Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island is set in the heyday of High Adventure, when a boy could seek his fortune and manhood by setting out upon the boundless seas. As generation after generation of budding thrillseekers read the book or took in the film versions of 1932 (the one with Jackie Cooper and Wallace Beery) and 1950 (the Disney film with Bobby Driscoll and Robert Newton), countless backyards magically transformed into the Spanish Main and Barbary Coast, rife with bloodthirsty pirates ready to extend the plank for walking and eager to keel-haul — whatever that is.
Disney’s new sci-fi tweak on the story, Treasure Planet, could have easily been a sweet piece of escapism, riding on its big and flashy gosh-wowness. But no, it’s a 21st century Disney flick, so it’s gotta have “issues.” What appears at first blush to be grand spectacle turns out to be little more than a ham-handed parable about fathers, sons, and removing one’s light from under the proverbial bushel. It’s a space opera in touch with its feminine side.
Set in a stylish future where starships roam the spaceways but still resemble 16th century galleons and frigates, Treasure Planet introduces us to Stevenson’s hero Jim Hawkins as a boy in his late teens (voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), thrashing in the sky like Tony Hawk on a rocket-powered skateboard. He’s nicked by the cops and deposited with his innkeeper mother (Laurie Metcalf), who frets about the juvenile delinquent her boy has become since his “spacer” father abandoned them.
After a dying pirate on the lam crash-lands at the inn, hands Jim a mysterious golden sphere and croaks, “Beware the cyborg!” with his final breath, the Hawkinses and their friend, a doglike astrophysicist named Dr. Doppler (David Hyde-Pierce), narrowly escape from a band of shadowy villains who arrive and burn the inn down. The sphere turns out to be a holographic star-chart revealing the location of the legendary Treasure Planet, where “the loot of a thousand worlds” is rumored to be hidden, and a thoroughly jazzed Doppler decides to bankroll a space voyage to find it.
Enter the starship Legacy, commanded by the sexy feline Captain Amelia (the sexy feline Emma Thompson), and its less-than-savory crew of hired hands (or, being aliens, assorted other appendages) who answer to the ship’s cook Long John Silver (Brian Murray), a cyborg with robotic arm, leg, and eye. No need to tell whose side Silver and Company are really on — we’re all too familiar with the book, films, and battered-fish franchise. Upon sighting Treasure Planet, the pirates mutiny and Amelia, Doppler, and Jim escape to the planet’s surface, where a malfunctioning robot named B.E.N. (Martin Short, annoyingly manic as always) gives them shelter, and the race to find the treasure begins in earnest.
If all we cared about was plot, Treasure Planet is more or less faithful to its source: the killing of the First Mate, the apple barrel, Silver’s shifting loyalties, Jim’s heroics, and the fantastic treasure itself. But many of the novel’s memorable trappings are missing here. Gone is the crucial underlying fact that the pirates are the old crew that gathered the plunder in the first place. Gone too are the arcana of pirate culture — how can you do Treasure Island without Blind Pew and the ominous Black Spot?
What weakens the film most, however, are its inconsistent main characters. Doppler, for example, is an amalgam of two of Stevenson’s characters: the cool, pragmatic Dr. Livesey and the pompous, foolish Squire Trelawney. While Doppler is mostly windy and ineffectual (Niles Crane as a canine-oid), he becomes competent when the story demands it, as when he can suddenly and inexplicably pilot the ship.
The relationship between Jim and Silver remains the core of the story, but here it is hindered by the film’s insistence that it mean something. In the book, Jim Hawkins is a boy of 11 or 12, forced to come to grips with the treachery of adults and acquit himself through heroics beyond his years. Before becoming aware of Silver’s true nature, he forges a bond with the old salt analogous to that of a child with a favorite but disreputable uncle, and the novel’s conflict is between Jim’s loyalty to his friend and his duty to do what’s right.
In the film, Jim is too old and too skilled (he knows how to pilot and shoot) to be as naïve as he is. Silver is sloppy and prone to open demonstrations of physical affection, both to Jim and his pet shape-shifting blob Morph (voiced by Dane A. Davis and relentlessly cute). Sensing that Jim’s troubles are due to the lack of a father figure, Silver blatantly strives to become Jim’s dad, a point driven home by a montage of flashbacks depicting Jim’s neglectful bastard of a real father and present-time shots of a beaming Silver bonding with Jim — he does everything except play catch and buy the kid a puppy.
When the other pirates confront Silver and accuse him of getting soft, he snarls that he’s only using the boy’s trust to his own advantage. When Wallace Beery or Robert Newton said that, it cast Silver’s motives under suspicion and ratcheted up the story’s tension, but the cyborg Silver doesn’t fool anyone. He’s a kinder, gentler cutthroat and his redemption is never in doubt.
Still, there’s a lot to like about Treasure Planet. It’s visually ambitious, combining artful cel animation with computer graphics to make the experience of coursing through space breathtaking, something the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises have yet to do. Hyde-Pierce and Thompson give lively performances of rapid-fire dog-and-cat banter that are far more entertaining than Short’s improvisational blathering. And the bad guys, like TreasurePlanet’s architect Captain Flint or the traitorous arachnoid pirate Skroopf (Michael Wincott), are often nightmarish.
But the film remains doggedly intent on its message about the transforming power of filial love. From start to finish, most of the characters exchange more hugs than a Leo Buscaglia seminar, and where we kids of all ages ought to be eagerly running out, hearts pounding and faces flushed with excitement, to hoist the Jolly Roger in the backyard, all we can do is reel from having the warm fuzzies mercilessly pounded into us.