Treasure Planet (2002)
The law of averages. All good things must come to an end. What comes up must come down. As much as we all hate these figures of speech and statistical terms, they are very much part of life and - as very few people witnessed in a theater - also apply to Walt Disney Animation Studios. Even when adjusted for inflation, Treasure Planet was the worst financial disaster the most identifiable arm of Walt Disney Studios ever suffered. With a colossal $140 million budget, Ron Clements and John Musker’s pet project - conceived only after both unwillingly were forced to do Hercules - only made about $110 million at the box office, not counting advertising costs.
Treasure Island itself is a fascinating shipwreck of a film. Having seen the 1950 Disney version with Bobby Driscoll and Robert Newton this summer, I believed Treasure Planet didn’t have too high a hurdle to jump over so that it could become a worthwhile adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson adventure novel. But boy oh boy did this really plunge into that hurdle.
Jim Hawkins (five-year old voiced by Austin Majors, teenager Jim voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is seen enthralled with adventures of pirates on the high nebulae in his holographic books as a child and becomes a deftly skilled solar surfer as he grows up. Missing in the 1950 Disney adaptation is a single woman character and Treasure Planet does well to make amends, placing in Jim’s mother Sarah (Laurie Metcalf) as Jim’s confidant and guide in these early minutes (this is in face of the absent father in a Disney movie of course). Jim will soon find out from family friend Dr. Delbert Doppler (David Hyde Pierce, whose character looks like a canine) - his antics grate on the nerves rather quickly, but he’s not the worst case - and with the crew of Captain Amelia (Emma Thompson, whose character looks like a feline) on the RLS Legacy - they are off to find the storied treasure planet.
Within the lower decks is a charismatic cook, part-cyborg named John Silver (Brian Murray… “Long” has been cut out of the character’s name) who, almost at first meeting, takes a liking to Jim. One must imagine that after years being the cook on this brig - which looks like something straight from humanity’s early colonial era - Jim’s presence must be refreshing and energizing to him.
With a few exceptions regarding a vexing alien that speaks, “Flatula”, Dilbert’s excessive bumbling, and too many gross-out jokes aimed at the younger set, the film is good up to this point. But the mistakes just pile up beginning with a montage showing Jim and Silver’s developing relationship that employs a Goo Goo Dolls original song that is terribly misplaced and dissonant from the entire score. For those highly sensitive to plot holes and scientific adherence and plausibility, be warned. The first rule in fantasy and science fiction is to define the rules - physics, biology, chemistry, magic, matter, energy, society, politics, etc. - early and often. Treasure Planet fails to define its own rules and breaks them right after that montage early and often.
Unbeknownst to the captain, Dilbert, and Jim, Silver will lead a mutiny in order to claim the treasure for himeslf and the rest of his crewmates. And once that mutiny happens, overblown action scene follows overblown action scene. Don’t get me wrong, the animation - which blends traditional 2D with then-developing CGI techniques - is excellent regarding backgrounds and the ship but underwhelming when considering the characters.
In obligatory Disney fashion, there is a cast of supporting characters thrown in for comic relief. First, Silver’s sidekick Morph is a small, pink shapeshifter that has trouble leaving anybody’s side. Morph is awesome and is a welcome character to this ensemble. But then there’s the robot B.E.N. (Martin Short), a lost-for-memory robot marooned on Treasure Planet. who is aimed at those folks who abhor unnecessary, mania-prone, and overtalkative comic relief suporting characters with all the wrath that they can muster. Let’s just say B.E.N. is this film’s Jar Jar Binks and you can see for yourself.
Treasure Planet is a solid technical achievement from Walt Disney Studios and shows how one can (almost) seamlessly blend traditional and more modern elements of animation. The daring, swashbuckling score by James Newton Howard recalls to memory the action/adventure scores of Erich Wolfgang Korngold of many decades past. And yet here again we see a fusion of the new and old - Howard has put in electric guitars to complement the orchestra in key parts of the film and this risk works in accompanying the action onscreen.
But the magic and exquisite sense of wonder that is such a staple of animated films released by this studio? It is absent (and being sandwiched into a weekend between the releases of the second Harry Potter and the second LOTR can’t help). The brainless, franklky shitty filmmaking
As said earlier in this write-up, Treasure Planet was almost a direct reason for Disney’s shift to CGI. With the studio’s well-documented feuds in the upper echelons of management between Roy E. Disney (nephew of Walt) and Michael Eisner, Treasure Planet's commercial and critical failure was vindication for Eisner's background and expertise in conglomerate-driven business and marked the fatal blow for Roy Disney's Walt-based philosophy (Roy, of course, grew up with the studio and thus was grounded in this branch of cinema). Eisner - looking at the success of Pixar and Shrek's Academy Award win for the inaugural class of Best Animated Feature - announced that the studio's attention would turn to 3D animation after Home on the Range (2004) would be released. The following year, Roy Disney would write in a scorching open letter that the Walt Disney Company had become a, “rapacious, soul-less” conglomerate, “always looking for the quick buck”.
Huh, that sound awfully a lot like film studios today, Disney included. In regards to the historical definition of the Hollywood studio system, it seems that regarding studio executives that had backgrounds in film… Walt Disney Studios was the last to fall.
Treasure Planet is not the wholly unforgivable disaster I might have described it just now. Its first act is rather good with characterizing Jim and his family, despite the film’s inclination to lowbrow juvenile humor. Its animation (at least the 2D, the 3D is now dated by today’s standards) will be studied and discussed by those with a more intimate knowledge of animation than yours truly. It is the writing’s lack of intimacy and meaning and individual silly moments that see Treasure Planet easily relegated to the higher end of the worst ten films Walt Disney Animation Studios ever released.
After finishing those last few sentences, something in me almost begs for an animation studio that doesn’t require a quick, easy payday. Something in me begs for a Walt Disney Animated Studios unafraid of taking projects that combine art and entertainment. To reference a motto which spurred a particular studio to become unquestionably the greatest, most powerful film studio at its peak, ars gratia artis. Though that is not Walt Disney’s motto, they have taken it to heart before. They can do so again.
Treasure Planet in the distant future will become a critical film in the Walt Disney animated canon for all the wrong reasons. But to say the film failed to inspire, bring comfort, happiness, and stability to scores of individuals and their families is a gross overstatement. In this sense, Treasure Planet is a member of the Walt Disney animated canon and takes its place for all the right reasons.
My rating: 5/10
^ Based on my personal imdb rating.