Treasure Planet (2002)
Directed by John Musker and Ron Clements
Jim Hawkins is a teenaged human on the planet Montressor, who spends his days joyriding on a rocket-powered surfboard and avoiding helping his mother run the Benbow Inn. One day, a spaceship crash-lands near the inn, and Jim rescues the injured pilot, who gives him a metal sphere and tells him to “beware the cyborg” before dying. Pirates break into the inn shortly thereafter, and Jim and his mother flee with the help of a family friend, Dr. Doppler, as the inn burns down.
At Doppler’s lab, they discover that the sphere is actually a treasure map, showing the way to the hidden planet where the legendary pirate Captain Flint hid all of his loot. Jim and Dr. Doppler decide to charter an expedition to seek out this treasure. Onboard the spaceship RLS Legacy, Jim is reluctantly put to work as a cabin boy under the tutelage of the ship’s cyborg cook, John Silver. The crew that Dr. Doppler hired is less than reputable, and Jim harbors suspicions that Silver is the cyborg that he was warned about. Despite these misgivings, however, Silver takes Jim under his wing, and Jim begins to see him as a surrogate father figure.
During the voyage, the ship encounters an unexpected supernova. One of the crewmates deliberately cuts the lifeline of the first mate, Mr. Arrow, causing him to be lost overboard, and then frames Jim for it. While seeking reassurance from Silver that he did in fact secure the lifeline, Jim overhears Silver discussing plans for mutiny with the crew. He warns the captain, and she escapes with him and Dr. Doppler in one of the lifeboats. They get shot down by the ship’s cannons on the surface of Treasure Planet.
While searching for a place to hide, they encounter a robot, B.E.N., that had been left there by Captain Flint. B.E.N. leads them to his shelter, where they get cornered by Silver and his pirates. Jim sneaks out through a secret passage and retrieves the map from the ship, but arrives back at the shelter to find Silver inside and his friends captive. He reluctantly uses the map to lead Silver to the treasure at the center of the planet.
In doing so, they trip Flint’s booby traps, causing the entire planet to self-destruct. Silver attempts to escape on a ship loaded with treasure, but abandons it to save Jim’s life. The survivors make it back to the Legacy, and Jim uses his spaceboarding skills to active Captain Flint’s teleporter, allowing them to escape back to Montressor right before the planet explodes. In return for saving him, Jim decides to let Silver escape custody before he can be brought up on piracy charges. As thanks, Silver gives him just enough treasure to rebuild the family inn.
Treasure Planet is a movie that John Musker and Ron Clements had been trying to make for literally over a decade. They had originally pitched the idea for a “Treasure Island in space” all the way back during the famous Gong Show session where Little Mermaid had been greenlit, in 1985. They tried to get the Disney execs interested in the idea multiple times over the course of the Renaissance, but neither Eisner nor Katzenberg were particularly interested in pirate movies, animated or otherwise.
Eventually, tired of hearing about it, Katzenberg decided to cut them a deal. Pocahontas had just been a financial disappointment for the studio, so Katzenberg told them if they could produce a financially successful film, they’d give Treasure Planet serious consideration. Musker and Clements were assigned Hercules, and though artistically a bit weak it turned a better profit than either Pocahontas or Hunchback had. So after a decade of constant haranguing, their passion project was finally put into production.
Now that they had the go-ahead, actually making the movie proved to be just as challenging. Due to the extensive number of computer effects involved, the crew ballooned to over 400 people, the largest number to work on any Disney project to that point. The Deep Canvas technology that had debuted with Tarzan was put to work making full 360 environment to place the hand-drawn characters into. They could actually rotate each set as needed to fit the camera angle that the animators wanted, instead of having to draw just the portion they needed every time.
Unfortunately, computer effects, especially with fairly new technologies like Deep Canvas, were not cheap. Treasure Planet’s budget bloated just as much as its crew manifest had, zooming to a then unheard-of $140 million. That made it the most expensive hand-drawn animated movie of all time. With numbers like that, and the ensuing worldwide marketing and distribution costs, Treasure Planet would have had to be a hit of Beauty and the Beast or Lion King proportions to turn a profit for the studio.
It, alas, wasn’t.
