mansion for the Meeting with the Patron, the eccentric billionaire Mr. Whitmore, who talks with Milo in a massive library illuminated by a fireplace. Whitmore gives Milo a bequeathal from his grandfather, which upon unwrapping is revealed to be the Shepherd’s Journal, containing the coordinates to Atlantis. Because he and Thaddeus were close friends, Whitmore also wants to vindicate the Thatch legacy, and so he supplies Milo with a ship and crew. The scene, although it concisely dispatches a mountain of exposition, poses more questions than the film ever answers. His grandfather’s expedition to obtain the Shepherd’s Journal happened years ago, so why is Milo only learning about it now, and why has he never heard of Mr. Whitmore? (The scene is patterned after Indy’s meeting with Donovan in The Last Crusade, but Whitmore is no villain, so these gaping backstory omissions have no malicious intent. The scene is also patterned after the meeting in Obi-Wan’s house in Star Wars: Mr. Whitmore refers to the grandfather’s “dangfool expeditions,” and the item Milo inherits had been withheld until he was ready for it.)
As the Crew Embarks in their awesome submarine, Milo is a landlubber at odds with the hardened, uncouth crew. During this segment, Milo meets several characters, including: Cookie the cook, defined by his disgusting taste (though I sympathize with his hatred of lettuce); Commander Rourke, the leader of the expedition (Whitmore introduces Rourke to Milo as “the one that brought the journal back”); and Mole, an odious crew member who rages at Milo when he gets in his way. As James Newton Howard’s adventure theme soars, we get a sweeping, flying shot of the submarine launching. Milo attends an awkward briefing on the bridge about the journey ahead, revealing the conflicts developing onboard.
Incredibly, all of the above happens in just over twenty minutes, and the film won’t slow down any time soon.From L to R: “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” (2001), “Treasure Planet” (2002)
ACT ONE — TREASURE PLANET
Act One establishes the legend of Treasure Planet; introduces the hero, his questing companions, and a significant character they leave behind; and ends with the crew setting out into the unknown. The Prologue opens with narration from a storybook (and a first shot that mimics the one from Star Wars). The book reveals information about Treasure Planet and what may be found there — “the loot of a thousand worlds” — and teases a mystery that will not be solved until the third act: how the pirate Captain Flint could appear out of nowhere to plunder ships and then vanish without a trace. Just as in Atlantis, the Prologue features one of the film’s leads as a young child, and foregrounds a mother-child relationship.
The story then jumps forward 12 years to introduce its Protagonist in the Present-Day. Like Star Wars, Treasure Planet begins on a rocky, sandy planet, and like Luke Skywalker, Jim Hawkins is a gifted pilot tired of doing menial chores at home. (The solar surfer scene illustrates what Luke might have meant by, “This will be just like Beggar’s Canyon back home!”) Jim is a social outcast, and this has something to do with his absent father, with whom he had an unambiguously negative relationship. Jim is chased by authority figures — two robot policemen — for trespassing, and loses his solar surfer. His mother, Sarah, has had enough of Jim’s shenanigans; she warns him he’s throwing away his entire future.
On thin ice with his mother and the police, Jim sulks outside his home — an inn combining the Lars homestead with the Mos Eisley Cantina — while it begins to rain and thunder. Much like R2-D2 and C-3PO’s escape pod, a ship crashes down the road, and a Mysterious Visitor, Billy Bones, emerges from the wreckage. Before he dies, Bones bequeaths Jim a small item, which upon unwrapping is revealed to be an orb containing the coordinates to Treasure Planet (just as R2 carries the schematics of the Death Star). Paralleling the stormtroopers’ destruction of the homestead, pirates follow Bones to the inn and set it on fire. Jim, Sarah, and their eccentric scholar friend Dr. Doppler escape to Doppler’s mansion, and the Meeting with the Patron again takes place in a massive library illuminated by a fireplace. When Jim unlocks the orb and Doppler realizes it’s a treasure map, Doppler immediately decides to supply a ship and crew. Doppler, like Obi-Wan, calls the young hero on a quest, but a parental figure stands in the way. Sarah relents, however, when Jim tells her, “This is my chance to make things up to you. I’m gonna set things right.” So Jim’s mission is to prove Treasure Planet is real and bring back treasure to rebuild the inn, repairing his relationship with his mother and his public image.
