Once upon a time, there were two directors by the names of John Musker and Ron Clements. These two men co-directed The Great Mouse Detective in 1986 alongside Burny Mattinson and Dave Michener. The two directors later collaborated together on their next movie, 1989’s The Little Mermaid. Then again for 1992’s Aladdin. Then again for 1997’s Hercules. All the while, Clements and Musker had been nursing a pet project and were repeatedly bringing it up to studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg. But every time, Katzenberg said no, and shooed then onto other projects.
By summer of 1997, Hercules was released to theaters and Katzenberg had already left the Disney studio three years prior after butting heads with Michael Eisner over the vacant President seat left by Frank Wells. Regardless, the men had built up enough credit to be able to finally, finally proceed on the project they’d been pitching since 1985: Treasure Island…but in space. The movie took over four years and cost $140 million to make, but its failure at the box office is what makes it such a compelling case study.
Strap in for some space sagas on some celestial silver screen! Let’s fly across the galaxy with Treasure Planet!
The plot: Young Jim Hawkins, a troubled fifteen-year-old on the planet Montressor, has multiple run-ins with the law, much to the stress of his haggard mother, who struggles to operate the inn on her own. One evening, an old man crashes at the inn, carrying a golden sphere, trusting Hawkins to keep it safe from “the cyborg”. Soon, a crew of pirates storm the inn and destroy it, with Jim, his mother, and family friend Dr. Doppler to escape.
They soon discover the sphere is actually a projection map leading to Treasure Planet, a celestial body once thought to be only legend, and the home to pirate Captain Nathaniel Flint’s trove: the loot of a thousand worlds. Jim and Doppler board the ship, the R.L.S. Legacy, and take to the stars to find the lost treasure. But Jim becomes wary of trouble when the ship’s cook, John Silver, a cyborg, just may or may not be hiding pirate-like intentions.
How’s the writing?: Before tackling this movie, co-writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio also wrote the screenplay for Disney’s Aladdin and Dreamworks’ Shrek, and after Treasure Planet, the duo re-flexed their pirate dialogue skills in writing Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl. But this sci-fi tale definitely feels like a prototype script.
Don’t get me wrong: as a pirate movie, it’s fine. Structurally, it hits all the story beats you expect from Treasure Island. Even the dialogue in most parts works well. But…there are times when it just doesn’t gel. For example, for an extraterrestrial – a human, but an extraterrestrial nonetheless – Jim sure seems to have a keen understanding what a “bug” and a “spider” is. It’s sort of odd, considering how nonchalant he is with other alien species (Well, except that one he thought was a head on another alien. His reaction there said it all.). Or, for all intents and purposes, why Doppler and Captain Amelia are dog-people and cat people? They’re great designs, but it’s a little too terrestrial a perspective, isn’t it?
Then there are aspects that feels straight out of the late nineties, early aughts. Jim’s solar surfer is totally radical, his punk rattail screams Hayden Christiansen, his short black jacket and olive cargoes are sick, and the ever-classic humor involving fart jokes because an alien speaks “flatula”, and to seal the deal…Doppler doing those ever-popular armpit farts.
When it wants to be a sincere, straightforward movie, it works, and there’s great moments of drama and emotion and humor…but when it tries to cash in with the cool kids, it falters. Maybe some decade from now, it’ll be viewed as a product of its time, but I worry the touches are just subtle enough that those who didn’t live in that time period might not be aware of them.
Does it give the feels?: Yeah, it does.
If you’re familiar with the story of Treasure Island, you know the heart of the story lies in the relationship between Hawkins and Silver. There are some significant alterations, however. Jim is no longer a wide-eyed innocent, but a surly, frustrated teenager. In a way, that aspect works in its favor, because it’s more of a coming-of-age, dealing with emotions kind of story than an straight adventure story with a kid. Because they’re closer in age and they both have inner demons, the bond between them feels that much more genuine and intense.
