How does one begin to discuss Treasure Planet? It is one of the biggest box-office bombs in history, costing $140 million to make but only recouping $109 million in international box-office receipts. Treasure Planet is infamous for signaling the end of the traditionally animated feature. Despite its supporters (it was nominated for an Oscar, something that superior features such as Tangled and Winnie the Pooh weren’t nominated for), there is an infamy that it is one of Disney’s worst features. The truth it that while there is certainly much valid criticism around Jon Musker and Ron Clements’ adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson classic, it does not deserve the unfortunate reputation that it currently holds.
At first glance it is easy to pass off Jim Hawkins as a cheap marketing gimmick. The filmmakers took an innocent boy and turned him into a ponytailed, space surfing, action star with loads of teen angst. But the character development and back-story is all there. Jim’s father left him and his mother when he was young and he has been frustrated and restless ever since. John Ripa animates these emotions consistently with a great vocal performance from Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Animated features of this time tried to connect to the teenage audience, such as through bland generic tough guy Cale from Titan A.E. However Jim earns his right to be reckless and smart. He works to earn the audiences’ and characters’ respect to save the day. His action scenes are grounded in emotion. As odd as it is to hear a pop song in a Disney cartoon, I’m Still Here sung by John Rzeznik, embodies the character in an effective montage.
The character that Jim Hawkins plays off of is naturally Long John Silver. This being a cartoon allows the character of the sea cook to be much more versatile than a live action actor could portray. There has been criticism that master-supervising animator Glen Keane was ill-suited to the sloppy, fat Silver as he is mostly accustomed to animating grace (Ariel, Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas and Tarzan). But Keane gifts the character with a sense of warmness and slyness. He maintains Silver’s infamous ambiguity while crafting a natural father figure for the lost Jim. The highlight of the film is when the two misfits find comfort in one another. Particularly after Jim feels he is responsible for Mr. Arrow’s demise and Silver provides tough love. Silver is not an easy character to love and Jim is not instantly likable. But the combination of the two makes for some of Disney’s most emotional and personal moments.
The other characters in the movie are not as good. There are three comic relief characters. Each has their strengths, but they each weigh the film down in their own way. Dr. Doppler (a combination of Dr. Livesy and Squire Trelawney) has some terrific subtleties to him as well as natural comic timing that come from voice actor David Hyde Pierce. But he has too many unnecessary tangents that undermine various action and emotional scenes. His character development seems extraneous from the main storyline. B.E.N. (an android version of the marooned Ben Gunn) is amusingly voiced by Martin Short and is animated well (computer animated in a traditionally animated setting), but does not add a lot the story. The final comic relief is Morph who seems the most natural and least intrusive, but still has a tendency to appear at the wrong time. These three are the most responsible for the movie’s tonal shifts. However they are not as bad as the gargoyles in Hunchback as they are actually part of the story.
As for the other characters Jim’s mother works decently here and there but leaves little impact. Both Captain Amelia and Mr. Arrow are memorable, but none of the rest of the crew are as imposing. Which is a problem when Silver is supposed to be a threat when he has a band of forgettable comic misfits at his side. The crewmember with the most personality is the terrifying Scroop (a substitute for Israel Hands), but he is almost undermined by a forgettable Disney death. The other memorable side character is Billy Bones, creatively re-imagined as a dying snake turtle.
The characters are responsible for the films highlights and lowlights. But the movie is probably most remembered for its visuals. The filmmakers wanted to make space feel less empty and the combination of pirate imagery in a sci-fi setting is certainly grand. One has to credit this movie for having its own visual style. It does not look like Star Wars or Star Trek, it looks like Treasure Planet. There is also a lot of combining traditional animation with computer-generated images. Computer animation embodies most of the creative sci-fi elements: such Silver’s cyborg components, B.E.N. the android and the action set pieces. The two forms of animation blend pretty much perfectly, which is impressive for 2002.
Revisiting Treasure Planet it is easy to say that had this been live-action it would have been hailed as a classic if not masterpiece. The characterization and relationships are better than any live-action sci-fi and the visuals much more impressive. The problems with this movie come from Disney’s problem of finding an audience. The older blockbuster crowd it was going for were turned off by “kiddie” elements such as the comic relief and marketing while the kids and families were looking for something familiar. Audiences will not take a chance on an animated film like they will on a live-action film, which causes animation to play it too safe.
However please do not make this mistake anymore. You can view Treasure Planet on Netflix right now. While it certainly has its flaw it is definitely one of the better movies available. Yes it is a traditionally animated Disney feature, but please view it with an open mind. You may find a new favorite movie.