The ambitious zoom-in shot that leads into the next scene begins in Doppler’s library and ends at the Spaceport shaped like a crescent moon. (You will never find a more ingeniously-shaped hive of scum and villainy). As the Crew Embarks in their awesome ship — the R. L. S. Legacy — Doppler is a landlubber and both he and Jim are at odds with the hardened, uncouth crew. During this segment, they meet several characters, including: a flatulent crew member who rages at Jim when he gets in his way (it turns out Doppler, like Milo, knows obscure languages); Captain Amelia, the leader of the expedition (Doppler introduces Jim to her as “the boy who found the treasure — [map]”); and John Silver the cook, marked by his disgusting taste (the eyeball in the soup is a nod to Temple of Doom). Milo and Doppler attend a tense briefing in the Captain’s quarters about the journey ahead, revealing the conflicts developing onboard. As James Newton Howard’s adventure theme soars, we get a sweeping, flying shot of the ship launching. Later, the ship passes a pod of whales.
All of the above happens in thirty-three minutes. The exposition required to set the plot in motion is simpler than the exposition required by Atlantis, and the film takes more time with it. But aside from differences in pacing, the first acts of Atlantis and Treasure Planet are in lockstep with each other.From L to R: “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” (2001), “Treasure Planet” (2002)
FIRST HALF OF ACT TWO — ATLANTIS
The First Half of Act Two — depicting the perilous journey to Atlantis and developing Milo’s relationship with the crew — starts with Cataclysm and Loss. The briefing has hardly ended when the crew hears what they think is a pod of whales passing by. The sound actually belongs to a massive leviathan — the first of multiple biblical references — that attacks the ship. Helga, Rourke’s lieutenant, orders the crew to their battle stations, and “sub pods” resembling wingless TIE fighters attack the monster. Milo discovers the leviathan is actually a machine. When the submarine is crippled, the adventurers escape onto longboats and, à la Empire Strikes Back, race toward a cave for shelter. They narrowly avoid complete destruction, but there are severe casualties, including the submarine, cut in half by the leviathan’s laser beam. (Can you imagine the Millennium Falcon blowing up in the first hour of Star Wars?) Rourke delivers a eulogy for the fallen, only seven hours after the expedition began. (Even in the film world, the pacing is rushed.) Now that the crew is all the more dependent on Milo’s linguistic and cartographical expertise, all eyes turn to him with suspicion, to his embarrassment.
A Disney-standard Journey Montage follows as the survivors travel the tunnel highway to Atlantis. The montage underscores how Milo doesn’t fit in with the crew but is determined to rise to the challenge. As with all Disney montages, the characters warm up to each other by the end of it, and as they rest around a campfire they share their Backstories and Ambitions.Whereas Milo is here for the “discovery, teamwork, adventure,” his companions seek only money. However, just as Milo is motivated by his grandfather’s legacy, at least two of his companions want to use their rewards to help their families start new businesses. After everyone has gone to sleep, Milo wakes up and blunders into a shocking discovery—the fireflies lighting illuminating cavern are literally fiery—setting off a chain of events that ends with the adventurers practically crash landing into Atlantis. This Arrival is the Midpoint of the film, not only because the rest of the film takes place in Atlantis, but because Milo has now earned the trust of at least some of his companions, which will be crucial later on.From L to R: “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” (2001), “Treasure Planet” (2002)
FIRST HALF OF ACT TWO — TREASURE PLANET
Starting with the First Half of Act Two — depicting the perilous journey to Treasure Planet and developing Jim’s relationship with Silver — Treasure Planet diverges from the chronology of the Atlantis template in some significant ways. Treasure Planet begins the second act with the Journey Montage, as Silver teaches Jim to be a cabin boy and sailor and the two characters warm up to each other. This bonding is intercut with contrasting flashbacks to Jim’s childhood. In just three-and-a-half minutes, the montage gives an emotional weight to Jim’s relationship with his absent father that Atlantis never gave Milo’s relationship with his beloved grandfather in its entire runtime. Once again, the montage is followed by a discussion of Backstories and Ambitions. Jim is here to “make people [back home] see me a little different,” and Silver has some dream of his own. However, he warns Jim that “Sometimes, plans go astray… You give up a few things, chasing a dream.”
This heart-to-heart is interrupted by Cataclysm and Loss. A nearby star has gone supernova and threatens to destroy the ship. Mr. Arrow, Amelia’s first mate, orders the crew to fasten their lifelines. When the supernova turns into a black hole, the adventurers race toward it in order to escape it. (Solo: A Star Wars Story, anyone?) They narrowly avoid complete destruction, but there is one casualty: Mr. Arrow, who falls overboard when his lifeline is cut in half by Mr. Scroop. Jim was supposed to ensure all the lifelines were secure, and all eyes turn toward him with suspicion, to his shame. Amelia delivers a eulogy for the fallen, and the scene is followed by the Hero’s Crisis. Jim’s lowest point in the film is driven by his belief that he is responsible for Arrow’s death, and he berates himself for his mistake. But Silver insists that the hero is not a failure and affirms his confidence in him. This emotional scene also creates a crisis for Silver, the film’s second protagonist. He is about to start a mutiny and intends to kill Jim, Doppler, and the Captain, but his feigned attachment to Jim is no longer an act.
