This movie’s history goes as far back as when The Little Mermaid began its production. Directors Ron Clements and John Musker were interested in making Treasure Island in space. Jeffery Katzenberg, the chief of Walt Disney Studios at the time, just wasn’t interested in the concept. So instead, Clements and Musker began their co-directorial careers with The Little Mermaid, and later directed Aladdin and Hercules together. Katzenberg stayed with the company all the way to The Lion King, and then departed to co-found Dreamworks. Sounds like he jumped ship at about the right time since after The Lion King, the Disney Renaissance started its downfall.
Anyway, after two huge successes under their belt (Hercules did just ok, but they were kind of pushed into directing it before Treasure Planet), Clements and Musker were granted their Treasure Island in space. Because they wanted fast camera movements and grand visuals, the delayed acceptance actually helped the movie on the technical side. While watching this movie, I could clearly see the ambition put into it. It was the first film ever to be released in regular theaters and IMAX simultaneously. The animation is pretty much evenly hand drawn and CG, with hand drawn characters often interacting with computerized environments. And it is a beautiful looking movie.
It’s also the third science fiction Disney Animation Studios movie in a row, following Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Lilo & Stitch. It’s crazy when you think that it’s also the third sci-fi movie by Disney’s main animation studio ever. Where did this sudden spree of sci-fi come from? I like science fiction so I’m not complaining, but I’d really like to know.
Costing $140 million, it was Disney’s most expensive animated movie to date. Critics received it generally well, praising its visuals and its fast pace, but noting that the characters weren’t as strong as usual for Disney. It received an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Feature along with Lilo & Stitch (released earlier that year), but lost to Spirited Away. Like I said in the previous post, there’s a very good reason why Spirited Away won. As much as critics praised Treasure Planet, it ended up bombing hard with only $109 million earned. Roger Ebert criticized the movie, saying that a more traditional take on the film would be less gimmicky, and the New York Post called it a “brainless, mechanical picture”.
When I first heard about this movie years ago, I honestly thought it was some sort of sequel to Atlantis: The Lost Empire. Having not enjoyed Atlantis that much (and not too much more after having re-watched it this week), I avoided it like the plague. After having seen it, I think it’s just ok. The visuals are very impressive and I can see what they were going for, but the movie feels manufactured.
Treasure Planet stars Jim Hawkins, voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and he’s pretty much the same character as most adaptations of Treasure Planet. He’s a bit of a troubled kid, living at his mother’s restaurant. After his father left them, he finds it hard to do anything productive. He’s struggling in school and getting in trouble with the law by, uh … space windsurfing in places he shouldn’t? Honestly I’m not sure how to describe what he did to get in trouble. It looks like skateboarding in the sky, and it’s clearly designed for the younger fans, but wastes several minutes for people like me who don’t care. His mother clearly cares about Jim and tries to talk the police down from further punishment, but she’s also embarrassed by him. She doesn’t understand what he wants in life and doesn’t believe his insistence that the Treasure Planet he used to read about exists.
When a strange man arrives at the restaurant and dies just after giving Jim a high tech map of some sort, the family restaurant is destroyed in a firefight. With nowhere else to go and a clear direction to find the money needed to rebuild his mother’s restaurant, Jim heads out to find the treasure. Delbert Doppler, a dog alien voiced by David Hyde Pierce from Frasier, also joins him. From there, it turns into a pure adventure movie where Jim travels to Treasure Planet along with an honorable captain who happens to be half cat, her assistant, and a crew full of nasty pirates.
The visual style in this movie is both fascinating and problematic. Despite that the movie takes place in space, most of the ships look like the same kinds of wooden ships sailing on the water in the 1500’s. Nobody wears space suits, as if space itself is full of breathable air. Co-director Clements came up with the idea to make space feel warmer, and that he didn’t like the idea of gray, steel ships full of pipes and smoke. He felt the visual style would make the movie more fun. I can see what he’s trying to do here, but it makes the movie feel half-hearted. They could have easily come up with space ships that still somewhat resemble classic ship looks, or something shiny and fancy yet familiar like the Star Trek reboot movies. Instead, it just feels weird.
And I get the whole steampunk attraction, but that’s not what this is. The pirates use energy pistols and the ships have these weird warp drives. The two styles end up clashing with each other more than anything else.
