By Kim Hollis
May 6, 2003
After an enormously disappointing run in theaters, Disney has released its “Pirates in Space” flick Treasure Planet in a terrific DVD package in hopes that it might be able to find new life. At the time of its theatrical debut in November, the film took in a devastating $38 million at the box office despite generally strong critical reviews and upbeat audience reception. Three months later, Treasure Planet was in the running for an Academy Award, a battle that it would lose to Spirited Away. Ultimately, the failure to capture a larger audience was almost certainly the result of improper marketing, as the film was always billed as more of a sci-fi, teen-targeted cartoon than a true “Disney” flick.
Now that the DVD has hit retail and rental store shelves, Treasure Planet is a movie that bears further examination. It’s by no means a perfect film; in fact, the flaws are egregious enough that although the overall viewing experience is a positive one, the trouble spots are so jarring that the spectator is taken out of the movie. Even so, there’s plenty to recommend the film - the spectacular visuals alone make Treasure Planet a worthwhile watch.
The story is loosely based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic 1883 novel Treasure Island, taking the tale of a boy who goes out to sea amidst pirates for a treasure hunt and updating it for the 21st century by putting the old-time galleons and characters of yore in a futuristic space setting. Like Atlantis before it, Treasure Planet is partially sci-fi animation, a genre that has spelled doom for movies such as Final Fantasy and Titan A.E. It’s actually a shame that audiences are prejudiced against this format in this case, because the scenes set on and around the pirate space ships are absolutely breathtaking.
To design the ships that we see onscreen, animators used a unique approach where they made the galleons 70% old design with 30% imagined or new technology. What this concept allows is a unique combination of sailing ships of yore with new science, meaning that the ships utilize rocket propulsion along with sails, while cannonballs instead become “laser balls.” Thanks to these visionary ideals, the flight scenes are spectacular, utilizing a combination of CGI and 2D animation to bring this visionary new world to life. These scenes of space adventure take place from the outset of the film, starting with the illustration of a story book that Jim Hawkins reads as a young child, and transitioning straight into a terrific scene where he rides a “space board” across his home planet. The episodes are merely a taste of things to come later in the film, though.
When Jim and Co. depart the Montressor Space Station, the sight is truly a feast for the eyes. The audience sees a full view of the carefully-rendered ship, but along with that, there are other craft “sailing” the skies, along with “manta birds” that circle the ship. They actually look like white versions of the monsters from Pitch Black, but it’s a great effect nonetheless. After another few moments, the galleon encounters whales, and they are a pretty sight indeed. There are many other gorgeous scenes like this one, and the fact that they generally appear during crucial moments of conflict only adds to the overall effect.
Pretty pictures aren’t much good without a compelling story, of course, and Treasure Planet largely succeeds on this level as well, thanks mostly to the two main characters. Jim Hawkins is the kind of teenager any kid might identify with; he lives in a single-parent household and suffers all of the growing pains that accompany the long-time separation from his father. Jim is rebellious and sullen, yet it’s easy to see glimpses of the child who craves adventure and exploration beyond his own narrow world. Voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, young Jim is never so over-the-top in his “teen-ness” that he’s irritating, but rather a pretty fair portrayal of the character in Stevenson’s book.
Mr. Silver, aka Long John Silver, is a rather complex foil who doesn’t fall into the typical Disney good/evil mold. For the purposes of Treasure Planet, he’s a cyborg, so rather than having a hook, he has a mechanical arm, and in place of an eye patch is a pin-point, laser vision eye. As pirate leader of a band of alien thugs, he’s the villain of the story, but at the same time, he takes Jim under his wing and becomes a father figure of sorts to the lad. Though that portion of the story is a little bit heavy-handed (fortunately, it’s actually less so than it would have been if a deleted scene had been included), it is at least heartfelt and conflict-laden. Brian Murray (not to be confused with Brian Doyle Murray) provides Mr. Silver with his voice, and the accent is great, with an inflection totally appropriate for the character. Silver’s little pet, Morph, is a lot of fun as well. As sidekicks go, the little shape-shifter is unobtrusive, yet he helps to move the plot along.
On the other hand, the movie’s second sidekick is absolutely groan-inducing. If C-3PO ever bugged you even for a second in the Star Trek films, B.E.N. is going to make you long for the halcyon days of arguments with R2-D2. B.E.N. is a necessary plot device intended to fill in a few loose portions of the story, and he feels superfluous in addition to being almost unbelievably annoying. He’s loud, not funny, and not even particularly well-designed animation-wise. Blame the Jimmy Glick show – Martin Short, who hasn’t been funny since
Father of the Bride Innerspace SCTV, provides the voice of the obnoxious robot. Yes, the character is supposed to be annoying. Unfortunately, he’s not just irritating in that Roger Rabbit way, he’s bothersome in almost every definition of the word.
On a similar note, Doctor Doppler isn’t so much unbearable as he just isn’t all that likeable. In that sense, he bears a pretty striking resemblance to the character most frequently associated with voice provider David Hyde Pierce. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that Doppler isn’t that well imagined and is basically a cartoon version of Pierce’s Niles from the television series Frasier. Emma Thompson provides the voice of Captain Amelia, but is largely wasted in the role even though the character is rather fun in her own little bossy way.
One very disappointing aspect of the film is that with all the stunning outer space visuals, the alien crew is not all that creatively rendered. Most of the characters look the same, with a washed out grey color being their big distinguishing characteristic. None are particularly memorable, save one creature who speaks fluent “flatula” (toilet humor is sadly always a bastion of the Disney flick) along with the film’s only true evil villain, Scroop, who is set apart by his pincers and red and black coloration. By the time the movie’s ended, though, they’re all largely forgotten.
And perhaps that’s Treasure Planet’s real downfall. Though the visuals are certainly impressive and remain etched in one’s mind, the characters fade away. While the movie could have been a landmark in animation, it winds up being just a trifle, with spectators recalling that it’s pretty but very little else.