Probing the Atlantis mystery

by Lee Zion, May 15th 2001

Probing the Atlantis mystery

When Walt Disney releases its new animated feature, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, astute anime fans will notice more than a few parallels with a popular Japanese TV show.

Nadia: Secret of Blue Water ran on Japanese television in 1989. Nadia seems to have a lot in common with Atlantis - in both the Disney movie and the Gainax anime, a pre-World War I submarine finds its way to Atlantis, at the center of which lies a massive - but dangerous - power source.

The similarity doesn't end there, however. In both Nadia and Atlantis, the heroine wears around her neck a small blue jewel which glows during times of crisis. Also, in both cases, the jewel is linked to the power source for Atlantis, but the heroine does not fully understand what that jewel is for.

There's more. In both Nadia and Atlantis, the hero wears large, round glasses, while the heroine is dark-skinned and has a fiery temper. And in both cases, the submarine has an international crew, with a blond-haired woman as second-in-command and a bald, black man as the doctor on board. (See accompanying chart.)

So what do the people who made Atlantis have to say about Nadia?

They never heard of it.

Don Hahn, and Gary Trousdale, producer and co-director of the Disney movie, both expressed surprise when asked about the similarities during a recent interview.

But during the same interview, Trousdale also identified himself as a fan of anime, as is fellow director Kirk Wise. For both of them, the works of Hayao Miyazaki (Kiki's Delivery Service, My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke) are a major influence in their own work. Trousdale said.

But if Hahn and Trousdale had never heard of Nadia, how did Atlantis come to mirror it so closely? As Hahn and Trousdale described how their movie came into being, they were able to shed some light on the creative process at Disney - and the source for some of those similarities.

Both Hahn and Trousdale, who had previously worked together on Beauty and the Beast, Hunchback of Notre Dame and other Disney films, wanted to try something different. Rather than a fairy tale, they hoped to create an action-adventure movie which Hahn called an “an E-ticket thrill ride.”

From the beginning, Hahn and Trousdale aimed for a more mature audience, but without leaving children behind. So while the film often retains the Disney feel, some of the more traditional elements of a typical Disney film were dropped. Gone are the musical numbers and the cute animal sidekick.

“We wanted to focus on the characters on the screen,” Trousdale said. “The sidekicks are always the internal monologue that a character has - what a character would be saying to himself, but he has a sidekick he can say it to... . We wanted to do a character who could think on his own, without having to talk to a brace of squirrels or rabbits.”

More importantly, however, the filmmakers pushed the envelope on the action, to the point that many people in this film actually die in battle.

“It's an action movie, and to have a movie that is dramatic at its core ... there's peril along the way,” Hahn said. “Peril sometimes means people don't make it on the journey. And I think that increases the dramatic stakes for our heroes.”

That bumped Atlantis up to a PG rating, while also moving it into the company of the growing number of animated films designed to attract teens and adults. Trousdale cited as influences The Iron Giant, from Warner Bros., and Miyazaki's Mononoke, distributed by Disney under the Miramax banner.

In 1996, Hahn and Trousdale began planning this animated adventure film. One of the ideas they considered was the book that provided the inspiration for Nadia - Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which Disney had turned into a live-action movie back in the 1950s, Hahn said.

As it turned out, though, a different Jules Verne novel eventually became the launching pad for Atlantis.

Journey to the Center of the Earth had a portion of it where the explorers go through Atlantis. And we thought, 'Well, instead of finding a dusty ruin, like they did in that book, let's find something that's a living, breathing civilization.'”

From a dramatic standpoint, though, the movie had to be about something more than an archeological dig or an exploration - after all, in Journey to the Center of the Earth, the book ends just when things get interesting. So it was obvious that there had to be some kind of a goal for them to get to, and something to cause conflict among the main characters, Trousdale said.

They researched the many legends of Atlantis for inspiration, and eventually discovered the writings of Edgar Cayce, who described Atlantis' crystalline power source in great detail, Hahn said.

With that in mind, the filmmakers decided to make the movie about the search for that crystalline power source. That created most of the similarities between Atlantis and Nadia, since both stories focus on the same thing.

The other major link between Atlantis and Nadia is the fact that in both cases, the film is set in roughly the same era, and the main characters travel to the lost continent in a period submarine.

This similarity occurred because both stories were inspired by Jules Verne. In the case of Atlantis, however, the action was moved to 1914 - out of Verne's era - to get away from what Trousdale called the “brass rail and velvet look” of the Victorian age, which he said had been overdone.

Other similarities with Nadia and other anime are open to interpretation. For example, the eyeglasses worn by Milo Thatch - the lead male character of Atlantis - look very similar to the eyeglasses worn by Jean - the lead male character of Nadia. But supervising animator John Pomeroy said that he got the inspiration for the glasses from a different source.

Pomeroy said he had conceived of Milo as a Frank Capra-esque hero, and so he surrounded himself with pictures of period movie stars - Henry Fonda, Bob Hope, James Stewart, and so forth. Milo's look was inspired by them, and the eyeglasses came from silent-era movie star Harold Lloyd, he said.

However, after a quick look at the glasses Harold Lloyd wore onscreen - small lenses, and thick, black frames - it seems that Milo's large lenses and almost invisible frames have more in common with Jean's Nadia specs then Harold Lloyd's.

As for the international crew of the submarine, with a blonde-haired woman as second-in-command and a bald, black man as doctor, that could simply be a coincidence. Then again, maybe not.

References to other anime also seem to appear. Atlantis features as comic relief a short, fat “mole man” who loves to dig - like Visions of Escaflowne. Also, retro-looking giant robots appear at the end of the movie, looking like something out of Gigantor, although Trousdale referred to them as “stone giants” and said that this was inspired by the work of comic book artist Mike Mignola, (Hellboy) who was one of the artists on the film.

Miyazaki seems to appear more than once in Atlantis. The flying ships that appear at the end of the film might bear a slight resemblance to the Ohmu in Nausicaä. And when Kida, the heroine of the Disney movie, first appears, she wears a pagan mask - many times larger than the one San wore in Mononoke, although with a similar design.

Trousdale himself conceded that one touch in the film might have been inspired by Miyazaki. At the end of the film, the waters recede from Atlantis, revealing more of the city - something the movie has in common with The Castle of Cagliostro.

However you choose to look at Atlantis, one thing's for certain. This film, a remarkable departure from the typical Disney film, looks to entice teens and adults to watch a cartoon - something that anime has been doing for a very long time.

Hahn said this wasn't a shift away from children's animation, but more a demonstration of what Disney can achieve in addition to its typical fare.

“I've always thought animation can do anything. And I think you're starting to see a group of animators whose ambition is to show that animation has a  very broad sweep,” he said. “That range is exciting, when you look out and say that animation doesn't just have to be about bunnies and animals and fairy tales.”


See the side by side comparison chart.


When not watching anime, Lee Zion writes for the San Diego Business Journal on small business, retail, utilities, and environmental issues. He is also the author of Ferriman's Law, a futuristic detective novel with a few anime references. The book is available at Amazon.com; for more information, visit http://www.leezion.com.


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