2002 arrived with a ray of hope for Disney Animation. Lilo & Stitch was released in the summer to great acclaim and box office success, something the studio hadn't achieved since the beginning of the decade, and the second film to be released that year looked to be a promising endeavour. After all, Treasure Planet was directed by two of the top people at the studio, John Musker and Ron Clements, who practically launched the Disney Renaissance a decade earlier with beloved films like The Little Mermaid and Aladdin. Also, Treasure Planet was a dream project for the directors, something they'd been wanting to do for a long time. Finally they were granted the chance to adapt Robert Louis Stevenson’s beloved novel, Treasure Island, but in a sci-fi setting. Unfortunately, when the film arrived in the Fall of 2002, it bombed at the box office and now remains one of the most obscure films from the canon.
Before diving into the story and the film itself, let’s take a look of what could have gone wrong for the film to fail so miserably. First of all, audiences saw little appeal in sci-fi animated films aimed towards a teen audience. Clear examples of this are Titan A.E. and Disney's own Atlantis: The Lost Empire, both of which failed to gain positive reception or huge amounts of money. Released in such close proximity to Atlantis, Treasure Planet didn't do enough to set itself apart from those other two. Next comes something that is still a problem nowadays: marketing. When promoting Lilo & Stitch, Disney released a series of brilliant ads linking Stitch to some of the most beloved films from the canon. They sparked the interest of the audience again by mocking their own films and offering something new and fresh. On the other hand, it’s clear that Disney did not know how to market Treasure Planet. The trailers tried to give you the sense of grand adventure but they never really clicked; you weren't sure of what the movie was about. They took a more serious approach in promoting this film than with Lilo, trying to show it as more “mature” than its successful predecessor, and... well, as you know, that didn't work. And, last but not least, I think the directors were out of their element in directing this. That's not saying they were not capable, but after doing three musicals, this change of formula perhaps was not ideal for them. This was clearly a passion project for them, but maybe they weren't suited to do this kind of film. After this, they went on to direct The Princess and the Frog, is a musical in the same vein as The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, an, apparently their upcoming film Moana is a musical as well, suggesting that they are more comfortable with this direction. All of these elements, coupled with the growing competition of other studios, didn't give Treasure Planet any chance to flourish.
But, how is the film itself? Is it an underrated gem not given a fair chance? Or is it a complete waste of time that deserves the bad reputation it has? Well, there's not a definitive answer to either question. The film falls in the middle of both. Sure, it's underrated and not as bad as its dismal reputation would suggest, but it's also far from perfect and has some glaring issues that take away some of the enjoyment from the film.
Where the movie really works is in the relationship between Jim Hawkins and John Silver. First of all, the character of Jim has a great emotional arc and it's easy to emphasize with him. Unlike Milo Thatch (from Atlantis), you can really feel Jim's predicament instead of being a mere spectator watching from a window. His relationship with John Silver is the heart of the film, as we see an unlikely friendship between a misfit and a man/machine who's supposed to be the bad guy. The great thing about this film is that plays very well with ambiguity and gives both characters many layers and ranges of emotion to play with. This is one of the most complex and ultimately rewarding relationships in the Disney canon.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the rest of the cast, who are as forgettable and annoying as they come. It seemed that the animators put great effort into designing Jim and John Silver, and you can see the level of craft both characters have, but when you look at the supporting characters, it seems that the animators just went crazy with whatever designs they deemed appropriate. They look very cartoony and they don't command any kind of emotion, making them curiosities rather than real characters. The humour is all over the place too, never clicking, and the character B.E.N is one of the most annoying creatures ever created for a Disney movie. He's meant for comic relief but he irritates more than diverts. Less characters and better designs would have made this film a more enjoyable ride.
Like most films from this era, Treasure Planet looks amazing. The backgrounds and settings are simply breathtaking, transporting you to this futuristic world. If only the characters that inhabited it were more interesting, both aesthetically and narratively.
Treasure Planet is easily Musker and Clements's weakest film, but that doesn't mean it's a complete waste of time. While there are some questionable character designs and the humour just does not work, the central story is very well put together and the backgrounds are superb. Treasure Planet is not a top Disney classic, but it deserves to at least be seen once by any animation fan. Rating: 3/5.
Next Week - Animated Classic #44 Review: Brother Bear (2003).