Who makes it worth it? There are some characters more enjoyable than others in the movie. I love the relatability of Jim, the aristocratic flair of Captain Amelia, and the adorability of Morph. The comic relief, Dr. Doppler and B.E.N., are fun in small amounts, as to be expected, but the number one character that has to be done right is Silver. On one hand, he’s a big, boisterous, larger-than-life scoundrel who’s lived a life with a considerable amount of blood on his hands. On the other hand, he’s a secret tender-hearted old sot with a past full of fun and a few regrets. And here, it’s obvious how hard he tries to put on a show of toughness, to Jim and his crew, and he’s given plenty of solo moments to show just how much he’s been affected by Jim. It helps the film’s emotional center considerably.
Best quality provided: During the planning of the movie, it had been decided to follow a rule they called “70/30”: everything had to look 70% 1880’s, and only 30% sci-fi. This made for a wholly unique atmosphere and universe unlike many had seen. It created a pseudo-steampunk look before steampunk was even a thing. One unique aspect this aided was John Silver’s cyborg arm, peg leg, and eye. No longer just a one-legged man, as was written in the book, but now he had numerous tools and gadgets at his beck and call. This makes him much more threatening, powerful, and intimidating, but kind of that much sadder. He admits he gave them up in pursuit of the treasure, and Jim cleverly takes advantage of the technology’s vulnerability at one point.
But it’s not just in the story. The arm was completely done with CGI and traced over to look like the rest of him. Mixing computer graphics with hand drawn animation by this point was more refined than earlier attempts, but the two systems had to move completely in sync with each other: after all, it’s his arm. It still needed to move naturally whenever he scratched his nose, held it behind his back, or drew a weapon with it. His supervising animator was Glen Keane, a man who understands big, sweeping characters (he animated the likes of Aladdin, Ratigan, the Beast, Tarzan, and the bear from The Fox and the Hound), so his draftsmanship here is second to none.
Oh, and John Rzeznik’s ballad, “I’m Still Here”? Amazing song. Sure, it’s your typical teen-angst song of the early aughts, but it works with surprising effectiveness.
What could have been improved: If you’ve never heard of this movie, there’s a reason: it bombed so badly, Disney slashed their third quarter earnings. I don’t think it deserved that, exactly, but i can definitely see its faults.
For one, while I like the aesthetic of 70/30, it can be jarring. You want to ask how a realm has anti-gravity generators and projection maps, and yet Mrs. Hawkins is dressed in a pinafore and frock. Also, I keep getting distracted at how there’s an anti-gravity generator, but no artificial oxygen bubble. Even if it’s confined to the ship’s deck, how do they breathe then they’re in the rigging, on the bowsprit, or dangling well off the edge?
B.E.N., a takeoff of Stevenson’s character Ben Gunn, is a grating character. Voiced by Martin Short, B.E.N. is constantly shouting, flailing, and making snarky comments, trying to emulate Aladdin‘s Genie, but with much less success.
But arguably its greatest fault is it still feels geared toward kids. Oh sure, there’s plenty of mature thematic elements, like Jim’s father leaving, but there are still parts that still feel like they’re tied back to being typically “Disney”. Morph is still the obligatory cute animal sidekick. The romantic banter between Doppler and Amelia feels unearned and flat. B.E.N. is a FAR cry from the likes of Genie, Timon and Pumbaa, and Sebastian. All the deaths are just falling. Even the insults feel vapid and uninspired, like a kid’s movie. For a movie that wanted to try so hard to appeal to teens and up, this movie still misfired, feeling just too transparent, too consumer-minded trying to be totally rad.
Verdict: There’s a lot of great stuff in this movie. It’s sad it did so poorly, but the bad stuff shouldn’t outweigh the good. I honestly recommend it. I give this movie a decent six map spheres out of ten.
Oh, and don’t worry too much about Musker and Clements. After Treasure Planet, the two were tasked to work on another project called Fraidy Cat that never got green lit. In 2005, the men resigned from Disney, but came back the following year. Since then they directed two more movies you might have heard of: The Princess and the Frog, and Moana. In March of 2018, Musker retired from Disney, while Clements is still there.