Disney Animated Features
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Release Date: 27 November 2002
Treasure Island -- in space.
No doubt that's a phrase Ron Clements and John Musker used back in 1985 when they first pitched the idea of Treasure Planet to the new top brass at The Walt Disney Company. Treasure Planet was just one of several story ideas they presented then, and it was shelved in favor of The Great Mouse Detective and, later, The Little Mermaid. Now, after several successful films (including Aladdin and Hercules), the two directors have returned to their old story idea and brought it to the big screen.
The really big screen. The IMAX screen.
While Treasure Planet was of course released to normal theaters, it was also shown on IMAX screens at the same time. This was the first film Disney released in both formats at the same time; Fantasia 2000 was exclusively IMAX for four months, and Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King only arrived in IMAX format eight years after their original theatrical runs.
The basic story is familiar to anyone who knows Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island or one of its many film adaptations, but the details are what make this film unique.
Jim Hawkins is a discontented but intelligent fifteen-year-old, whose only joy is performing acrobatic stunts on solar surfers. His mother, Sarah, is as lonely as the inn she runs, ever since her husband left them. After Jim has yet another run-in with the law, both he and Sarah wonder if he has any kind of future. Then a spacecraft crashes at the inn, and the old pirate inside gives Jim a strange gold sphere just before he dies. This is a valuable item, though, and the inn is soon burnt down by pirates looking to get it for themselves. Jim and his mother escape with the help of Dr. Doppler, an old family friend.
Jim quickly discovers how to unlock the gold sphere, and it displays a holographic map to the location of Treasure Planet -- the legendary place where the fearsome pirate Flint once kept his vast hoard. Dr. Doppler, eager for adventure, volunteers to fund an expedition to find the Planet, and he and Jim are soon on their way. Doppler hires the RLS Legacy, with her unflappable Captain, Amelia, and stalwart first mate, Mr. Arrow. He also hires a crew for the ship, with considerably less success. The crew is a rowdy bunch of aliens led by the ship's cyborg cook, one John Silver. And once the ship reaches Treasure Planet, mutiny is in the air...
The characters in Treasure Planet are well-realized, and all but the meanest of the pirates are quite likeable. Jim Hawkins, voiced by Third Rock From the Sun's Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is a sympathetic protagonist; he's always dreamed of finding Treasure Planet, not for the money, but for the sheer adventure of it all, and being stuck on some out-of-the-way planet is suffocating him. His mother, voiced by Laurie Metcalf (who also voiced the mother in the Toy Story films), has a small role, but it's an effective one; her emotions and reactions are realistic and help motivate Jim.
The caninoid Dr. Doppler, voiced by David Hyde Pierce (Frasier's Dr. Niles Crane), is the typical nebbish-y Ph.D., a brilliant and fortunately rich astrophysicist who sees a bit of himself in Jim's adventurousness. Emma Thompson voices Captain Amelia, a felinoid woman and outstanding commander with nerves of steel and an extremely dry wit. Her loyal first mate, Mr. Arrow (Roscoe Lee Browne, previously Francis in Oliver and Company), seems to be made of granite, both in personality and in actual physical composition.
John Silver is excellently voiced by a relative unknown, Brian Murray. Silver is a fearsome pirate indeed, but, while it's not quite accurate (and far too clichéd) to say he has a heart of gold, he does grow to care about Jim a great deal. The relationship between Silver and Jim is believable and well-developed, and some credit must be given to Murray's portrayal. Silver's companion is not a parrot, but rather a shapeshifting blob with a talent for mimicry, named Morph.
Rounding out the main cast is BEN, an amnesiac navigation robot voiced by Martin Short. BEN, shipwrecked on Treasure Planet for a century or so, fills the role of 'wacky comic relief'; fortunately, he doesn't show up until halfway through the film, so his occassionally annoying schtick doesn't completely wear out its welcome.
The animation and special effects are excellent, as usual. The integration of computer animation and traditional animation is getting better with every movie Disney releases. Here, such integration is exemplified in the character of John Silver. While his human parts are hand-drawn, Silver's cybernetic right arm, right leg, and right eye are computer-generated. The combination of the two techniques in one character, for the first time that I'm aware of, is virtually seamless. Disney continues to advance the technology and the art of animation.
Unlike Disney's previous action/adventure film, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Treasure Planet does have a single song ("I'm Still Here"); it's used to illustrate a montage of scenes between John Silver and Jim that develops their relationship. The writer and vocalist is John Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls.
It's notable not that this film was rated PG by the MPAA, but that said rating attracted no media attention. As the third Disney Animated Feature to get that rating, it seems the stereotype of the innocuous G-rated Disney film is finally dissolving. Along with Atlantis (and, to some extent, Lilo & Stitch), Treasure Planet proves that Disney can make an exciting action/adventure film; they no longer have to depend on a romance or on characters breaking out into song to carry the movie.
Unfortunately, the film did poorly at the box office. Sandwiched in the middle of a busy holiday season, it was forced to compete with the very popular movies Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, The Santa Clause 2, and Die Another Day -- and that was just during its opening weekend. It looks like Disney will have to wait for the video/DVD release to recoup the whopping $140 million they spent to make the film. This is the most financially disappointing Disney release in some time, and it's not clear why; it's entertaining, adventurous, and very well-made. While Disney may be doing well with its animated features artistically, the secrets to financial and critical success remain elusive.
After three science fiction stories in a row, it looks as if Disney will be returning to their roots a bit, with the 2003 film Brother Bear...
Information for the Disney Animated Features series of nodes comes from the IMDb (www.imdb.com), Frank's Disney Page (http://www.fpx.de/fp/Disney/), and the dark recesses of my own memory.
18 December 2002: Updated writeup after seeing the movie. I tried not to completely supercede magicmanzach's writeup below.
11 February 2003: Oscar nominations came out today, and Treasure Planet is on the list for Best Animated Feature, along with Lilo & Stitch. Stiff competition from the anime Spirited Away may result in both Disney films losing out. Treasure Planet received several Annie nominations, but no wins.
8 September 2003: Updated the title of the next feature from Bears to Brother Bear; like many films, this one has changed titles during its production.