The next day, Jim wakes up and blunders into a shocking discovery: Silver and the crew are the pirates that hunted Bones and burnt down the inn. The sighting of Treasure Planet (Arrival) precipitates the Mutiny. This is the Midpoint of the film, not only because the rest of the film takes place on Treasure Planet, but because Jim and Silver’s relationship is severed — I think, both figuratively and literally, since the turning point occurs the moment Jim stabs Silver’s cyborg leg, with what looks like a pair of scissors. In the first half of the film, Jim finally found a father figure who could help him grow up, but now he must step into adulthood by taking initiative, even turning against that father figure.
SECOND HALF OF ACT TWO — ATLANTIS
The Second Half of Act Two reintroduces the film’s other protagonist, the Atlantean Princess Kida, and gives Milo a new mission: help Kida unlock the secrets of Atlantis so that she can fulfill her own mission, saving her people from both cultural and literal death. No sooner have the crew begun congratulating Milo and admiring the vista of the lost city when they are ambushed by the locals. (Again, the film hardly ever takes a breath.) They Meet the Guide, Kida, who leads them to her home, the palace of the King. The King wishes Kida had killed the intruders on sight, but he gives them an ultimatum: after one night’s rest in Atlantis, they must depart. In the meantime, Milo and Kida work together to solve the mysteries of Atlantis. During the Hero and Guide’s Mission, Kida describes her faint, incomplete memories of what happened long ago, and leads Milo into the watery depths of Atlantis. The Atlanteans are no longer able to read their ancient writings, so Kida needs Milo’s help to decipher underwater murals that tell their history. Milo discovers that the power source is connected to the crystals all Atlanteans wear around their necks, and that it is actually “the Heart of Atlantis,” without which its people would die.From L to R: “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” (2001), “Treasure Planet” (2002)
SECOND HALF OF ACT TWO — TREASURE PLANET
The Second Half of Act Two gives Jim an additional mission: to thwart Silver’s plans and keep his friends alive. Silver and his crew arm themselves, revealing their true nature. The crew blows up the entrance to the Captain’s quarters, and find that Amelia, Doppler, and Jim have made a hole in the floor and descended into the core of the ship below. The adventurers escape onto a longboat and crash land on the planet. Captain Amelia is injured, and Doppler is no action hero, underlining the need for Jim to lead. He goes looking for shelter, and is ambushed by the one and only local: crazy old B.E.N. the robot hermit. (If that reference wasn’t obvious enough, the way B.E.N. spies on Jim is a nod to the Jawas spying on R2.) B.E.N. becomes their Guide and leads them to his home. This guide, like Kida, describes his faint, incomplete memories of what happened long ago, and Doppler, like Milo, looks around and admires the “hieroglyphic remnants of an ancient culture.” This ancient culture, it is implied, lived on the planet long before Flint turned it into his hideout. Later on, it will turn out that this ancient culture, like Atlantis, created technology far surpassing anything seen in the film’s present day.
Silver and the pirate crew find B.E.N.’s home, and Jim goes out to meet with Silver while, back inside, Dr. Doppler continues to care for the ailing Captain. Sides Are Chosen. The villain makes a Vader-like appeal — join me and we can overthrow the other pirates — and the hero won’t budge. They part ways, but Silver’s shapeshifting pet Morph turns on Silver and stays with Jim. Although Silver made sure the pirates didn’t kill the adventurers on sight, he now gives Jim an ultimatum: the map must be handed over by dawn the next morning. Jim and Doppler feel helpless until the younger strikes upon an idea: the Hero and Guide’s Mission. B.E.N. leads Jim into the mechanical depths of Treasure Planet — Jim discovers the planet is not a moon, but a space station — and then they go back to a previous location, the Legacy, to retrieve what was stolen. (Morph had hidden the orb map in the hull.) This mission includes Facing the Foe — not Silver, but Mr. Scroop. The fight with Scroop is framed vertically as he chases Jim up a mast while the artificial gravity engine is disabled. Scroop dies when he lunges upward to catch Jim and Jim dives downward to evade him.From L to R: “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” (2001), “Treasure Planet” (2002)
ACT THREE — ATLANTIS
When Milo and Kida come back up for air, Act Three commences with Mutiny and Capture. Rourke and his crew have armed themselves, revealing their true nature. They intend to steal the Heart of Atlantis and sell it to a world power. (In another reference to Raiders, Milo later conjectures they’ll sell it to the Kaiser — to Germany.) Milo is forced to do Rourke’s bidding when Kida is put at gunpoint. The crew blows up the entrance to the palace, and with Milo’s help they find the entrance to the hidden chamber below the throne room. Rourke, Helga, Kida, and Milo descend Into the Core of Atlantis, where they find a spinning orb (the Heart of Atlantis) suspended in mid-air. Rourke kicks a rock into the pool below and the orb turns red. Kida suddenly understands what is going on and what is about to happen. She is taken up into the Heart and melded with it, just as her mother once was. When she descends, her body turned a ghostly, crystaline blue, she resembles the lead spirit that proceeds out of the Ark in Raiders. (Indy’s “Don’t look” is replaced with Milo’s “Don’t touch.”) Like the Ark, Kida is encased and hauled away in a truck. Like Indy, Milo has led the enemy straight to the object of supernatural power, and soon he will have to chase after them, both to retrieve the object and rescue his Marion. (Because of course Disney would cram in a half-baked romantic subplot, even if it means paring a 20-something klutz with an ancient warrior princess, only hours after they’ve met.)
