The montage from Treasure Planet (2002) with
music by John Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls.
Disney's Treasure Planet (2002) is perhaps the company's most underrated film since Fantasia, and yes, that is a deliberate comparison. When Fantasia opened in 1940, it was years ahead of its time, both artistically and conceptually. In all probability, this visual orchestra was Disney's finest hour, and it all-but bombed at the box office for its troubles. Only in later decades was it recognized as the forward-thinking and beautiful film it is.
Treasure Planet also received poor box office receipts, low critical acclaim, and was even maligned by then company president Michael Eisner. The film itself came as one of the last in a string of more experimental animated movies around the turn of the century - including Pocahontas (1995), Mulan (1998), Tarzan (1999), Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) and Brother Bear (2003) - that were poorly-received and consequently spelled the temporary doom of Disney's traditionally animated features.
This reception does not befit the film itself, which is absolutely spellbinding. The story is, granted, ultimately forgettable: a reimagining of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, with a young man's coming of age plot that is Disney's second favorite after the young woman pining for love and freedom. What makes it worthwhile is the remarkable world this reimagining is placed in.
As evidenced by the title, this version of Treasure Island (which was itself adapted into live action film by Disney in 1950) has been transformed into a Science Fiction film, where the titular island has been changed into a titular planet. Rather than develop it into a straight Sci-Fi movie with high tech spaceships and robots (comparable to Don Bluth's 2000 film Titan A.E.), the animators decided on retaining the flavour of 18th century seafaring. In interview they revealed their 70-30 strategy: 70% old, 30% new. The result was a cosmos in which tall-masted sloops bore cyborg pirates and flintlock laser-wielding swashbucklers through asteroid belts and black holes.
The creativity in this 70-30 strategy is astounding and forms a model for any future 18th or 19th century celestial expeditions. Leatherbound holograph books open to project the exploits of the nefarious Captain Flint. Astronomer Dr. Doppler wears a space diving suit aboard the RLS Legacy ship. The crescent moon above Jim Hawkins' planet is stunningly revealed to be a massive space port. Pods of galactic whales and flocks of space rays fly alongside the sailors, riding the "Winds of the Etherium". Jim's coveted map to Treasure Planet is a three-dimensional, holographic version of a old seafarer's map, while the planet itself is a mechanical relic of an ancient civilization of observers whose rich backstory was developed for the writers but, sadly, not in the film itself.
Against these elements are a backdrop of the heavens pulled from the most magnificent of the Hubble Telescope's images. Treasure Planet's is not the deromanticized black abyss of the mid-20th century, nor even the anthropomorphized space of Georges Méliès and paper moon photography. Instead, it is richly vibrant and colourful, with hues of blues and reds and purples billowing about like wave and fog in spheres newly-romanticised for the 21st century. Easily some of the most beautiful visuals of any Disney movie around are found over and over again in Treasure Planet.
In a fair and just world, Treasure Planet would have been a success... Audiences would have recognized it for the stunning film it is and, among other things, Disney's attempts at remodelling Tomorrowland along Retro-Futurist and Scientific Romantic lines would have been capped by a simulator ride through the Etherium.
There is an endless opportunity for speculation in assessing why Treasure Planet underperformed at theatures. A theory that I think holds some relevance for a number of films from that period is that Disney is creatively caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, people complain and dismiss Disney as being a company that produces princess movies and other fairy tales. Granted, that is where they are at their most iconic, be it Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Peter Pan, Pinocchio, Aladdin or Alice in Wonderland. However, there has never been a shortage of experimentation either: once upon a time, Snow White was experimental. Fantasia and the other mid-century music anthologies were most certainly so, as were the Latin American-themed Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros.
Which leads to the other hand: people complain that Disney only makes fairy tales, and then refuse to see any Disney movie that isn't one. Is it any wonder that Disney's return to traditional animation is being heralded in by two fairy tales, Enchanted and The Princess and the Frog? When they attempt an Atlantis or a Treasure Planet, a moviegoing public cannot seem to wrap their minds around it. Nor can they, despite 20 years of Japanese animation being imported to Western shores, contemplate a mature Hollywood animated film like The Iron Giant or Titan A.E.
Unfortunately, like Fantasia, fans of the film will have to wait a few decades for vindication.