The visuals are impressive though. There’s one scene where the crew is trying to flee a supernova that turned into a black hole, and there’s so much fire in the backgrounds moving around in circles around the black hole that it’s ridiculous. The planet itself contains a lot of creative visuals, like giant mushroom-like plants, old ruins that Jim’s small crew hides from the pirates in, and all the machines in the planet core. The character designs are pretty good too. Unfortunately, there are a couple moments where the CGI harms the movement, like when the escape boat/pod crash lands. The physics of the boat flipping around reminds me of an early PS2 game.
The only other adaptation of Treasure Island I’ve seen is the Muppet Treasure Island. It may be unfair to compare this to the genius that is Muppets creator Jim Henson, even if he died years before Muppet Treasure Island released. With that said, I can’t help but feel that everything about Muppet Treasure Island’s storytelling is better than Treasure Planet. It’s also funny when it tries to be, instead of just being kind of lame. As much as the action in Treasure Planet feels bigger, it feels a lot more tense in Muppet Treasure Island. There’s a lot more tension between the characters, and the pirates genuinely feel dangerous at times. The characters are far more interesting in Muppet Treasure Island as well.
All the main character in Treasure Planet are written fine on their own, but their relationships don’t fare as well. Jim is a delinquent who’s struggling to figure out where he belongs. As the movie goes on he learns to be more responsible, and he learns to be brave. His character arc is the best part of this movie from a storytelling standpoint.
He connects with John Silver, the pirate captain, on a father son level after a while. Yet when John reveals his true colours, Jim resists him for a while, but they eventually grow close again. It’s as if all is forgiven by the end, even if John betrayed everyone earlier, and some of John’s crew members tried to kill him. In Muppet Treasure Island their relationship is a lot more subtle and complex. John actually grew to care about Jim, even in the middle of deceiving everyone. Yet Jim is so hurt by John’s betrayal that he never wants to see him again when all is said and done. It’s a rough moment in an otherwise upbeat movie, and that’s why it works better in the Muppet adaptation.
It really helps that Tim Curry played John Silver in Muppet Treasure Island – he’s pretty much always fun to watch. Another aspect that really helps sell their relationship in Muppet Treasure Island is that they’re the only two humans on the ship. Yet by the end of the movie, Jim ends up connecting with Kermit the Frog a lot better. It’s a great contrast. In Treasure Planet, the friendship between Jim and John at the end of the movie feels artificial at best, and there’s nothing to contrast it with. Delbert Doppler is little more than comedic relief for most of the movie, and he’s not nearly as funny as his voice actor should be. He’s not nearly as annoying as the insane robot they meet on the planet, but still.
Pretty much the same goes for all the other relationships. There’s a romance between the cat captain and Delbert Doppler and it’s fun when they try to outsmart each other with educated words. At the same time, you never really feel any of their later romantic chemistry because you don’t see them alone enough. Jim and his mother have a caring relationship that’s a little compelling, but his mother’s also barely in the movie. None of John’s crew seem to like their leader all that much, plus they’re impatient. If he’s such a devious leader, why wouldn’t he pick a crew that know how to be patient and subtle?
But the movie’s greatest sin may be the complete lack of a sword fight. The movie goes out of its way to have space ships that look like water ships from the 1500’s, and yet there’s never one single sword fight. There’s even a moment where Jim picks up a sword and points it at John, but they don’t actually fight. It’s interrupted by the planet going into self-destruct mode. It’s as if they wanted to embrace a visual style that mixed classic pirate movies with space, but completely ignored one of the most important aspect of classic pirate movies.
I’m not saying that Treasure Plant is bad. It’s easy to see what Disney went for, but they should have gone further with their stylistic and storytelling choices in a lot of ways. I’m sure Treasure Planet has some fans and they should feel free to like it. But I thought this movie was just ok. Of Disney’s first three animated science fiction movies, it’s the most forgettable. By no means am I saying that Muppet Treasure Island is a masterpiece, but I’d much sooner recommend it than Treasure Planet.
Next up is Brother Bear, followed by Home On The Range (the Disney animated movie I’m dreading the most) and Chicken Little (Disney Animation Studio’s first fully CGI movie). We’re about to hit the bottom of the barrel of animated Disney movies.