But first, Sides Are Chosen. The hero makes a plea to conscience and the villain won’t budge. They part ways, but six crew members turn on Rourke and stay with Milo. Meanwhile, back inside the palace, one of the six, Dr. Sweet, cares for the dying King. The Hero’s Crisis — Milo’s lowest point in the film — is the realization that he is responsible for this “nightmare,” and this guilt is only compounded when the Truth Is Revealed by the King before he dies. The King explains how his attempts “to use [the Heart] as a weapon of war,” as Rourke would, “led to our destruction”; how the Heart of Atlantis protects the people from danger by selecting “a host, one of royal blood”; and how Kida, “if she remains bonded to the crystal,” like her mother, “could be lost forever.” Milo berates himself for his mistakes, but Dr. Sweet insists that the hero is not a failure. Quoting Thaddeus Thatch, he inspires him to press forward. Like Jim and Doppler at roughly this same point in Treasure Planet, Milo feels helpless until he strikes upon an idea to save Atlantis.
In the finale, Facing the Foe and then Averting Disaster, Milo and his friends go back to a previous location, the inside of a dormant volcano, to retrieve what was stolen. The fight with Rourke is framed vertically as he tries to exit the volcano in a hot-air balloon. (Throughout the film there’s a Russian Doll concept that is stretched to absurd lengths: A gigantic carrier ship contains a massive submarine which contains smaller submarines, and one of the smaller submarines carries several trucks, a tank, airplanes, and a hot-air balloon.) Rourke gets infected by the Heart and transforms into a blue monster with fiery eyes — a nod to Belloq’s demise — and he dies when he lunges upward to catch Milo and Milo dives downward to evade him. In another Raiders nod, Rourke is smashed to pieces by the propeller of an out-of-control aircraft. This explosive action sequence wakens the volcano. The cavern begins to collapse and erupts in flames. The adventurers fly away from the destruction, but Milo has to go back into the danger in order save the Heart/Kida and thus save everyone. When they return to Atlantis, Kida — or is it the Heart controlling Kida? — rises into the air and summons rock giants to form a force-field dome to repel the lava. (Just as in Raiders, the final outcome seems to depend more on the intervention of the supernatural object than on anything the two leads contribute.)
Atlantis concludes with The Return of all the adventurers except Milo. While his reformed marauder friends depart with enough gold to upgrade their standard of living (and for Audrey and Vinny to open new shops with their families), Milo stays behind because he has found a place where his gifting as “an expert in gibberish” is appreciated. Milo’s original objective — to prove Atlantis is real and bring back the power source, vindicating himself and his grandfather — is no longer what he wants. But he has proven for himself that Atlantis exists, fulfilled his grandfather’s dream of finding Atlantis, and helped Mr. Whitmore fulfill his promise to his friend. Back in Washington, the adventurers give Mr. Whitmore a gift from Milo: one of the Atlantean crystals, a picture of Milo and Thaddeus, and a note that says, “Thanks, from both of us.” Moreover, with the recovery of literacy and the Heart of Atlantis, Milo has helped Kida revive Atlantean culture. The film ends with Milo and Kida looking up at a stone image of her father floating in the sky, and the final image is an ambitious zoom-out shot that begins with Milo and Kida and grows to encompass all of Atlantis. The End.From L to R: “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” (2001), “Treasure Planet” (2002)
ACT THREE — TREASURE PLANET
When Jim and B.E.N. climb back into B.E.N.’s home through a trap door, Act Three commences with their Capture. Jim is forced to do Silver’s bidding when Doppler and Amelia are put at gunpoint. Jim opens the map orb and it lights the path to the treasure. To follow it, the crew cuts through a thicket of bamboo, and with Jim’s help they find the entrance to the hidden chamber below the planet’s surface. In a scene that visually echoes the force-field in Atlantis, and possibly informed the lightspeed-skipping in The Rise of Skywalker, Jim realizes that Flint could be everywhere at once because he used a portal. Among thousands of other destinations, this portal opens to the heart of Treasure Planet. Silver, Jim, B.E.N., and the pirates descend Into the Core of the planet, a spinning orb suspended in mid-air and covered in treasure. Jim finds the missing part of B.E.N.’s brain; when it is reinstalled, the Truth Is Revealed. B.E.N. suddenly understands what is going on and what is about to happen. Flint has boobytrapped the planet to explode, and Silver sprung the trap when he walked through a red laser sensor. The core begins to collapse and erupts in flames. In a nod to The Last Crusade, Silver tries to hold on to the treasure and Jim at the same time, but finally he chooses wisely. Flint’s old ship, which Silver and Jim would have used to escape, gets cut in half by a laser beam, but still they are able to exit the core and return to the Legacy, retaken by Amelia and Doppler. Averting Disaster, the adventurers fly away from the destruction, but Jim has to cobble together a new solar surfer and fly back into the danger to change the portal and thus save everyone. (It’s like the trench run, but if the Death Star were already imploding.) Just as in the black hole scene, the adventurers run into the jaws of death to escape it.