It came out around Thanksgiving time in 2002, in a holiday movie season already being dominated by the second Harry Potter movie. Despite overall positive reviews, with much praise being devoted to the movie’s visuals, it opened a dismal fourth at the box office, by far the worst showing for a Disney film since the 1980s. Treasure Planet only ended up grossing a total of about $38 million in the US, and didn’t even make its production budget back when the international market was factored in. Not only was it Disney’s biggest flop of all time, topping the box office disasters of Sleeping Beauty and The Black Cauldron, but it made it onto the list of biggest bombs of all time, period. Musker and Clements, two of the driving forces behind the Renaissance, weren’t immediately given the boot. But when the execs refused to greenlight their next project, they both resigned from Disney, another sign that an era was well and truly over.
I’d only seen this movie once before now, probably over a decade ago, and didn’t remember it very much at all. And a lot of what I *thought* I remembered about it probably got conflated in my mind with the similar Don Bluth movie Titan A.E. that was released around the same time. So I really didn’t have a lot of expectations going into Treasure Planet at all.
Consequently, I’m very surprised that I ended up liking it as much as I did. It feels very much in the same spirit as the earlier Atlantis, only with the pieces in much better alignment. It’s definitely not a perfect film, by any means. But you hear about it even less than you do Hunchback these days, and I think that it is ripe for rediscovery.
First of all, the movie’s production design and general “steampunk + Napoleonic navy” aesthetic (sailpunk, maybe?) is often times simply breathtaking. I especially love the spaceport built to resemble a crescent moon when viewed from the planet it’s orbiting. And while Disney may have leaned a little too hard on the “aliens = anthropomorphic animals” concept (probably to make them easier to draw for animators used to doing animal characters), there’s enough variety and strangeness to make things seem extraterrestrial without being too outlandish.
This look, of course, was enhanced through the heaviest use of CG yet in a Disney film (not counting Dinosaur, which was only added to the canon retroactively). Often the main characters were the only things in the frame that were hand-drawn at all. And sure, some of the time the early-2000s era CG stood out quite noticeably. But a lot of times, especially when Deep Canvas was being used for backgrounds, the effect was pretty seamless. Looking at Treasure Planet, it’s actually pretty understandable why Disney eventually went to all-computer animation. They were already heading there anyway, even without the continued failures of their traditionally animated films. I just think that it would have been a much more organic progression than it was if they’d had more financial success early on.
As far as the actual plot of the film, it’s a fairly fun adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson story. It covers pretty much all of the plot beats, with some concessions for the sci-fi setting. One very noticeable change it makes from the source material is aging up the protagonist. In the original, Jim Hawkins is in his early teens, and the book is very much a coming-of-age story. Treasure Planet’s Jim is noticeably older, probably about college aged, and the story is less one of growing up and more one of Jim finding his confidence and direction in life.
In both cases, the pirate leader Long John Silver plays an important mentor role. In Treasure Planet, this surrogate father-son relationship becomes the central relationship of the movie. While he’s definitely the villain of the movie, Silver also seems to genuinely care for Hawkins. It’s perhaps the most sympathetic portrayal of a Disney villain that I can recall off-hand. When Jim lets Silver escape at the end to save him from the gallows, it’s a decision that makes perfect sense in context. The world of Treasure Planet is a more interesting place with Silver still in it.
Unfortunately, the focus on the Hawkins/Silver relationship means that most of the other characters are underutilized. A lot of them end up becoming one-note characters: the captain is “competent and proper”, the doctor is “eccentric”, the robot B.E.N. is “comedy relief character.” The captain and the doctor are shown as a couple with children at the end, but that relationship gets maybe a combined five minutes of screentime before that point. Overall, though, I got a better feeling for these characters than I did the ones in Atlantis, so at least it’s a step up. And Atlantis didn’t have anything close to Hawkins and Silver.
I had really low expectations going into this one, so I was very pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed it. While it never reaches the heights of the best of the Renaissance, it compares well in my opinion to later Renaissance films like Hercules or Tarzan. I just think it was a case of coming out in the wrong era, when Pixar and Dreamworks’s Shrek franchise were pushing the industry firmly in a different direction.
Animation: A- (Disney’s CG still isn’t 100% ready for prime-time, but I still find the look of the movie to be outstanding)
Main Characters: B+ (This is actually a hard one to rank. Individually, Hawkins is pretty much just the “angry young man with a single mom” trope. But together, him and Silver are better than anything else in the film. I guess I’ll split the difference and give it a B+)
Supporting Characters: B- (The designs are great. A+ there. I just wish that pretty much anyone other than Jim and Silver had anything to do)
Villains: B+ (Again, splitting the difference)
Music: B (I enjoyed the score, but the songs – one during a montage and the other over the credits – are probably the most dated thing about the movie)