Treasure Planet

A Film Review by Michael Rankins

When I first heard that Disney was reinventing Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic adventure Treasure Island as a space-faring spectacular, icy pinpricks danced along my spine. “Treasure Island is such a terrific story,” I thought, “why meddle with it?” Well, as Roger Ebert, the reigning dean of American film criticism, is fond of saying, “It’s not so much what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.” Treasure Planet is the Disney film that proves the rule.

Audacious in concept and glorious in execution, featuring state-of-the-art computer graphics and character designs distilled from Japanese anime, Treasure Planet is the marvel Don Bluth’s Titan A.E. wanted to be, but wasn’t quite. Directors Ron Clements and John Musker, who revitalized Disney’s moribund animation shop with 1989’s The Little Mermaid and followed up with the bravura Aladdin in 1992, have realized a bizarre yet beautiful new universe plied by three-masted, rocket-powered schooners crewed by alien creatures of every conceivable shape, size, and configuration. Sound strange? Sure. But does it work? To my surprise, it does. As one of the characters in Treasure Planet says, it is “unorthodox, but ludicrously effective.”

The reader is, I’m certain, familiar with the broad outlines of Stevenson’s original tale. In this new version, young Jim Hawkins (voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt from TV’s Third Rock from the Sun) causes his harried mother Sarah (voiced by Laurie Metcalf, previously the voice of parenthood in Disney/Pixar’s Toy Story films) no end of grief with his minor scrapes with the law. (With his penchant for extreme skating on his anti-gravity skateboard, Jim retains some of the flavor of Disney’s vine-surfing Tarzan of a few years back.) Sarah scuffles to keep the rustic Benbow Inn — located on the outskirts of galactic nowhere, a planet Poe-etically dubbed “Montressor” — afloat, with help from her rebellious son and a kindly scientist friend, Dr. Delbert Doppler (voiced by Frasier’s David Hyde Pierce). One day, a dying traveler named Billy Bones (voiced by Patrick McGoohan, forever The Prisoner) leaves Jim a mysterious globe containing a holographic map to a legendary pirate’s hidden trove. The angst-ridden teenager and the excitable Dr. Doppler promptly mount a treasure-hunting expedition to the uncharted planet where the booty lies stashed.

Doppler’s savings charter a spaceship, the Legacy, commanded by the feline Captain Amelia (voiced by Emma Thompson, most recently seen in Wit) and her stolid first mate Mr. Arrow (speaking with the authoritative resonance of veteran actor Roscoe Lee Browne). To Captain Amelia’s distaste, penny-pinching Doppler has staffed the Legacy with the scurviest gang of brigands this side of Jabba the Hutt — “a ludicrous parcel of driveling galoots,” huffs the captain as the Legacy gets under way. (One member of the crew, an arachnoid creature named Scroop — voiced by Michael Wincott with snarling malevolence — appears to have defected from the invasion force in Starship Troopers.)

Meanwhile, Jim is assigned to assist the ship’s galley master, John Silver (a triumphant vocal performance by Brian Murray, Claudius in Kevin Kline’s 1990 version of Hamlet), whose assortment of robotic limbs and implants makes him a sort of cross between the Six Million Dollar Man, Edward Scissorhands, and Locutus of Borg. The blustery, disingenuous Silver takes a shine to the lad, but the cybernetic chef also has a secret agenda: he’s planning to lead the crew in mutiny when the Legacy arrives at its destination, and capture Treasure Planet’s unparalleled fortune for himself and his band of pirates. If you haven’t figured out by now that it will be up to young Jim to foil Silver’s plot, it’s back to the Classics Illustrated comics for you, friend reader.