Treasure Planet concludes with The Return of all the adventurers except Silver. Jim helps his reformed(?) pirate friend get away in the remaining longboat, but not before Silver gives him a gift for his mother: enough gold to upgrade their standard of living and open a new inn. Jim turns down Silver’s offer to go with him, because Silver taught him to “chart [his] own course” — something he has successfully done ever since the midpoint. On top of that, he has found “a future”: Captain Amelia tells him his gifting as a pilot can be put to good use at the Naval Academy. Jim’s original objective — to prove Treasure Planet is real and bring back treasure to rebuild the inn, repairing his relationship with his mother and his public image — has been mostly successful, even though the planet and most of its treasure was destroyed. More importantly, Jim found the father he never had and has attained maturity. Back at home, the film ends with Jim looking up at an image resembling his father figure in the clouds. The End.From L to R: “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” (2001), “Treasure Planet” (2002)
Part Two: Critique
ATLANTIS: THREE PROBLEMS
Before I explain my criticisms of Atlantis, I should first affirm — emphatically — that I think it is an exciting and finely-crafted film, even if it isn’t always satisfying. I decided to embark on this writing project earlier this month when I watched the film for the first time in over a decade. Just as Milo is surprised to find a living civilization instead of a dead one, Atlantis surprised me with its enduring vitality. The more I’ve studied it, the more I’ve come to love and be impressed by it. Atlantis was made to be a tribute to the old-school adventure films of previous generations (not just Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Castle in the Sky, but Disney classics like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Swiss Family Robinson), and now, two decades later, it feels old-school itself, in the best possible ways. They just don’t make them like they used to.
That said, I don’t find the film to be wholly satisfying because of its issues with structure and pacing, its lack of consistent character development, and its hodgepodge of fascinating but unfocused thematic interests.
The issues with structure and pacing were already illustrated above, but to recap, the film is almost always in a hurry to cram in more plot. There is also an uneven distribution of exposition. The film jumps from densely-packed exposition in the first twenty minutes to almost nonstop action in the next. Then, once the crew arrives in Atlantis at the midpoint, the film is forced to slow down a little for a second round of exposition — to develop two additional characters, explain the history and culture of Atlantis, and introduce a succession of twists and turns — before it can ramp up again for more nonstop action in the finale.
The film’s two protagonists, Milo and Kida, do have character arcs, but barely. Milo moves from being excluded to being included, and from being timid to being confident, but neither change has any direct connection to his core motivation for going on the mission. He isn’t going to Atlantis to find community or gain self-esteem but to honor his grandfather. But because Milo’s relationship with Thaddeus is unchanging (he always loved him and believed he was right about Atlantis), and because his perception of him is unchallenged (ex.: Thaddeus doesn’t turn out to be a pillaging vandal like Rourke), completing the mission doesn’t affect Milo beyond giving him a sense of closure.
