This is the ninth addition in an ongoing series that will form a comprehensive review of the ‘official’ Walt Disney Animation Studio’s canon – from 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs through 2016’s Moana, and beyond.
For reference, here is a complete list of the films in the Disney canon.
- Film: Treasure Planet
- Year: 2002
- Directors: Ron Clements and John Musker
- Length: 95 Minutes
- Source Material: ‘Treasure Island’ by Robert Louis Stevenson (British novel from 1883) and ‘Treasure Island in Outer Space’ (Italian TV mini-series from 1987)
- Official Budget: $140 Million
- Official Box Office: $109.6 Million
While total production time for Treasure Planet was about 4 1/2 years, the initial pitch from Ron Clements was delivered in the mid-1980s, at the same time he was conceiving The Little Mermaid. Box office returns show that Treasure Planet did not reach the intended audience; and key production decisions may have been a factor. Co-writer Rob Edwards reasoned the changes made to the Caribbean sea adventure to make it a space-set adventure was to ‘make the story as exciting for kids now as the book was for kids then.’ Early writing and production decisions were made at Disney to hope for the space locale to be more inviting to viewers, such as no space suits and space ships modeled after pirate ships instead of the typical futuristic look. In order to balance this out with the source material, director Ron Clements pushed for a ’70/30 Law’; 70% of the film’s artwork would be traditional, with 30% being science fiction based. With all of this in mind, Treasure Planet ended up being one of the earlier Disney productions to integrate hand-drawn animation with computer generated graphics.
Mixed reviews from critics were followed by poor ticket sales. Ranking only #4 in its opening weekend box office gross, Treasure Planet is considered one of the most expensive box office bombs of all time. A sequel was quickly abandoned after the disappointing box office numbers came in.
After viewing Treasure Planet, it can be seen why this film wasn’t a hit at the box office. A male oriented adventure film with no real female pro- or antagonist for women viewers to identify with made this a movie for boys. There is no princess to win over, or strong-willed warrior/princess to root for. Losing half your ticket sales before you even start is never a smart look. Regardless, Ron Clements and John Musker have made an accomplished story worth investing time in, if given a chance. Following its rich story source material, young protagonist Jim Hawkins sets out aboard the RLS Legacy in search of the titular planet. Treasure Planet is more of a conventional action movie than most Disney films, with plot development and exposition being tied together with eye-popping chases and battle sequences. Changing loyalties, emotionally driven storylines, and big-time action set pieces throughout make this caper balanced from start to end, with no lull moments.
In search of a father figure, after being abandoned by his at a young age, and eager for adventure; Jim Hawkins is a complex character for a children’s movie. Skewing to the older end of Disney audience range; Jim is capable and smart, and equal parts troubled and vulnerable. He searches for treasure and for purpose. A little too old to be getting away with the bad-boy behavior anymore, Jim is being pushed into manhood without much of an example; and creates a uniquely complex Disney protagonist. Aladdin may be self-assured, and Mowgli is bright-eyed; but Jim Hawkins is complicated, and that makes for an engaging character to follow along with.
Onboard the RLS Legacy is a strong group of alien and alien-like characters. John Silver is the ship’s cyborg cook, whose suspicious allegiances make him out to be equal parts friend and foe. Jim projects his need for a father figure onto John. Depending on his mood, John welcomes the interactions. John Silver’s sidekick Morph, a small alien creature capable of shape-shifting at whim, is the prototypical Disney side-kick; in the vein of Pocohanta’s Flit and Ariel’s Flounder. John and Jim are joined by the alient doctor Delbert Doppler; and Captain Amelia, the strong-willed leader of their excursion. Martin Short voices a memorable turn as a robot they find stranded on the eponymous Treasure Planet, and has lost his mind after being long forgotten by the outside world.
Treasure Planet was made at a time when Disney had the capabilities to make CGI stylized animation, but not yet the ability to do it well. Treasure Planet for the most part – probably 90% – is hand-drawn animation, or at least hand-drawn-like animation. In those situations, the colors and style resemble classic storybook illustrations, with warm palettes and soft backgrounds. However, there are some scenes where Disney included CGI elements ontop of the traditional animation, to perhaps create a scene of depth or point of focus; but it looks so far out of place in style that it ruins the good work done by the animators. If only Treasure Planet had decided what it wanted to be – a classic swashbuckling painting, or cheap-o Toy Story, it would have at least been confident in what it was trying to be. Instead, the scenes of mixed media are incongruous; as if the animators had finished something good, but someone else decided it wasn’t enough and added something extra that ruined the whole scene.
Most of the music in Treasure Planet is structured as orchestral background, but the film does include the pop hit ‘I’m Still Here’ from the Goo Goo Dolls’ Johnny Rzeznik. Played over a scene of storyline exposition that builds the relationship between Jim and John Silver, ‘I’m Still here’ is one of the better modern pop songs to feature in a Disney film; and would probably have been a small radio hit regardless of its inclusion in the film. Nonetheless, Treasure Planet can’t get much of a better rating here when there is only one noteworthy song.
Treasure Planet puts its’ source material to good use, and the directing team of Musker and Clements formulates an engrossing storyline though its’ defined characters. Regardless of the positives, Treasure Planet is kept from being a must-see because the production tinkered too much with the setting and animation to vie for something original and evolved; and turned it into a finished project that felt conflicted and disparate.