Principal Cast : Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Brian Murray, David Hyde Pierce, Emma Thompson, Martin Short, Roscoe Lee Browne, Laurie Metcalf, Dane Davis, Michael Wincott, Matrick McGoohan, Peter Cullen, Tony Jay.
Synopsis: In an alternate future, a young lad goes on a journey to discover a plant filled with treasure alongside some space pirates and his dithering guardian.
When you ask people to list at least 10 of the greatest Disney animated films of all time, few – if any – will arrive with Treasure Planet anywhere in sight. I guess you could call it a “lesser” Disney movie, sitting comfortably alongside Chicken Little and Meet The Robinsons for “oh, yeah, I forgot about that one” middle-tier entries into the studio’s substantial canon. Is that an accurate summation, though? After all, it’s a film based loosely on Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic literary masterpiece “Treasure Island“ – a book that has been made into countless film and television version through the decades – and, filtered through the Disney studio, it’s ripe for plundering (ha!) in a way we’ve never seen before. It boasts then-state-of-the-art computer graphics mixed with traditional 2D hand-drawn animation to deliver a film one could easily describe as “rollicking” and “sweeping” in terms of its space-set grandeur, paradoxically the least truthful version of Stevenson’s story whilst at the same time honouring the soul of the famous text.
On the distant planet of Montressor, young Jim Hawkins (voice of Joseph Gordon-Levitt) lives with his mother Sarah (Laurie Metcalf) in their rundown restaurant on the edge of town. Jim is a rebellious, sullen youth, whose father abandoned them years earlier and who now spends his time dreaming of escaping his dreary life. When chance arrives on their doorstep, Jim comes into possession of a mysterious clue to the legendary “treasure planet” of Captain Flint, a long-dead space pirate and former scourge of the galaxy. Pursued by mystery assailants who seek the treasure themselves, Jim, together with astronomer Dr Delbert Popper (David Hyde Pierce) commission a crew to transport them across the cosmos to locate it. Their vessel is commanded by Captain Amelia (Emma Thompson), whose second in command, Mr Arrow (Roscoe Lee Browne – narrator of Babe) runs a tight ship. Jim befriends the ships cook, John Silver (Brian Murray), a cyborg who, unbeknownst to Jim, has populated the ships crew with his own men in order to mutiny and capture the treasure for themselves.
Treasure Planet is a curious departure from the traditional Disney fare in more ways than one. For a start, it’s one of the few films in the studio’s animated output set entirely in space (the other release in 2002, Lilo & Stich, took place mainly on Earth), contains a delightful blend of the traditional and modern animation styles, and has quite a substantial ensemble to contend with, all vying for time in a briskly paced 90 minute movie. Distilling the plot of “Treasure Island” into animated form, directors Ron Clements and John Musker give us an enthusiastic and rousing space spectacle befitting the original story’s sea-going tableau. In place of ships in the ocean, they give us ships in space, appropriating the feel of steampunk without actually giving us steampunk, in a heady mix of spectacular visual effects, delightful comedy and heartfelt emotion.
Together with co-screenwriter Rob Edwards, they find just the right balance of pathos, adventure and humanity, even with the majority of the characters not actually being human: Jim and his mother notwithstanding, the characters are all bizarrely anthropomorphised animal creatures, from Dr Popper’s vaguely Goofy-looking dog design, Captain Camelia as a cat lady, Mr Arrow as a walking rock-man thing, and Michael Wincott’s unscrupulous Scroop, a spider-crab hybrid who serves as the film’s chief antagonist. Martin Short voices a kooky little robot, BEN, during the film’s second half, as annoying a vocal performance as any film he appears in. My guess is that Disney were still trying to crack the code of replicating Robin Williams’ Genie in every film they made – cue Eddie Murphy in Mulan and Rosie O’Donnell in Tarzan – and they figured that sliding Short into the rapid-fire-patter of BEN’s forgetful robotic sidekick character would win audiences over. Frankly, a little Short goes a long way, and Treasure Planet does nothing if not support that belief. Anyhoo…. Treasure Planet is a designer’s paradise, from the wonderful characters to the extensive and quite beautiful background and set design, alongside some superlative animation.
One of the best (and worst) things about early millennium 2D animation was a proclivity to include then-nascent 3D modelling within the films themselves. A little bit of Snow White, a little bit of Toy Story; often the combination of traditional cel animation and cutting edge graphics led to abominations such as that found in Titan AE (for example), but when care and time was given to the project you’ll find few films the exhibit the beauty of the juxtaposition of both forms of artistry working in complete synchronicity than Treasure Planet. The fact that the film is ostensibly a cyborg of an animated film, mixing human nuance with crisp computer work, and features a cyborg as one of the central characters, isn’t lost on me. There’s a fluidity to the animation that belies its tech-infused aesthetic, making it just as charming as anything the studio had put out. Frankly, it’s a beautiful looking movie, and I would have loved to have seen this in its original IMAX presentation. The colours and use of animated “visual effects”, together with the action movie pacing and terrific voice acting, make Treasure Planet a real trove of Disney’s mid-level fare.
While the film’s technical aspects shine, they’re abetted by some superb voice work from all – bar one – involved. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who I’d forgotten was even in this movie, acquits himself well as the youthful Jim Hawkins, whilst David Hyde Pierce doubles-down on that persnickety delivery style so prevalent in Fraiser and as Doctor Doppler he’s quite excellent. Brian Murray’s gravelly pirate-accented John Silver manifests beautifully from the weirdly oversized misshapen character he turns out to be, whilst Emma Thompson’s lithe Captain Amelia role fits her perfectly enunciated tones superbly. Support roles to Laurie Metcalf (who is practically unrecognisable from her more recent roles), Roscoe Lee Browne as Mr Arrow, and Michael Wincott as the sinister Scroop add light and shade to proceedings, and Dane Davis brings a sense of Frank Welker to the squeaking, chippering Morph, a tiny pink alien creature able to transform into almost any shape it desires. Arguably the worst aspect of the film is Martin Short’s BEN, who screeches and wails through a performance so high-pitched its an affront to decent sensibilities. As I mentioned, I’m no fan of the actor generally, and BEN exacerbates the worst of his character traits in a violent vocal manner.
Treasure Planet has action, comedy and heart to spare, as the Disney machine works its best to transpose Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel into a Star Wars-lite space operatic opus. It succeeds with fun to spare; the film’s serious moments work well, there’s danger and double-crossing around every corner, and the only musical numbers come in the form of a duo of tracks from Goo Goo Dolls frontman John Rzeznick – not bad at all, if you ask me. Hard to imagine this one made a substantial loss for Disney. It didn’t deserve to.