A Study in Disney: ‘Treasure Planet’ (2002)

| February 9, 2022

Animated Film Reviews: Treasure Planet (2002) - Science Fiction Take on Treasure  Island

Pretty much the universal criticism that follows Treasure Planet is based around the ill-advised concept of relocating Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1883 novel “Treasure Island” into a futuristic steampunk science fiction landscape.  And yes, it is a valid criticism.  Why would Stevenson’s seminal work need rockets and laser beams?  Aren’t the adventures on the high seas with Long John Silver and Jim Hawkins on the trail of buried treasure enough excitement on their own?

The arguments are sound, but so too is the difficulty of flushing the entire project completely down the drain.  Here is a movie teeming with high adventure, likable characters and visual splendor.  When it comes to the actual craft, this is an astonishing achievement and it is especially poignant when you know the long and difficult trek that it took getting to the screen.

Treasure Planet was a dream project for John Musker and Ron Clements who first came to newly-hired Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg with the idea back in 1985.  The pair showed up in a meeting with two ideas in hand – one was “Treasure Island in Space” and the other was The Little Mermaid.  Katzenberg wasn’t sold on the “Treasure Island in Space” idea but gave the thumbs up to The Little Mermaid, which was so good that it effectively became the launching pad for a massive reevaluation of the animated cinematic form, i.e.: The Disney Renaissance.  Over the next decade, Katzenberg would make the pair jump through hoops making other projects largely to avoid having to greenlight their dream project.  Fortunately for the company, two of those hoops were The Little Mermaid and Aladdin.

The stalled gestation of Treasure Planet only ended once Katzenberg stepped down, which has been cited as a benefit because the delay in greenlighting the production allowed the technology to catch up.  And it is true, the advancement in computer animation allows the film a glorious texture in both the characters, the environment and in the new venture of 3D animation.  When the ships turn, you feel that you are standing in place while the ship is turning in front of you.  When the characters move, there is a feeling of actual dimension involved unlike previously when they just seemed to be flat on a flat background.

Even more surprising are some character nuances that would typically get lost in a movie this big.  Jim Hawkins (voiced by Joseph Gordon Levitt) is an adventurous kid who is constantly getting into trouble but he has a deep and meaningful relationship with his mother Sarah (voiced by Laurie Metcalf) – par for the course in a Disney adventure.  Jim is haunted by the loss of his father who simply walked out on him as a child – wow!  That’s deep.

The absence of a father is integral to who Jim will become as he moves into manhood.  He’s independent but there’s always something about his nature that needs a father figure.  That figure is presented in the form of the half-human/half-cyborg called Long John Silver; he’s a pirate with a crew of scalawags at his service.  Silver is interesting because while his affections for Jim seem genuine, his loyalties remain in question even with regards to the new kid (remember: he’s a pirate!)

The supporting players are interesting largely because of the life that the voice actors give them.  Emma Thompson plays a cat-like captain of the ship who you can sense is smarter than everyone else.  Michael Wincott plays a really interesting shipman whose mind is on mutiny.  David Hyde-Pierce plays Dr. Doppler who is your typical bookish scientist.  And Martin Short is a screwy robot named B.E.N., whose mannerisms are very . . . well, Martin Short.

The most interesting character is Long John Silver’s . . . parrot?  He’s a tiny blob of purple goo named Morph who can float around and shapeshift and transform into virtually any shape.  He’s so unrelentingly cute and so interesting that you almost wish that he had a bigger role.

The characters and the settings are all there, but again, it all stumbles on the concept.  Right out of the gate you find yourself resisting the idea of transplanting “Treasure Island” to a world of laser guns and robots.  To be sure, it is not an unreasonable idea but the way that it is presented here makes it hard to get attached to the world.  There is little to no orientation to it.  There are robots and gadgets and electronics but the characters are dressed like they are from the 19th century.  The ships fly through the vacuum of space but they have sails and move like ships on the water.  They are open-air, meaning that they don’t have a bubble dome or a means of generating breathable air.  Sure, it’s a fantasy, but even a fantasy has to have some rules, it has to have some measure of orientation so that we can get comfortable in its technology.

The sci-fi elements lay on top of the story without ever really feeling integral to them.  When you see viewscreens and dials on the deck of a giant galleon it’s more of a distraction.  And since the ships are sailing through space, you have to wonder why the ships have rudders and a wheel.  What are they turning against?  If you wanted to study how this could be done, look at the nebula scene in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn in which the Enterprise is pitted against a fellow ship, the stolen U.S.S. Reliant.  That movie understood the three-dimensional playing field of space matched against the kinds of nautical maneuvers that would be possible with the technology involved.  They are still using the same sorts of maneuvers as a ship on the sea, but the story is re-oriented to space where the ships could literally move in any direction.  When the captain in Treasure Planet is pulling the wheel hard to starboard it makes no logical sense.  It’s aggravating.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.