Seventeen years ago, Disney released Atlantis: The Lost Empire and with it something else a little more monumental: its first animated queen of color in Kidagakash, aka Kida.
For some, Atlantis may be a bit of a blip in the memory. By 2001, the Disney machine had churned out so many cartoons beloved by fans the world over, but I was destined to love Atlantis solely because it was all about my dream job, archaeology.
Atlantis was a story of discovery, of one man’s determination to find the lost city of Atlantis. As a budding Egyptologist (in my head), this spoke to my desired career path in life and it was amazing to see something I actually wanted to do animated by Walt Disney. Making it all the greater? Disney was introducing its first warrior princess of color with Kida.
Voiced by Canadian actress of color Cree Summer, Kida is a near 9000-year-old Atlantian princess who watches over her once-thriving civilization. Though her world surpasses anything that can be found on the surface, she embraces the foreign explorers in order to find a way to keep her home from facing extinction.
When I first saw Kida, with her brown skin and white hair, I was enthralled. She was beautiful, spoke various languages, knew how to fight, and stood her ground. She was protective of her people but knew when to ask for help, although her father was against it — and with great reason.
Before Wakanda came to the big screen in Black Panther, Atlantis was an island where a precious metal — or crystal — powered everything including the advanced technology its people crafted. While the rest of the world had just grown comfortable with motorized cars, Atlantians had been transporting back and forth on hovercycles called “ketaks” for centuries. They even created a ginormous underwater lobster-like leviathan to protect outsiders from finding their secret locale!
But with great resources come great colonizers looking to manipulate said resources for their own capitalist agenda. That absolutely became the case when we realized the leaders of Milo Thatch’s expedition to Atlantis, Commander Rourke and Helga Sinclair, were there to make money off the “crystal” that powered everything, the “Heart of Atlantis.” Luckily, Atlantis had a fail-safe to prevent such injury, which brings me yet again back to the importance of Kida.
Turns out, the crystal must bond with a royal host — and Kida, much like her mother, was chosen by the crystal in order to unleash its immense power to protect its world. That’s right — Kida is not only a protector by choice, but she’s been chosen to be such by blood. Like their precious stone, Kida powered the survival of her people.
So Atlantis not only gave us a movie with a royal family of color, a princess-turned-queen of color, but one in which we’re also introduced to a nation where its protection lies within the female royal bloodline.
Please explain why this movie isn’t highly regarded again? Oh yeah, money.
It seems Atlantis’ modest success at the box office, coupled by it being one of the first Disney films lacking a musical number or two, didn’t go over well with the big wigs. All productions for a spin-off TV show halted, and the sequel, Atlantis: Milo’s Return, was a straight-to-DVD release. Aside from this, a greater injustice was done: Kida would never join the ranks of the Disney Princesses, even though some of its members aren’t technically princesses — or even royalty for that matter (yes, I’m looking at you, Mulan).
Can you imagine never seeing Disney’s first reigning queen of color being represented in its line-up for years?
Kida’s uniqueness aside, Atlantis also gave fans a pretty great taste of diversity. Milo and the ragtag expedition team came with expert skills and multicultural backgrounds. There was Dr. Joshua Sweet, who was of Native American (Arapaho) and African-American descent, having lived on a reservation and gone to Howard University. We also had Audrey Ramirez, the teenaged Latinx mechanic (with a boxer for a sister); Vincenzo Santorini, the Italian explosives expert; and Gaetan “The Mole” Moliere, the creepy French geologist. Not to mention Jebidiah “Cookie” Allardyce, the cook (who loved lard) and Wilhelmina Packard, the radio technician often found gossiping with her girlfriend on her downtime.
The crew members featured people from various cultures, age groups, and socio-economic statuses, giving audiences a little bit of everything. It was a time where diversity in a film was almost more of an afterthought.
Either way, it would take another eight years for Disney to give viewers its first African-American princess with Louisiana restaurateur Tiana from Princess and the Frog. By this time, many Disney moviegoers had long forgotten about Kida and her role in bringing a bit of diversity to the royal lineup.
Many may not care for nor remember Atlantis, but that Lost Empire definitely found a place in my heart. Not only did I get to see my archaeological dreams played out on screen, I had a queen I could relate to just a little more than the others.