A New Look at Disney’s Atlantis
Disney’s Atlantis was recently released on video and DVD. When the movie came out, many in the skeptic community groused about it promoting pseudoscience to kids, while others felt it was just entertainment and detractors should just get a life. The release of the movie on DVD, with additional bonus features, affords us an opportunity to take a look at the intentions of the filmmakers. For this article, I will be focusing on two of those features, Atlantis: Fact or Fiction, and the audio commentary of the film by producer Don Hahn and directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale.
The Good Stuff
I enjoyed the movie on several levels. It was funny, engaging, and did an amazing job of merging the computer animation with more traditional animation. I also thought that having the leviathan as a machine was a clever way of inserting an undersea guardian that would still be around after 10,000 years, although I can’t help but wonder how it had regular maintenance every 1,000 years.
The main character, Milo, is a nerdy scientist. He is also a good moral hero, saves the world and gets the girl at the end. It is not often that scientists are portrayed in this light, and Disney should be commended for it.
Some critics complained that Milo was a true believer in Atlantis and promoted poor scientific standards. True, but it wouldn’t be much of a movie if he didn’t. Besides, in the movie, enough evidence existed to show that it was deserving of scientific inquiry-not like in the real world. The key piece of evidence, the Shepard’s Journal, contained all of the information necessary to locate Atlantis. In the audio commentary it was mentioned that true believers of Atlantis approached the directors and thanked them for including the Shepard’s Journal as an historical piece of evidence. The filmmakers responded, "We made it up, there is no such book!”
In addition to that, when commenting on Milo’s mock presentation at the beginning, they stated, “Now, all of this he’s saying here is true . . . (laughter) . . . except for the stuff we made up...”
According to the creators of Atlantis, they started with the basic idea of creating an action/adventure cartoon and began with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Center of the Earth as well as mythical stories of Atlantis. Elements from all these stories were inserted into the script. When researching Atlantis, they looked at many books about it, including writings by Edgar Cayce. Again, I suspect it was to present a framework for the story to create the mythical Atlantis for the screen, rather than to create a factual account or endorse a belief in the “Lost Civilization.”
The Darker Side
Despite all this, there is still a darker undercurrent to the movie in that it misinforms youngsters.
Granted, it’s a common tradition for the hero of a story to be a rogue mind who breaks with established thought, and Atlantis is a typical case. What this suggests to children is that if you believe in something that nobody else does, you therefore must be correct. It is considered part of the American culture to be the lone voice with a big original idea. Unfortunately, history has shown that very few who break with tradition of standard inquiry without good reason or evidence will reap any benefits from it.
The DisneyPedia asks the question of whether Atlantis is fact or fiction, but really makes no attempt to answer the question. It primarily presents the legends, sprinkled with generous “What if’s” and “Could it be,” suggesting the possibility (or probability) of its existence. The information is presented at about a six to seven-year-old level, and includes some good historical facts on archeology, submarines, and decoding ancient languages for children. On the other hand, it blends established science with questionable pseudosciences without a clear distinction between the two. As an example, the first section on the Atlantis myth (titled “Atlantis”) begins with “Stonehenge, the ancient pyramids, the Bermuda Triangle. For centuries man has sought answers to the greatest mysteries...”
The tying in of the Bermuda Triangle is a typical example of how the information is presented in the DisneyPedia. Stonehenge and the pyramids are still a part of archeological interest, but inserting the Bermuda Triangle does two things:
- Classifies it as a mystery still waiting to be discovered, although being effectively debunked long ago; and
- Implies supernatural explanations for the existence of Stonehenge and the pyramids, like the explanations offered for the Bermuda Triangle and Atlantis.
Kevin Christopher’s recent article on Atlantis (Skeptical Briefs September 2001) refers to Plato being the source of the Atlantis myth, and although Plato did write about historical events (as well as pure fiction), implying that Atlantis is an actual place is very similar to stating that Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet or A Midsummer Night’s Dream were also based in fact. After all, plenty of other people have written about or referenced the plays.
The section on “Legends” is presented in a similar vein: “Ever heard of the Loch Ness Monster or Bigfoot, or unicorns? Legends of strange creatures roaming the earth have been told for countless generations. But are they real? If you believe in such myths then creepy creatures resembling giant bugs are probably familiar to you. Or do you belong with the group that believes these creatures belong in the fiction section of the library?”
The visual accompaniment to the last part of that section is more disturbing. When referring to believers the video is keyed with several images of Milo, the hero. When it changes to the skeptical view, the video jumps to the bumbling heads of the museum, who discount Milo’s ideas. Now, assuming you’re a child, whom would you prefer to emulate?
This is the paradox of children’s entertainment: The problem of engaging children’s interest and imagination by presenting fanciful situations, yet maintaining reason within this framework without destroying the concept and entertainment value. Kids, as well as adults, love to stretch their imaginations, but more should be done to stress the boundaries between the fantasy world and reality.
The mixing of science and the pseudosciences does as much damage, if not more, as presenting pseudoscience on its own. Blurring the line encourages children with scientific interest to pursue long-dead avenues of investigation when there are plenty of groundbreaking areas where fresh minds are needed. It also perpetuates the idea that real-world science can’t possibly be as exciting as the claims and ideas that lie on the fringe. In addition, pseudosciences are notable for their lack of scientific protocols; again, something we don’t want to be teaching our children.
It is our job as parents, educators, and concerned citizens to supplement children’s media appetites with a healthy diet of reason. Fantasy isn’t going away anytime soon, and I wouldn’t want it to. Everyone needs a bit of escapism now and then, and Disney has come through in this way for generations. Hopefully in their pursuit of quality entertainment, they'll keep in mind the concept of quality education.