What Went Wrong: Treasure Planet
By Shalimar Sahota
November 24, 2011
This will go into a few spoilers, so if you haven’t seen Treasure Planet… well, I wouldn’t be all that surprised if you’ve never even heard of the film.
Treasure Planet is a crazy adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Disney had originally adapted Stevenson’s story back in 1950, their first live-action feature film (in Technicolor kids). Treasure Planet transports the story into a sci-fi setting and is kinda Steampunk-like, reminding me a lot of Sega’s Skies of Arcadia.
Jim Hawkins (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has grown up reading tales about the legendary Captain Flint, a pirate who would raid passing ships only to store his gold on Treasure Planet. Years later, Jim is helping his mother Sarah (Laurie Metcalf) run an inn and trying to avoid getting into trouble while solar surfing. One day a spaceship crashes outside, with the dying alien warning Jim to “beware the cyborg.” Before passing he gives Jim a strange-looking golden sphere, which just so happens to be a map to the fabled Treasure Planet. Along with his mother’s friend Dr. Delbert Doppler (David Hyde Pierce), they commission a ship and assign Captain Amelia (Emma Thompson) to lead their adventure. Jim is sent to work in the kitchen alongside John Silver (Brian Murry), a cook who also happens to be a cyborg.
One of the most interesting things about Treasure Planet is that Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, the duo behind the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, have a story credit. They revealed that they did a draft of the screenplay for directors Ron Clemens and John Musker right after they had finished Aladdin, but it was put on the back burner. The film didn’t really get into full swing till mid-1997, with animation starting in 2000. The initial teaser trailer showcased flying sailing ships and Jim solar surfing but didn’t really explain the story. With the second theatrical trailer, Disney appeared to be selling something that could be an animated sci-fi epic.
Treasure Planet accumulated a "why-the hell-is-this-costing" $140 million production budget and opened during the Thanksgiving weekend in the US on Wednesday, November 27, 2002. It opened at #4, with a disappointing five-day weekend gross of $16.5 million (its three day gross was $12.08 million). It was the same weekend that Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets had moved back up to the top spot in its third week. Treasure Planet managed just $38.1 million at the US box office. To really rub it in, it failed to outgross the likes of Disney’s The Fox and The Hound, Oliver and Company, and Basil: The Great Mouse Detective domestically, all of which were released in the 1980s! It fared a little better overseas, enjoying a lot of success in France and the UK, as its foreign box office totalled $71.4 million. With a worldwide gross of a little over $105 million, Treasure Planet became one of Disney’s biggest flops.
It’s a little difficult trying to work out why Treasure Planet failed to connect with audiences. “Maybe we didn't do a good enough job to entice an audience to want to come,” said Disney’s Chairman at the time, Richard Cook. He felt that maybe the film was, “too serious and earnest in the marketing,” and that “maybe we should have stressed other elements to make it fun and exciting.” However, the marketing for the film (rumored to have cost an additional $40 million) was overshadowed by commercials for the boy wizard as Disney underestimated just how big a franchise Harry Potter would become.