Speaking of closure, Kida has unfinished business with both of her parents. She is haunted by the death of her mother — though this is hardly touched upon — and she is in conflict with her father. She wants to discover the truth about her mother’s death and the fall of Atlantis and she wants to restore the fortunes of her people (“Our way of life is dying”), but the King hides the truth from her and insists that everything is fine (“Our way of life is preserved”). (An aside: The King is associated with sight, and sight with knowledge. The eye mural in the middle of the throne room marks where the secret of Atlantis is hidden. In the Prologue, the King covers Kida’s eyes so she can’t see what happens to her mother, but ultimately, it is the King who becomes blind. Milo even observes that Kida and her father “don’t exactly see eye-to-eye.”) But the way the film resolves this conflict is a head-scratcher. When the King divulges, on his deathbed, the secrets he kept from Kida all her life, the revelations are made not to Kida but to Milo, an outsider the King met only hours ago. Kida’s arc is supposed to move from ignorance to illumination and from division to reconciliation, but she is not present for the illumination or the reconciliation. Kida’s arc is also supposed to move from powerless concern to empowered action as she uses the Heart of Atlantis to save her people, but during the climactic scenes she is literally turned into a prop, a passive object rather than an active character.
Now on to the hodgepodge of fascinating but unfocused thematic interests. Clearly Atlantis is concerned with legacy, tradition, and culture. Mr. Whitmore tells Milo, “Your granddad had a saying: ‘Our lives are remembered by the gifts we leave our children.’” This could function as the thesis statement of the film. Milo wants to “build on the foundation [his] grandfather left [him].” Similarly, Kida wants to recover the lost cultural memory of her people and ensure they have a future. Because both are motivated by the death of a loved one, the film could also be about grief and loss, except that Milo’s grandfather and Kida’s mother are pushed to the background and both heroes seem to have made peace already with their passing.
But there is another set of themes the film dabbles in: power, imperialistic conquest, and colonial exploitation. After all, this is a film about a group of explorers going to an exotic, already-inhabited land to mine and profit off a precious natural and cultural resource. Rourke, a self-proclaimed “adventure capitalist,” wants to sell the Heart of Atlantis to one of the world superpowers, and he chides Milo’s naïveté by reminding him that museums, like the one he worked for, are filled with such stolen artifacts. But the explorers aren’t the only guilty party. Atlantis was once an empire, and the King once treated the Heart of Atlantis as a weapon for expansion. Yet while Atlantis takes jabs at imperialism, it also muddies the waters by treating the Atlanteans as helpless and ignorant and Milo as their benevolent and brilliant savior. It is hard to swallow that Milo can quickly figure out puzzles Kida has worked for millennia to solve, and that the people of Atlantis stand idly by while Kida and the Heart are taken away, until Milo finally mobilizes them. Inadvertently, the film implicates itself in the worldview that justified imperialism: non-European peoples are backward and need European oversight.
Finally, because the Heart is a clean power source, and because the sleek Atlantean tech contrasts so sharply with the grungy machines of the explorers, the film also has a subtle environmentalist bent. It takes after Miyazaki’s critique of the Industrial Revolution and the Nuclear Age in Castle in the Sky, and James Cameron had to have seen Atlantis before working on Avatar, a film that is twice as long and half as interesting.
Somehow all of these themes are meant to be unified and personified by the Heart of Atlantis. (Personified is the right word here, because the King says the crystal “developed a consciousness.”) True to its name, the Heart is the lifeblood of the people, hidden in the core of the city, the centerpiece of the plot, and the synthesis of the film’s many ideas. Because it “thrives on the collective emotions of all who came before us,” the Heart not only represents but embodies legacy, tradition, and culture. Because the King “sought to use it as a weapon of war,” it represents the dangers of power, imperialistic conquest, and colonial exploitation. And because it heals wounds, provides energy, and regulates the water cycle, it represents harmony between people and nature. This is a ton of significance for one signifier to bear, and that may be why I have found the meanings of the film to be so difficult to parse. Is the Heart a metaphor for nuclear power, both the A-bomb and Chernobyl? Is it a metaphor for a culture-preserving entity like the Rosetta Stone or the National Archives? Is it a metaphor for cultural identity and heritage and, since it is also associated with aggression, does that make it a metaphor for nationalism, too? Is it all the above? I’m not sure the filmmakers ever made up their minds about it, either.
The film makes many gestures but, in the end, communicates little. To be sure, Atlantis could have worked just fine without any Big Important Meaning. But because it actively casts about for meanings but commits to none of them, it dilutes what thematic potency it could have had.
TREASURE PLANET: THREE REVISIONS
I argue Treasure Planet is a revised and improved version of Atlantis, because it reappropriates almost all the best elements of its predecessor while remedying the three problems that plagued it: pacing and structure, character arcs, and themes.
