For the past four years, I’ve had the opportunity to study the hero myths of Joseph Campbell, Otto Rank, Carl Jung, Lord Raglan, and many others. These theories drew me in with their symbolic use of archetypes and patterns, but what makes them so intriguing to me is their timeless resiliency. Not only were these theories applicable when they were first created, but they’ve also remained core influences on the plots and details of the stories in our modern day world. We can trace Harry Potter’s hero’s journey, identify soul triptychs in The Hunger Games, and even spot the archetypes in Frodo’s trip to Mount Doom.
And we can’t forget those animated Disney classics!
Today I’m going to take you on a trip down memory lane as we revisit one of the greatest Disney adventure stories of all time, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, and apply Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey to the main character, Milo Thatch.
So, what do you say? Are you ready for an adventure? Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey is divided into three sections: Separation, Initiation, and Return.
The first chunk of stages in Campbell’s hero’s journey is referred to as Separation. This is the beginning of the adventure, when the hero is forced to leave his world for the world of the journey. In the movie Milo goes on an expedition to find Atlantis but he is simultaneously on a journey of personal development. Milo, the lonely scholar, has become the outcast of the academic world. Other scholars believe he is a nutcase. They refuse to believe the lost city of Atlantis actually exists. Milo spends his days isolated in the boiler room giving lectures on the legend of Atlantis to brooms, mops, and spare tools instead of sharing his theories with other human beings. His journey will force him to venture out of his basement cave and discover both the people and the places around him before he is allowed to return to his scholarly passions.
Stage 1: The Call to Adventure
In the first stage of Campbell’s monomyth, the hero receives a call to adventure. This is the catalyst for the whole journey. A character enters the hero’s life with a question or problem that draws him out of his ordinary world and into the world of the unknown. Milo is called to adventure when Mr. Whitmore presents him with the Shepherd’s Journal and reveals that he is funding an expedition to find the lost city of Atlantis. Suddenly, Milo can do more than just study Atlantis; he can go find it. But in order to do this, he will have to share his knowledge of ancient dialects with the rest of the crew. He will have to leave the comfortable solitude of his boiler room life and become an active part of the community. In order to achieve the boon of the lost city, Milo will have to survive an entire expedition alongside the community that once mocked him for being a kook.
Stage 2: Refusal of the Call
Although he is tempted to go on the adventure, the hero always has reservations about leaving the world he knows behind. He may be frightened by the danger ahead, fear that he is unable to change, or have obligations in the ordinary world that prevent him from leaving. When he hears Mr. Whitmore’s plan, Milo immediately dismisses it as an impossible dream. He claims an expedition to Atlantis would cost millions to fund. He explains that they’d need engineers, lieutenants, and the best crew alive. On a more personal level, Milo claims he can’t leave his own life behind. He has a job, an apartment, and a cat to look after. It would take days for him to pack up his books alone. Subconsciously, Milo is really just hesitant to leave behind the safety of his ordinary life. Like that of any true hero, Milo’s ego refuses to change.
Stage 3: Supernatural Aid
Once the hero commits to his journey, he receives supernatural aid in the form of weapons, tools, and guidance from a mystical mentor. This aid gives the hero his first glimpse into the magic of the unknown world he must enter in order to complete the journey. The supernatural aid also helps the hero overcome obstacles he faces along the way. Throughout the story, Milo’s supernatural aid consists of the Shepherd’s Journal, the Atlantian crystals, and the city’s giant stone guardians.
Stage 4: Crossing the First Threshold
Guided by his supernatural mentor, the hero passes into the world of the adventure. Often this transition is represented by a tunnel, a wall, or a gateway the hero either climbs over or passes through. On the other side, the hero enters an unfamiliar landscape, both externally and internally. This strange, new environment represents the hero’s unexplored psychological landscape. Milo completes this stage of the journey when he boards the submarine that will take him to Atlantis. Literally, he walks across the threshold of the ship with Commander Rourke to begin the expedition. Then Milo turns back and waves goodbye to Mr. Whitmore. For Milo, this signifies crossing the first threshold of his internal journey. By saying goodbye to Mr. Whitmore, Milo leaves his mentor behind and joins up with a crew of unfamiliar faces waiting for him on the ship. He crosses over from a world of isolation into a community of complete strangers. Also, because Atlantis is a sunken city, the surface of the water represents yet another threshold that Milo crosses. When the ship submerges, Milo has finally fully entered the sunken world of the adventure.
Stage 5: Belly of the Whale
This stage in the hero’s journey marks the point of no return. A disaster or happy accident occurs which cuts the hero off completely from his ordinary world. This forces the hero to make a decision. He can either turn back, giving up on the journey and returning home, or embrace the journey and move forward. When he fully commits to the journey at this stage, the hero subconsciously agrees to undergo a personal transformation. Milo’s belly of the whale occurs when the Leviathan attacks and destroys the main ship. With only their escape pods left to transport them, the crew can no longer return to the surface world unless they move forward with their journey and convince the Atlantians to help them get there. With his ride home destroyed, Milo must now befriend the crew and compete the journey if he wants to survive.
