Treasure Planet offers the daring concept of combining worlds. It launches Robert Louis Stevenson classic novel into space, forces traditional animation with computer animation and offers up the struggle of being a kid and a man. Not all of these combinations work to the movie’s benefit. Being one of the costliest movies of all time sentences any film to a life of shame, and yet, even for all of its flaws, Treasure Planet is a far better result than its box-office figures.
Helmed by Ron Clements and John Musker, who singlehandedly opened the Renaissance for Disney Animation, Treasure Planet surely could have been the movie that saved that former brand. Except that it is a completely different movie than the successful string of musicals that Clements and Musker perfected. There are no princesses, no major bad guys or even a lot of heartwarming character beats. Instead, Treasure Planet is firm in its portrayal of a boy struggling to become a man. It obviously didn’t connect with audiences at the time, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t relatable.
First of all, the space piracy works exceptionally well. Not only because it allows the gang of bad guys to be horrendous or humorous monsters, but also because it poses far more compelling dangers than known earthly challenges. Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio contributed to the story shortly before their Pirates of the Caribbean franchise would succeed through combining piracy with fantasy. Though Treasure Planet is a far cry from that fun, energetic series, it does level with its adventurous, unpredictable format. Halfway through the story, the movie has already surprised with character betrayals, beautiful scenery and strong action. The unpredictability might also be what alienated some viewers, because none of the characters are clear cut on their intend or ultimate destination aside from Jim Hawkins (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) himself. John Silver (Brian Murray) is difficult to empathize with precisely because he’s so unreliable. A character introduced later on, B.E.N. (Martin Short) induces a complete new tone into the movie that feels off and somewhat uncalled for. Luckily that unpredictability can also be used for good, embodied in sidekick Morph (Dane A. Davis) who’s decision between Hawkins and Silver is a fun beat. The bond between the boy and the cook, for all its conflicting interests and twists and turns, is however a valuable asset. There’s not a lot of warmth to be found, but there’s a level of complexity and maturity that’s rare for the studio. Of course there’s a satisfying end, but Jim’s education is an engaging journey, surely partially because of Stevenson.
The animation, however, is painful over a decade later. Some of the CGI is as awful as it was in 2002, only now it could probably be improved by someone Jim’s age. If the reason to set the story in space was to lure modern audiences, than it might as well be the half-baked attempt at cool computer graphics that held the movie back. There’s a moment when whale-like beasts float alongside the ship, reminiscent of a Fantasia 2000 scene, but instead of impressive, it’s downright distracting how awful the creatures look. Traditional animation has the luxury of not needing to look realistic, as demonstrated by the large cast of made-up creatures, so it’s a question of why the artists chose to rely on computers so prominently. Where the movie doesn’t fall short is the excellent sound department, tasked with making coins and lasers sound convincing simultaneously or using an array of mechanical sounds to make a cyborg walk. The music by James Newton Howard strengthens the sense of adventure to infinity and the two rock songs, by John Rzeznik capture the angst, restlessness and importance of being a young misfit perfectly, offering both a pleasant and heartfelt montage and a exciting ending. Then there’s the decision to focus on Jim’s personal growth as well as his bond with his mother, while keeping his childhood abandonment decisively backstory, also gives the movie a contemporary feel no lasergun or computer rendered shot ever could. It is the humanity of Jim’s struggle, his inability to utilize his talents within the restraints of his society, to overcome his childhood trauma and the feeling of utter futility of bettering his prospects, that accomplish exactly what the space setting and 3D set out to do; translate an old story for modern audiences.
Treasure Planet is a better movie than lists or box-office figures remember it to be. It blends 18th century living with imaginative space, coming-of-age with childhood fantasies and gorgeous 2D scenery with questionable 3D. It’s a strange package of contradictions, but that oddity only adds to its merits. Treasure Planet will be remembered for its lackluster performance and for that it is tucked away into the far corner of cinematic history. But it is redeeming enough to be valuable, for those who know where to find it.