Forgotten Classics: Disney’s Treasure Planet

Posted on August 22, 2010 by

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If you want the best adaption of Robert Louis Stevenson’s seminal adventure novel, Treasure Island, you can’t go far wrong with Muppet Treasure island. It had genuine charm, witty dialogue, catchy songs and a soundtrack by composing legend Hans Zimmer. It’s also a lot more faithful to the original book than most other straight adaptions, and contains one of Tim Curry’s finest acting roles to date. However, if you don’t mind a certain amount of artistic license in an adaption, the next best thing would be Disney’s Treasure Planet, which is Treasure Island, but IN SPACE!

This was a movie originally pitched way back in 1985 during the same meeting where someone suggested making The Little Mermaid. It took Disney over ten years to come around to the idea, and then four years to actually make it. This is almost certainly a good thing, as the technology had advanced to the point where Ron Clements and John Musker (The guys behind Aladdin and Hercules) could make the movie the way they’d always wanted to.

The art design is almost identical to Tarzan, due to the same art team working with the same techniques, and that’s a good thing. The characters were all bright and crisp and emotive, the flat CGI used to animate Long-John Silver’s cyborg parts and the various starships (More on that in a moment) blended in beautifully with Disney’s deep Canvas* technique used to give a painterly effect to backgrounds, like the lush jungles in Tarzan and the wind-swept Etherium of Treasure Planet.

*The animators took Deep Canvas, a technology which they had initially developed for Tarzan, and came up with a process they called “Virtual Sets,” wherein they created entire 360 degree sets before they began staging the scenes.

The design was unique. A mixture of Victorian styles and science-fiction, resulting in steampunky things like space ships, which were actual sailing ships, with solar sails, laser pistols that looked like flintlocks, space whales and Long-John silvers missing limb(s) replaced by various cybernetic accoutrements. The alien inhabitants of the universe were varied and colourful, going far beyond the traditional sci-fi aliens who basically look like humans with weird rubber foreheads. It also includes what I consider to be one of the best examples of a real/scene transition, in a slow zoom towards what appears to be a crescent moon, and turns out to be a massive, curved space-port, in one of the most technically complex and stunning animated shots i’d ever seen.

The performances of the cast stood out just as much as the art, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt (500 Days of summer, Inception) voicing main character Jim Hawkins, Levitt based his performance on James Dean, something that really shows through, Brian Murray voicing possibly the most sympathetic interpretation of Long-John Silver, who doubles as a rare redeemable villain and father figure for Jim, the brilliantly understated and funny David Hyde-Pierce (Fraiser, Hellboy) voicing dog-alien Doctor Doppler (Science joke!), who had, for an animated feature, a surprising and charming chemistry with Emma Thompson (Love Actually, Nanny McPhee) as the feline Captain Amelia.

The story itself also obviously gets an update. The treasure (loot of a thousand worlds) was stored by the nefarious Captain Flint on a distant world, known as Treasure Planet (a planet with two diagonal intersecting rings that form a cross, well, X does mark the spot…). Using a device that opens portals to any location in the galaxy, he could appear out of nowhere, raid merchant ships, colonies and worlds and then vanish like a phantom into the late afternoon. Silver wants it to be rich, Jim wants it so he can make up for his many and various past crimes, and Doppler simply wants to go down in history as the greatest explorer in the Galaxy, so not much to ask there, really.

It’s a swashbuckling space adventure in setting and theme, but at heart it’s also a touching father-son story between the two main characters, and their relationship is what really drives the plot and makes this version of the original novel stand out above the crowd.

Financially, this film was a flop. In fact, it remains Disney’s biggest financial loss to date, losing them nearly $80 million. Which wasn’t because it was a bad film, but because it was released at the same time as the second Harry Potter and second Lord of the Rings movies, as well as being targeted solely at young children when it was actually more suitable for an older audience. Fortunately, despite these astonishingly poor decisions on Disney’s part, the movie has gained a cult status over the years and, while still one of their least known films, is remembered by those who’ve seen it as one of their best.

Next time: The Sci-Fi animation continues with Titan AE

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Posted in: Movies, Retrospective