Now that he has fully committed to the journey, the hero is put through an initiation process in the world of the adventure. Collectively, these stages represent the next third of Campbell’s monomythic structure. During this time, the hero is forced out of his comfort zone again and again. He faces trials that break him down and test his ability to change in this new world. In the movie, we see Milo face these trials and eventually become initiated into the community of explorers.
Stage 6: Road of Trials
In order to reach his destination, the hero must complete a series of tasks along the way. These trials often occur in threes. The hero may struggle or even outright fail to complete the early tasks. By progressing through the trials as they become more and more difficult, the hero shows his ability to grow and change in the world of the adventure. Milo’s road of trials includes bonding with the rest of the crew, winning over the tribe of masked Atlantians to gain access to the city, and convincing the other explorers to betray their malevolent leader, Commander Rourke, and abandon his evil plot. In order to pass each trial, Milo must balance his knowledge of Atlantian culture with his understanding of what it means to be a leader and a friend.
Stage 7: Meeting with the Goddess
The goddess is the character in the hero’s journey that represents the concept of all-powerful love. Sometimes she is a love interest, inspiring the hero to complete his journey and win her love as a reward. Other times she is an all-powerful mother or spiritual deity who inspires the hero through faith and nurturing care. She can heal life-threatening wounds the hero sustains during the road of trials. In this way, the goddess is a symbol of hope when all hope is lost. She fuels the hero to carry on. Milo’s meeting with the goddess occurs after the fire bugs attack the camp. At this point, Kida appears and heals Milo’s chest wound with her crystal. Kida later becomes a love interest for Milo. She appreciates his interest in her culture but she also wants to help push his journey along. By explaining that her world is in danger of dying out completely, Kida inspires Milo to harness his new people skills and help save her life as well as the life of the city. Kida, as the goddess, represents the possibility of all-encompassing love for Milo because she simultaneously recognizes his wisdom from the ordinary world and accepts the person the journey is helping him become.
Stage 8: Temptation
This stage of the monomyth is all about material possessions that tempt the hero to abandon his journey. The hero has worked hard to earn his place in the world of the adventure. Now, something temps him to stay there and keep all that he has gained for himself. The ego attempts to regain control of the hero and keep him stagnant. Think of it as your selfish desires tempting you to forgo the hard work of personal development for the instant gratification of local pleasures. For Milo, temptation is a very short stage (practically nonexistent). It occurs when Rourke asks him to steal the Atlantian power source and bring it back to the surface world. Selling the crystal would make Milo incredibly rich. On an even deeper level, peer pressure acts as temptation in this moment. Milo has worked incredibly hard to make friends with the crew. Now, if he doesn’t help steal the crystal, he will lose their friendship for sure. But, if he feels the pull of temptation at all, Milo refuses it immediately. He rejects Rourke’s offer and stands with the Atlantian people.
Stage 9: Atonement with the Father
Once he resists temptation, the hero confronts and destroys whatever holds power over him. This could be the hero’s father or a father figure in his life. Sometimes it can even be a symbolic source of power, like a prophecy or a curse. Commander Rourke is the force that holds power over Milo on this journey. As the commander of the Atlantis expedition, he outranks Milo. Rourke also outranks Milo physically, which becomes evident when the two get into a fight on the side of the airship. Rourke easily deflects Milo’s attacks and even throws a few harmful punches himself. But, just as Rourke is about to kill Milo, Milo reaches up and slashes him across the arm with a shard of broken glass. When Rourke’s crystalized body hits the fan blades, both it and the airship explode. Milo lives, but he is thrown into the base of the volcano. By destroying Commander Rourke, Milo conquers the force that was keeping him from achieving his full transformation and sharing his wealth with the world.
Stage 10: Apostasis
After conquering the force that holds power over him, the hero faces a literal or figurative death. In this stage he transcends into a state of divine knowledge and bliss. These are rewards for the sacrifices the hero has made along the way. By giving up his own life, the hero proves he will be selfless with his reward. Milo’s apostasis comes in the aftermath of his fight with Rourke on the airship. During the fight, Helga fires a shot that awakens the volcano. As a result, when the airship explodes and Milo falls to the ground, he becomes trapped in the base of an active volcano. Lava bursts through the cracks. The dark rocks rumble and groan ominously. Altogether, the environment at the base of the volcano represents a hellish afterlife. If Milo is still trapped there when the volcano blows, he will surely die. Milo realizes this and acts immediately, demonstrating the divine knowledge his figurative death has given him. He wraps a chain around the crystal’s case so the others can fly it out of the volcano to safety.
Stage 11: The Ultimate Boon
The ultimate boon is the goal of the entire journey. It is the item or knowledge the hero set off to achieve in the first place. He must go through the trials and transcend death in order to purify his spirit and prepare his body to receive the boon. After the hero has proven himself, he is rewarded with the ultimate prize. Kida represents the ultimate boon for Milo. In order to win Kida over, Milo has to merge his knowledge of the city’s culture, which he learned in the ordinary world, with the newfound people skills he developed in the world of the adventure. Milo accomplishes his journey by discovering how to balance his isolated, scholastic pursuits with his newfound sense of friendship and community. He is rewarded for completing his journey by being reunited with Kida and being able to restore the Atlantian power source to the city.