It will help the literal-minded to embrace Treasure Planet as a fantasy in science-fiction trappings, rather than a space opera along the lines of the Star Wars episodes. The viewer who sits through this film scowling at the illogic of its cosmos-cruising tall ships (which employ artificial gravity technology but have no visible atmospheric or temperature controls) and other cavalier dismissals of the laws of physics simply misses the point. That outer space is filled with breathable air and can be navigated in wooden vessels with solar-wind-powered sails is essential to the film’s conceit. Creative anachronism, though anathema to hard-science aficionados, is well established in fantasy fiction, and the audience is invited to accept rather than analyze. I locked into the concept from the first glimpse of Treasure Planet’s fanciful spacecraft, and was perfectly willing to be carried along for the rest of the ride.

And what a ride! Although the narrative pace flags a smidgen in the middle — a weakness inherent to many Disney animated films — Clements and Musker keep so much on the screen to dazzle our senses and imaginations that we hardly notice when the plot gets thin. Seamlessly blending traditional two-dimensional character animation in the foreground with watercolor-like, computer-generated backdrops, Treasure Planet is a visual feast. Several incredible sequences rival anything ever before shown in a motion picture, animated or otherwise:

  • The first view of the floating spaceport, which looks from a distance like a fingernail moon but is revealed on closer inspection to be a bustling community apparently designed by architects from the Tyrolean Alps;
  • The Legacy’s encounter with a pod of massive whale-like creatures swimming through space;
  • A star’s explosion into a supernova and its subsequent collapse into a black hole.

The voice acting is uniformly good, with Brian Murray’s turn as the duplicitous Silver and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s engaging Jim Hawkins gaining top honors. If I have any qualm about the film, though, it’s that apart from these two, the rest of the characters are rather sketchily written. (Several of the pirates don’t even have names.) The actors contribute nice work with what little they’re given — Emma Thompson’s tough-but-cultured Captain Amelia and Michael Wincott’s villainous Scroop are both especially well-cast — but we never learn much about most of the characters, and thus we have difficulty caring what becomes of them. A late addition to the proceedings — an addle-pated robot named B.E.N. (voiced by manic comedian Martin Short), who enters about an hour into the film — offers a grating and largely unsuccessful element of comic relief. (B.E.N., whose name means “Bio-Electronic Navigator,” sufficiently mimics C3PO to the point that I can imagine George Lucas’s attorneys scrambling for their cell phones the instant he shows up.) John Silver’s shape-shifting mascot Morph — a novel replacement for the novel’s squawking parrot, it’s a floating pink blob that mimics the other characters both verbally and visually — does a better job adding the occasional moment of hilarity.

Treasure Planet continues Disney’s recent veer away from its animated-musical roots. Although the film contains two songs performed by John Rzeznik of the alt-rock band Goo Goo Dolls (one in a video-like montage sequence in the middle of the film, the other over the closing credits), none of the characters sing. For me, this marks a welcome trend, but Disney purists may reject it as encroaching modernism. To each, one’s own.

In recent years, Disney’s non-Pixar animated features have swung back and forth between awesome technical achievements devoid of soul (Dinosaur, Atlantis: The Lost Empire) and smaller, less visually complex films with greater humanity and, for my money at least, higher entertainment value (Lilo and Stitch, The Emperor’s New Groove). Treasure Planet contains elements of both: it’s a fun, high-spirited adventure in the venerable Disney tradition, but with cutting-edge graphic style and flawless technical brilliance. It’s a sign that the divergent edges of the Disney dichotomy may be starting to meet in the middle.

And this, to borrow a phrase, is a good thing.

Yo-ho, yo-ho, a space pirate’s life for me! Treasure Planet rates 3-1/2 Disney doubloons out of a possible four.

Treasure Planet is a Walt Disney Pictures film, directed by Ron Clements and John Musker. The screenplay was written by Clements, Musker, and Rob Edwards, adapted from the novel Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. This animated film features the voice talents of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Brian Murray, Emma Thompson, David Hyde Pierce, Laurie Metcalf, Michael Wincott, Roscoe Lee Browne, Patrick McGoohan, and Martin Short.

Treasure Planet is rated PG, for scary creatures and scenes of intense peril that may frighten smaller children (and did, in the screening attended by this reviewer). Running time is 95 minutes.

Articles index