November 27, 2002. That was the day the greatly overlooked and underappreciated Treasure Planet launched into theatres, without much fanfare. Mixed critical reviews certainly did not help encourage moviegoers to head into cinemas to see Disney’s latest action-adventure flick, as opposed to the highly-popular Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. As a result, the big-budget animated film flopped at the box office, sinking the company’s efforts at exploring the sci-fi space genre. Well, until John Carter premiered, and we all know how that turned out. After ten years, Disney is breathing new life into the cult fantasy favorite by releasing Treasure Planet on Blu-ray. Will this generate the attention of new fans to check out the studio’s 43rd animated feature? Let’s hope so.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt energizes Jim Hawkins, the rebellious teenage protagonist, with boyish spirit and angst. Hawkins’ carefree existence of solar sailing on his home planet closes when a monster-like pilot’s spaceship crashes near his family’s inn, leaving behind a map of the legendary Treasure Planet. All of those daring stories of pirates and cyborgs Jim read about as a boy were real, and he and his mom’s persnickety friend, Dr. Doppler (the perfectly-cast David Hyde Pierce) set off to charter a mission to find that “Loot of a Thousand Worlds.”
Here they embark on an amazing adventure that takes them through numerous perilous situations. On the RLS Legacy, a fantastic-looking ship that utilizes the film’s computer animation to full extent, we glimpse into the fascinating worlds that dominate this adventure film. Loosely based on the Robert Louis Stevenson novel, certain elements from the novel come through in this sci-fi adaptation. There’s the mysterious pirate John Silver, disguised as a chef. Brian Murray voices Silver, who sports an Inspector Gadget-like robotic right arm, serving multiple purposes. He evolves into a father-like figure for the teenager, whose dad walked out on his family and forever scarred the boy’s sense of trust in male role models. What a moral crisis for Silver, who is leading a crew planning to commit mutiny. Captain Amelia, a stern, feline-like individual voiced by the clever Emma Thompson, is overcome by this group of pirates and must make a daring escape with Jim and Doppler. And we’re not even halfway through the film, already featuring a spectacular supernova, and a death blamed on Jim by one of the mutineers. Intense content.
The gorgeous atmosphere of this traditionally-animated/computer-animated hybrid is unlike anything the studio has ever attempted, and completed, successfully. The backdrop cannot be articulated clearly or well enough to detail the layering of colors and visuals. Even a decade later, the imagery of Treasure Planet holds up, looking as original as WALL-E or similarly-themed titles. There’s a timeless element to seeing colonial villages and flying ships in the stars. Though not necessarily the most balanced blend of factors, that is part of Planet’s charm. How many other stories can you think of that mix aspects of the 1700’s with those of centuries far from now? Not many, but this epic manages to integrate those old-world features into something out of Star Wars or the like. We don’t question “why,” but rather watch in wonder.
2002 was a symbol of a different time in Disney animation, when much upheaval was occurring in the direction of the studio’s slate and formatting of projects. Computer animation had begun to take over much of what audiences were seeing, and here a new film opened that utilized that format in a mostly traditionally-animated atmosphere. Audiences couldn’t seem to make sense of this, as the combination and seemingly-strange storytelling signaled a big “weird.” “Why see this movie?” some may have questioned. Enough people held the same thought, as Treasure Planet grossed a meager $38 million domestically. Though it performed more modestly on home video in 2003, earning at least $60 million, few realized the treasure of this wondrous experience.
For one, as I previously indicated, there’s a look to this that remains powerfully infectious and spellbinding. The Blu-ray quality is quite unparalleled. Most Disney animated features released on this format are top-notch, and Treasure Planet belongs in that company. The colors are strikingly rich and vivid, staying consistently strong across all of the scenes. Complementary to the supreme video transfer are the gorgeous audio and music. The sound level is unswerving, with voices clear and sounds booming from the speakers. Viewers will feel like they are diving right into the flights and sights of this magnificent setting. James Newton Howard crafted a brilliant musical score that incorporates Celtic and rock into luscious instrumentation. Any fan of the feature must also pick up or download a copy of this soundtrack, which contains some of Howard’s most stunning work. The film’s main song, “I’m Still Here,” one of my personal favorites in the Disney catalogue, demonstrates the anguish one would expect from the troubled character of Jim Hawkins. John Rzeznik of pop-rock band The Goo Goo Dolls capably commands this piece, a well-executed montage that shares Jim’s backstory. Rzeznik also provides his voice for “Always Know Where You Are” in the end credits.
I find the film especially affecting for exploring certain themes rarely found in the Disney animated feature, like the loss of a parent. We don’t know what happens to Jim’s father, and that’s part of the mystique, as we see how his absence has shaped the adolescent’s behavior. The connection between Jim and Silver adds much-needed substance to counteract the necessary silliness. Morph, a shape-shifting pink blob, provides that in heavy doses – too much, if you ask me – while B.E.N. (Martin Short), a sensitive, loud, mindless robot amuses with such great lines as, “Touching and talking. That’s my two big no-nos.” Short’s endearing delivery makes this character work more than it actually should. Furthermore, the action scenes are as gripping, if not more so, than any audience would discover in some of Disney’s best live-action thrill rides.
But Treasure Planet is not without its issues. I can’t but feel ho-hum about the flat supporting characters and villains. One of Silver’s mates, a spider creature named Scroop, hisses and threatens, but lacks any weight. Our last image of him is more laughable than anything. The other members of the crew possess strange designs, but we never get a sense of their personalities. Many of them look like rejects from Monsters, Inc., including a bumbling head and a flatulent alien-like being. They’re just dull. The pacing of the feature suffers from occasional inconsistent transitions and a glazed-over demise, which weakens the structure. Yet the quick and engaging momentum covers those flaws better than other plots with the same position.
Sadly Disney skimped out on providing fresh bonus features for this “10th Anniversary Edition,” as all of the extras are carried over from the 2003 DVD release. What is here deserves a look, though, including a commentary by the filmmakers, fascinating featurettes on the design of the film, and a cool tour of the RLS Legacy ship. The overall terrific presentation of the movie masks the disappointing fact that they expended no effort into offering a retrospective of some sort.
Treasure Planet has been unjustly criticized for debuting during a period when the studio experienced tumultuous times and steered out of the “Disney animated musical” mold, but for what this movie offers, it’s pretty awesome. Very rarely do we find ambitious films that take risks in their stylistic approaches, but Planet accomplishes just that quite well. The main characters are layered, well-voiced and compelling, and the storyline sustains our attention – much in part because the splendid art direction makes us want to see more of where this plot leads. No matter if you’re a fan of Treasure Planet and just have yet to pick up the Blu-ray since its release last month, or even if you have never seen a frame of the feature during its ten-year existence, owning this Blu-ray/DVD combo-pack in your collection is worth a fortune.
Film: B+ Blu-ray Presentation: A Bonus Features: B-
Overall Grade: B+
This is Brett Nachman, signing off. Check into Disney In Depth once again next week for continued cool content inside the world of The Walt Disney Company.
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