To return to the comparison diagram, Treasure Planet spends twelve more minutes on Act One than Atlantis does. The pacing is still brisk, but it isn’t breathless. Crucially, instead of beginning Act Two with Cataclysm and Loss, it delays the supernova scene until after it has built a bond between Jim and Silver, and it links the Cataclysm and Loss with the Hero’s Crisis. When dozens of generic sailors are suddenly killed by the leviathan in Atlantis, it doesn’t affect Milo or the audience. But when Mr. Arrow dies and Jim takes the fall for it, the audience cares about how Jim is affected, and the crisis substantively changes Jim and Silver’s relationship. Next, the Midpoint arrives eight minutes later compared to Atlantis; this allows more time to solidify the crew dynamics before upending their status quo. On the other side of the Midpoint, the second half of Treasure Planet is nine minutes shorter than the second half of Atlantis. Because there is only one character left to introduce and no complicated mythology to expound, the story can ramp up instead of slow down. Finally, by not having two back-to-back action scenes in the finale as Atlantis did, which risks wearing out the audience, Treasure Planet moves Facing the Foe and makes it the finale of Act Two. Retrieving the map and defeating Mr. Scroop is a rite of passage for Jim, giving him the experience and confidence he will need to deal with Silver and save his friends later.
Another way to think about the pacing and structure differences is that Atlantis has one big action sequence early on and two big action sequences at the very end, and a lot of walking and talking in between. In contrast, Treasure Planet spreads out several action sequences of various magnitudes across its runtime — I count at least six — and makes sure to put speed bumps between them. The reprieves are long enough to develop characters and deliver exposition, but not long enough for the film to lose momentum.
Besides rearranging plot points, Treasure Planet also reshuffles the cast of Atlantis. Milo, the young outcast and bespectacled scholar, becomes both Jim, the young outcast, and Dr. Doppler, the bespectacled scholar. This allows Jim to be the serious lead and Doppler to be the comic sidekick. Kida, the local guide and love interest for the scholar, becomes both B.E.N., the local guide, and Captain Amelia, the love interest for the scholar. This reduces the importance of the guide (less second-act exposition), and it pushes the silly romantic subplot to secondary characters on the sidelines, where it can be far-fetched without derailing the hero plot. Mr. Whitmore, the eccentric patron who waits for the crew’s return, becomes both Dr. Doppler, the eccentric patron, and Sarah, who waits for the crew’s return. Because Jim’s mother is alive (unlike Milo’s grandfather) and has a real relationship with the hero (unlike Mr. Whitmore), there is more at stake if Jim does not survive the voyage. To give a final example — though there are more — Rourke, the leader of the voyage, the leader of the mutiny, and the villain the hero defeats, becomes Captain Amelia, the leader of the voyage, Silver, the leader of the mutiny, and Mr. Scroop, the villain the hero defeats. Because Silver is not the captain, he can be a near-peer for Jim; because Silver and Scroop have distinct roles, the film can have a conflicted antagonist who can change while also having a contrasting antagonist who refuses to change.
But the greatest benefit of all the reshuffling is that, whereas Atlantis has at least eight major characters of central importance — Milo, Thaddeus, Mr. Whitmore, Rourke, Kida, the King, the Queen, and the six crew members taken as a unit — Treasure Planet only has four: Jim, Jim’s father, Jim’s mother, and Silver. Because Jim’s father is gone and Sarah only appears at the beginning and the end, that leaves only two characters to focus on: Jim and Silver. All the other characters, no matter how interesting they are (or aren’t) in and of themselves, are secondary and subservient to Jim and Silver’s character arcs. And while their arcs aren’t anything complex, they do work very well, precisely because they work off of each other. Milo and Kida have parallel arcs — both are dealing with legacy and loss — but those arcs play out independent of each other. But Jim and Silver have complementary arcs that intersect with and redirect each other. Jim is seeking after treasure to make up for mistakes he made because he didn’t have the love and guidance of a father. Silver will give up the treasure to make up for mistakes he made and be the father Jim never had. Both Jim and Silver’s arcs work so well because, unlike Milo and Kida, they each have serious flaws to overcome, and need each other’s help to do so.
Simplifying the cast allows for better character work. Likewise, paring down the list of ideas allows for better theme work. The number one idea of the film — an idea that is never crowded out by any others — is that boys need fathers to help them become men. I already traced Jim’s journey to maturity when discussing the plot. In Treasure Planet, plot and character and theme are perfectly in sync, because each story development has ramifications for Jim and Silver, pushing Jim closer to manhood and Silver closer to fatherhood.
Just as both films have themes related to family, both also have themes related to exploration and power. But here Treasure Planet is much more subtle, and yet it’s louder in its silences than Atlantis ever was in its remarks about museums or capitalism. By the time we get to the planet core, the long-sought treasure ceases to matter. By then it has become clear that family means far more than the money and fame Jim and Silver wanted. But the film doesn’t just repudiate the allure of temporary riches with the obvious visual of Silver trying to save Jim and hold on to his reward at the same time. Before the planet starts imploding, we discover the skeleton of Captain Flint sitting in his ship, presiding over all the money he acquired and never spent. We learn from B.E.N. that Flint was so desperately greedy that he would sooner blow it all up than let others use the money after he died.
