51 Days of Disney (Day 43): Treasure Planet

As a child, Jim Hawkins (played by a young Joseph Gordon-Levitt) dreamed about finding Treasure Planet, a planet where the legendary pirate, Captain Flint, hid his mountains upon mountains of treasure. His mother told him that it was all a legend, but Jim didn’t believe her.

As a teenager, Jim is a brilliant but troubled young man who, when not being picked up by the police for flying his solar surfer in areas where he shouldn’t be, helps out his mother at the Benbow Inn. Dr. Delbert Doppler (David Hyde Pierce, who needs to be in more movies. I love love love love love his voice), a renowed astro-physicist and friend of the family, tries to defend the boy, but his mother is at the edge of her ropes. All of a sudden, a ship crash lands and an old turtle like alien stumbles out. His name is Billy Bones and he says that some pirates led by a cyborg are chasing after him and trying to get what is hidden in his chest. The pirates arrive and destroy the inn while searching for what Jim discovers is the map to Treasure Planet. Jim, his mother, and Dr. Doppler escape to the doctor’s home where Jim and Doppler decide that they are going to find the legendary planet.

Dr. Doppler hires a ship called the R.S.S. Legacy and a crew captained by the cat-like Captain Amelia (Emma Thompson) and her first mate, Mr. Arrow. Amelia doesn’t trust the crew that Doppler hired, and for good reason. They are exceptionally seedy and shifty and led by the cook, the cyborg Mr. Silver, whom Jim is left in the charge of while on the ship. Jim is immediately distrustful of Silver due to what Billy Bones told him. Silver is immediately privy to the fact that Jim knows that he had something to do with the events at the Benbow and the crew doesn’t particularly like the new Cabin Boy. It turns out that Silver is the cyborg that Bones warned Jim about and that Silver is planning a mutiny on the ship.

Jim and Silver eventually become good friends, but their friendship is broken up by the mutiny when the Legacy reaches Treasure Planet. It turns out that Silver and the rest of the crew were actually the members of Flint’s crew and they have been actively searching for Treasure Planet for years in order to get their cut. It’s up to Jim to save Captain Amelia and Dr. Doppler from the pirates and get home safely.

Treasure Island in Space, as the film was originally pitched as, had actually been bouncing around Walt Disney Feature Animation since the Little Mermaid was pitched in the 80’s. Ron Clements and John Musker, who also directed Mermaid, wanted to be able to move the camera around like in a live action movie, which at the time was impossible without the use of more advanced computers. A combined lack of the needed technology to do the camera movements and the fact that the Studio was just not that interested in the idea caused Treasure Planet to be shelved indefinitely. The film went back into production in the year 2000.

The design team on the film wanted to make a science fiction world that looked warm and lively rather than the cold and industrial look of most sci-fi films. This was achieved through a somewhat steampunk-ish design and the idea of Etherium, which is an outer space filled with atmosphere. This allowed for them to design ships that resembled traditional pirate ships, but with mechanical elements added on like claws and the solar sails. The film also achieved a warmer feeling by using mostly warm colors for the characters, ships, locations, and items. This contrasted heavily with the deep blues and rich purples of the surrounding space and made the habituated areas very welcoming.

Treasure Planet once again used the Deep Canvas system that was developed for Tarzan, but it ended up being both a step forward and step back for the crew. They developed a process they called “Virtual Sets” that allowed them to create the entire set for each scene on the computer and render them through Deep Canvas to create which achieved a “painted image with depth perception” and helped to make the backgrounds look much more realistic. The problem is that the brush strokes that made the Deep Canvas rendered backgrounds so beautiful in Tarzan were heavily toned down for Treasure Planet to a point where many people would not even notice them.

Glen Keane returned to animating for Disney (his last animation role was as the key animator for Tarzan) as the key animator for Long John Silver. Keane based Silver off of actor Wallace Beery, who portrayed Silver in a 1934 adaptation of Treasure Island because he loved “the way he talked out of the side of his mouth.” The animation for this film is rather interesting, as it actually combines CG and hand drawn animation on the actual characters. Silver’s robotic arm and leg were animated on the computer, cel-shaded, and overlaid onto the hand done animation for the character. This technique was actually tested on animation of Captain Hook from Peter Pan with a robotic arm overlaid over his hooked one. I genuinely want to see this test footage, as it sounds like it would be very amusing to watch.

The music from the film was done by James Newton Howard and delivers a suitably nautically sounding score that has some great pieces to go along with the fantastic action scenes. What is bizarre about the music is that there are two random Goo Goo Dolls songs in the film that were not made for the film. It’s weird that Disney would include two moderately popular pop songs into one of their movies, but it’s not really a trend that will continue.

One of the problems I have with the movie is that this is now the third adaptation of Treasure Island that Disney as done. They did the live action 1950 adaptation, and the 1996 Muppet Treasure Island, both of which are better movies than this one. Treasure Planet has the previous films beat due to the new setting, but the previous adaptations were just stronger adaptations of the source material. There is nothing that is really missing from Treasure Planet that was important in the story, but I really feel like Long John Silver’s character is not quite as likable as in the others. He is still a rather likable character, but they played his hand to early with the reveal that he is the cyborg that Bones warned him about and that stifled his character development. What really made this adaptation not as good was the character of BEN. They made Ben Gunn into a robot and had Martin Short voice him in an incredibly annoying fashion.

Both Treasure Planet and Lilo and Stitch were released in 2002 and were both nominated for the relatively new Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards, but both lost to the Hayao Miyazaki film, Spirited Away.

Treasure Planet is a fast paced and entertaining film with some issues, but none that make the film unwatchable.

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