The last third of the monomyth is known as the Return. In this final chunk, the hero must return to the ordinary world and share the ultimate boon with others. Sometimes, the return can be just as challenging as the stages leading up to it. Now that Milo has achieved the goal of his journey, he must return to the ordinary world and share his newfound wisdom.
Stage 12: Refusal of the Return
During this stage, the hero has second thoughts about leaving the world of the adventure. Having achieved the ultimate boon, he is now tempted to bask in the glow of his own enlightenment. Part of him is reluctant to share the boon with his fellow men. Refusal of the return can also come from outside sources, such as the hero’s society, his peers, or even his enemies. If the hero has actually died in apostasis, his own death can be what keeps him from returning to the ordinary world. In the movie, Commander Rourke refuses Milo’s return. In the volcano scene, the commander fights back when Milo tries to retake the crystal. In doing so, Rourke literally refuses to let Milo achieve the ultimate boon and share it with his world.
Stage 13: Magic Flight
Often, the hero is forced to escape with the boon. This journey can be just as dangerous as the hero’s original quest. The act of ascending through flight symbolizes the hero’s return from the depths of death and hell. Flying upward toward heaven represents the hero’s rebirth and reflects the spiritual purity he has received by sacrificing his own life. As he emerges from the pit of the journey and begins his return trip home to the ordinary world, the hero is cleansed. Milo’s magic flight is simple. He is carried out of the volcano by an Atlantian flying fish.
Stage 14: Rescue from Without
At the end of his journey, the hero may need a powerful guide to help him return to the ordinary world. If he has been injured or weakened by the trials of his journey or if he has died in apostasis, it is especially important for someone to help bring him back. Although Milo escapes out of the volcano, the eruption still threatens to demolish the city and everyone in it. He needs to be rescued from the burst of molten lava that is about to destroy him so that he can live on to share his boon with the rest of the world. Milo is rescued at this point by the ancient stone guardians that surround the city. When the crystal calls on them, they emerge from the water and protect Atlantis with a dome of blue light. Milo and the others watch as lava flows right over the magic shield. Then it hardens and crumbles away. In this way, the stone guardians help Milo share his boon with the world by shielding him from the dangers of his return journey.
Stage 15: Crossing the Return Threshold
Just as the hero crosses a threshold to enter the world of the journey, he must now cross another one to return home. This time, he carries with him the wisdom gained as a result of the journey and a desire to share it with his peers. For Milo, thresholds tend to be made of natural elements (remember the water threshold he had to cross in the beginning of his journey?). As the hardened lava crumbles and slides off the shield, a cloud of dust falls over the city. Milo emerges through this dust cloud, which is symbolic of his return threshold. Milo does not leave the lost city and return to his geographical beginning point. Instead he decides to remain in the city and become a linguist for the ancient people. This represents his return to his former, scholarly world. He turns away from the tunnels the crew will take home and walks, instead, farther into the city. By walking through this dust cloud, Milo turns his back on the world of the expedition and returns to the world of academia.
Stage 16: Master of Two Worlds
Now that the hero has survived his journey and returned to the ordinary world, he embraces a newfound sense of balance. He retains the wisdom from the journey and allows it to influence his everyday life. This reflects the balance he has achieved between the material world around him and the spiritual realm of his inner self. For Milo, this is certainly true. At the end of the movie, he carves the likeness of Kida’s father into a large stone. His illustration follows the style of Atlantian art that appears throughout the city. This demonstrates how carefully he has studied the culture of Atlantis during his life in the ordinary world. However, by carving the stone himself, Milo demonstrates his newfound ability to engage with others and actively contribute to the culture around him. He now helps create the ancient relics he used to study. Milo has become a master of both the scholastic and social worlds.
Stage 17: Freedom to Live
By the end of his journey, the hero has successfully recognized and defeated his ego. Now he can fully commit to living in the moment and is free to exist without any fear of death. Empowered by his success, he enters into a Zen-like state. The hero is now confident that he will be able to face whatever happens in the future. The Atlantians are not immortal, but they have been gifted with extremely long lives. By marrying Kida and becoming one of the Atlantian people, Milo assumes this lifestyle. At the end of the movie, Milo and Kida follow the floating rock portrait up into the sky and stand beside each other. They are ready to begin their life together in paradise. As he stares up at the ceremonial stone carving of Kida’s father, Milo is reminded that, even when he does die, he will live on forever in the memory of the Atlantian people, like Kida’s father.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at Campbell’s hero’s journey and how it functions in Disney’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire. I had so much fun creating all the illustrations for this post and putting it all together for you. Now that you know the stages, where else can you find Campbell’s monomyth? I’m curious to see what you come up with! Be sure to post your ideas in the comments.
Have a great day everyone!