But even before that haunting image of Flint’s skeleton, there is the almost-throwaway line from Dr. Doppler about the “ancient culture.” Clearly, it was a powerful and advanced civilization like Atlantis, able to build a mechanical planet and design a portal to travel anywhere in the galaxy. In contrast, Flint was probably just some average thief who stumbled upon the map to the lost planet and figured out how to use the portal to go on a crime spree. This inference only renders Flint, a legendary figure in the Prologue, all the more parasitic and pathetic. But regardless of who they were and what they did, both Flint and the ancient civilization ultimately wasted away and were forgotten. Faced with the wordless parables of the ancient ruins and Flint’s skeleton, all of Jim and Silver’s pretensions are exposed as hollow.
So Treasure Planet is about fathers and sons and maturity first, and the vanity of riches and manmade glory second. But all that thematic coherence and heft is almost undone by one crucial scene — depending on how you read it. After Mr. Arrow’s death, Silver assures Jim that:You got the makings of greatness in ya’, but you gotta take the helm and chart your own course! Stick to it, no matter the squalls! And when the time comes you get the chance to really test the cut of your sails and show what you’re made of, well, I hope I’m there, catching some of the light coming off ya’ that day.
This speech is the film’s thesis statement. The question is, does “chart your own course” mean taking personal responsibility for your actions within the context of communal accountability and guidance, or does it mean embracing an expansive, self-determining individualism? If it’s the former, Silver’s speech is consistent with everything I’ve just noted about family and fame in the film. If it’s the latter, the film is caught in an internal contradiction, saying one thing and showing another.
The trouble with making the moral of the film “chart your own course,” in the individualistic sense, is that the film, intentionally or not, presents strong reasons against that kind of philosophy. Captain Flint charted his own course, and died alone. Silver charts his own course, but realizes “you give up a few things, chasing a dream” — in his case, parts of his own body. Worst of all, Jim’s father, for all we can tell, charted his own course, and he abandoned his wife and son. But the moral exemplars of the film — Sarah, Dr. Doppler, and Captain Amelia — are marked by their principles, discipline, and service. They take initiative and responsibility for themselves, but never without regard for others. Jim matures when he honors his mother, submits to Captain Amelia’s leadership, and follows Silver’s instructions. When Jim does start charting his own course, he fights to protect his friends, not to pursue his own interests. When Silver invites Jim to join him for a life of open, endless possibilities, the course he charts instead is toward a life constrained by limitations. He enrolls in the Naval Academy — and militaries, schools, and military schools especially, are not places for expansive, self-determining individualism.
In my article on Brother Bear two years ago, I quoted Charles Taylor’s description of secular individualism:People are called upon to be true of themselves and to seek their own self-fulfillment. What this consists of, each must, in the last instance, determine for him- or herself. No one else can or should try to dictate its content. (Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity, 1992, p. 14.)
Up until I was working on this article, I always thought Silver’s speech exemplified this kind of thinking. That may still be the case. After all, Taylor’s description encapsulates the Disney ethos. But as I now consider the speech within the context of the film, it seems to take on a newer and truer meaning. Perhaps, even as Jim is called to be true to himself, he is also called to be true to others. Perhaps those others still need to tell him who he should be, and even better, help him become who he should be. Otherwise, if Jim pushes everyone away, who will be there to catch the light coming off him?
ConclusionFrom L to R: “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” (2001), “Treasure Planet” (2002)
Hopefully, this lengthy and exhaustive look at these two films will encourage readers to revisit them or watch them for the first time. Both films were released to a mixed or tepid response (Treasure Planet was a box-office bomb), but I believe they deserve reappraisals as two of the last great Disney films in the hand-drawn tradition, right alongside The Emperor’s New Groove and Brother Bear.
Treasure Planet has the better script in terms of plot, but Atlantis has the better script in terms of dialogue. Atlantis has better drawn characters, but Treasure Planet has better developed characters. Treasure Planet has more action sequences, but Atlantis has better action sequences. Atlantis has breadth and brains, but Treasure Planet has depth and heart.
If there is one major trade-off from Treasure Planet telling a neater, cleaner, more focused and disciplined story, it is that it lacks some of Atlantis: The Lost Empire’s winsome ambition, however unwieldy. I’m reminded of the saying, “Go bold or go home.” Atlantis goes bold and never quite makes it home. Treasure Planet is not as bold, but it makes it home. Taken together, they split the difference. Make it a double feature.
Acknowledgments: Thanks to my housemate Anthony for watching Atlantis with me, and entertaining several conversations about it in the days following as I sorted out my thoughts. And thanks to Timothy, ever the dauntless editor, for helping me figure out how to get this massive article off the ground.