A belated Journeys in the Disney Vault this week, probably because it took me three separate sittings to watch this week’s film in its entirety. Treasure Planet, to this day, is Disney’s largest financial loss with over $79 million missing to break even. Disney found success in the past with literary adaptations – almost all the fairy tale stories, The Jungle Book – but this is less Jungle Book and more Black Cauldron. The question is: What about the story of Treasure Island would benefit from being set in space, and the answer is: Nothing. In a similar vein as Dinosaur and Atlantis: The Lost Empire (two recent failures for the company at the time), the movie is all flash and technology with a plot that can’t sustain, or be enhanced by any of it.
Jim Hawkins (voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has dreamed of finding the mysterious Treasure Planet since childhood. When he gets a job as a cabin boy on a space galleon, he meets the cyborg cook, John Silver (voiced by Brian Murray). As Silver and his team decide to mutiny Jim will have to settle on where his true loyalties lie.
By 2002 Disney was cementing its position as being stodgy and out-of-date; so what better way to show you’re hip with the kids than modernizing Treasure Island (because kids love to read, am I right?), adding in a bunch of space stuff, CGI, weird snowboard/solar panel ships, and a soundtrack helmed by Johnny Reznick of the Goo Goo Dolls? If you think this is the last gasp of a fading company desperately begging kids to plant themselves in the theater, you’d be right. Absolutely nothing about Treasure Planet feels original, inventive, or engaging. Disney returned to the Deep Canvas format they used in Dinosaur, and it continues to produce a computerized image that is representative of how poor early 2000’s CGI was, and how far it’s advanced in the intervening years. The ships are too snazzy against the 2D characters which produces an odd dichotomy, showing off the dated style of 2D (remember, this is hip for the kids) and the ersatz animation of the CGI.
With all the focus on pasting CGI and technology into every frame, a little something called story is missing. The gist of Treasure Island is present and accounted for: Jim Hawkins wants to find Treasure Island and meets a duplicitous man named John Silver who has a peg-leg. Outside of that, the plot moves from action set-piece to action set-piece with little rhyme or reason. Jim will be sitting, looking at the stars, while images of him as a baby play on-screen, all while John is taking a drive in a jet-propelled space boat and Johnny Reznik croons about things that have nothing to do with any of the elements competing for space in the frame.
It’s worth comparing this to Atlantis: The Lost Empire in terms of tone and look. Atlantis utilized the technology within a steampunk world, so the world of humans is idealized and technologically advanced which blended well with the advanced technology of the Atlanteans. Here, every single thing is technologically advanced which leaves you wondering why humans are even involved. Has the world been taken over by aliens? Is Earth part of some galactic alliance à la Lilo & Stitch? Where is Earth at all? Why aren’t Jim and his mom on Earth? Here’s a simple one, when the hell in the future is this taking place? The script is so enamored of “Treasure Island in space” conceit the audience isn’t reminded of why Robert Louis Stevenson’s book is a classic, or create a new world worthy of modernizing the material in the first place. By the end, I was left cold as to whether Jim or any of the characters lived because if you didn’t read the book, there’s no stakes to root for them.
The voice cast is good, although this is an all-star cast and moves Disney ever closing to making voice actors obsolete. It’s surprising to remember that upon release in 2002 Joseph Gordon-Levitt was nowhere near the cinematic height he is now. His voice lends the necessary petulance to the character, but there’s nothing that would make you recognize him. The character of Jim is already bland that Gordon-Levitt’s delivery is great…if you’re seeking bland. Brian Murray as John Silver and Patrick McGoohan as Billy Bones have the gravitas to pull off their characters, and if John Silver wasn’t a villain in a crappy movie such as this, I’d probably add Brian Murray to the pantheon of mellifluous voiced talent that’s permeated the Disney landscape for generations. You also have Emma Thompson as the captain (nothing special) and David Hyde Pierce playing a classier take on Pleakley from Lilo & Stitch.
Overall, this movie might have been technologically beautiful in IMAX – the first Disney movie to première in IMAX – in 2002, but in 2013 it’s hopelessly outdated, and that includes the story and soundtrack. There are decent characters, but they’re at the mercy of the action and if you watched Atlantis or Dinosaur then you’ve witnessed how narrative and characters suffer when Disney becomes obsessed with showing off their new toys. If you want Treasure Island for a modern audience, go watch Muppet Treasure Island!
NEXT WEEK: Disney does Brave 9 years early with Brother Bear
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.