In Summer 2001, my grandfather took me to see Atlantis: The Lost Empire in the theatre. I remember him asking me afterward if I enjoyed the film, and I did – although it never became a favorite of mine. It was fun, but a bit forgettable as it’s not a musical and I judge Disney movies mostly on how good their music is. Rewatching the film as an adult, though, I’m struck by a theme I never noticed as a kid: the White Savior. In Atlantis: The Lost Empire, not only does the white hero save the non-white people, but the non-white people are relegated to being completely passive props who are unwilling to save themselves.
A White Savior film typically involves a white, often male, protagonist saving a person or people of color from a danger that is threatening their life or livelihood from which they are unable or unwilling to save themselves. Examples of White Savior films include Django Unchained (2012), Avatar (2009), and The Help (2011).
Throughout Atlantis: The Lost Empire, one theme is glaringly clear: The Atlanteans are props in a story between two white men. When the white villain, Rourke, is taking Kida, the Princess, from Atlantis – which, as Milo, the white hero, says, will, “wip[e] out an entire civilization” – all of the Atlanteans stand around frowning but do nothing to stop him. In this scene, the Atlanteans are background props while the crew dissent from Rourke. The Atlanteans only take action to save their own lives once Milo persuades them to by showing them how to use the fish vehicles. Once on those vehicles, of course, the Atlanteans turn into cannon fodder for the final battle because the named characters can’t die.
Kida, the Atlantean Princess who ultimately becomes Queen, is the only Atlantean who recognizes that there is a problem with the Atlanteans losing their culture by not understanding their own history and written language, and she is the only Atlantean who takes any action to save Atlantis. She tries to persuade her father to let the visitors stay, and she asks Milo to help her decipher the murals which depict the history of Atlantis. Yet even she is relegated to prop status in the last third of the film. What began as a promising storyline for Kida ended with her as a prize needing to be rescued.
Let’s talk about Milo, because Milo is the quintessential White Savior. This white man, who is an outcast in his own society, somehow learns to read and speak a dead, ancient language of a non-white society that even it’s own people don’t remember how to read, leads a team of mercenaries to this society without knowing their full plan, teaches the non-white people of this new society their own history and culture, and saves the entire society from death by a villain he brought to their doors. Then he stays in this society and becomes one of its leaders because not only does he fall in love with the new Queen, but the old King charges Milo with saving Atlantis.
Atlantis: The Lost Empire is a story about a white man who saves a non-white society from another white man by: learning that society’s history and language, and teaching it back to them; persuading that society to help him save them when they had no plans to do so on their own; and saving their princess who wouldn’t have been in danger had the white man not brought the other white man to the society in the first place. The White Savior is strong with this one.