[6 July 2012]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
At the time, the studio had two choices. They had just been pitched a reinvention of a Robert Louis Stevenson classic, as well as a grrrl power take on a Hans Christian Anderson favorite. Mulling over the potential project, the company chief couldn’t decided. So he simply shrugged his shoulders over the former and greenlit the latter. The results rewrote the era for the otherwise struggling brand. Disney developed The Little Mermaid into the artistic redemption it so desperately needed, while the high tech Treasure Planet was shuttled off to the side. Thirteen years later, the robotic rewrite was dusted off and released to universal disdain. In fact, the tale of Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver reset in space became the first of three major developmental death knells (the others being Brother Bear and Home on the Range) that eventually saw the famous cartoon company announce its intentions to abandon 2D filmmaking all together.
It’s a shame really. For all its flaws, and there are several, Treasure Planet represents a visionary work from the hallowed House of Mouse. Instead of sticking with the old fashioned pirate approach with its lack of commercial legitimacy (at least circa 2002), directors John Musker and Ron Clements experimented. The duo behind the success of Mermaid, as well as Aladdin and Hercules, merged the broadening base of CG with detailed hand drawn designs, creating a combination that’s both intriguing and a bit irritating. The interplanetary vistas look amazing, and the various technological advances bounce off the screen. On the other hand, Stevenson’s story is a bit staid, and the typical Walt ways it’s been tweaked for kid vid familiarity are enough to make you disavow the overall effect.
Young Jim Hawkins (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a bit of a troublemaker, leaving his mother (Laurie Metcalf) feeling more than a little helpless. Even her dog-like friend Dr. Delbert Doppler (David Hype Pierce) isn’t sure what to do with this rambunctious solar surfing rebel. When he accidentally stumbles onto a dying spaceship pilot (Patrick McGoohan) with an unusual sphere in his hand, Jim tries to help. Turns out, the object is a holographic map of the so-called Treasure Planet, a place where notorious space pirate Captain Flint stashed the loot from a thousand worlds. Hoping to find it, Doppler hires his own craft. Piloted by the cat-like Captain Amelia (Emma Thompson), he and Jim head out. When enigmatic crewmember John Silver (Brian Murray) learns of this, he plots a mutiny. Soon, our heroes are struggling to survive, hoping a broken down robot named BEN (Martin Short) can thwart Silver and help them find the riches.
At first, Treasure Planet is tedious. The opening material with Jim as a pre-adolescent does little except set up an already understood Mother/Son bond and the first major set-piece involving a solar surfboard and lots of computer generated scenery is too much, too soon. We haven’t even had the interstellar angle fully explained and yet our crazy teen is careening around an excavation site like it’s something vaguely familiar. Even the introduction of obvious doormat Dr. Doppler as well as the eventual reveal of Silver is something of a letdown. We enjoy the character design, but they never get a real hero moment for either. Only Amelia and BEN get a true introduction, and when you add in the character of Morph (a shapeshifting blob in the best Disney tradition of too cute ancillary attractions), you can literally see the movie start trying. By then, it’s a bit too late.
Visually, however, the film is fantastic. The first time we recognize how awesomely outsized this universe will be is when Jim and Doppler head for the space port to pick up passage. Looking like a crescent moon, the location is legitimately awe-inspiring (especially in full blown Blu-ray clarity) and bodes well for the rest of the settings. Treasure Planet itself is also amazing, a kind of complicated orb with a portal to another dimension and a core made up of mechanized menace. Even some of the character elements inspire. Silver’s leg and arm become a Terminator-like treat, the robotics lending a sense of evil to the otherwise goofy persona. Granted, Morph can be a bit much, but it does deliver the requisite “wow” factor. In fact, the only real letdown comes from the human side. They seem generic and uninteresting, no matter how many Flock of Seagulls haircuts they have.
What’s most intriguing about Treasure Planet, however, is how it functions as a precursor to what would become one of the company’s most profitable franchises ever. Pirates of the Caribbean was already in production when this film was released, and the Johnny Depp/Gore Verbinski triumphant would have been the perfect preamble to more buccaneer fun from the men behind Mickey. Planet could have been held until the studio was sure that audiences wanted more spectacle and swashbuckling. Instead, it was tossed out randomly, allowed to run at least 20 minutes too long (at 115 minutes, it’s a marathon) and given up for dead as part of the corporation’s inability to compete with Pixar et al. Perhaps some of the choices could be challenged (the storytelling, the somber songs by Goo-Goo Doll Rzeznick) but for the most part, Treasure Planet could have been sold as solid eye candy. Instead, it became an unnecessary albatross.
Of course, Disney would reverse their decision regarding hand drawn animation. A merger with the kings of CG gave the company new blood, and a new focus. Eventually, Musker and Clements would attempt another House of Mouse Hail Mary with The Princess and the Frog. While not a 100% success, it did return the studio to the prominence it presided over for nearly six decades. Like The Aristocats, The Black Cauldron, and Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Treasure Planet doesn’t deserve its place among the business’s many bungles. Instead, it’s an interesting idea stifled by element it can’t and couldn’t control. See it for the visionary way it re-imagines a classic. Tolerate it for the same reasons as well.