Sunday, 24 February 2008

Treasure Planet (2002)

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.


Mr. Lincoln said...

Wow, I never thought I'd see a post about Treasure Planet in this light. I had the pleasure of working on the film and despite its not really tapping any market it was still a really decent film.

I must make note that Sergio Pablos' animation of Doppler is some of the most gorgeous and rich animation I have seen since the days of Milt Kahl.

Maz said...

I loved Treasure Planet when it came out. This was a great animated movie in the Disney tradition. It's a shame that it did so poorly. The soundtrack was pretty good also. Nice post, Thanks.

Halting Point said...

I too am a huge fan of Treasure Planet. Gorgeous animation and I have to say the combination of seafaring and sci-fi were spot on, such as the "port" space station that has docks and such. I wish there was an MMORPG built around this thing.

Its weird though because this movie doesn't fit in with the traditional definition of steampunk yet for some reason it still evokes the same sense of wonder.

Cory The Raven said...

I can't speak for Steampunk since I'm not a Steampunk and this isn't a Steampunk blog, but I know it appeals to me by fusing the romance of 18th/19th century aesthetics with a fantasy of space travel... We can identify the lasers and holograms in it nowadays, but I think it is perfectly in keeping with the spirit of Scientific Romances and spheres previously charted by the likes of Space: 1889 and Spelljammer. No wonder that it should evoke wonder!

Joe Shelby said...

Disney Animation in 3D (leaving Pixar out for a bit) hasn't done much better. Meet the Robinsons (which I also loved) was also cursed by the expectation problem, that lack of desire to see a non-princess film from the studio.

Of course that film was also hit hard by being released in a lousy time of year for movies (April, I think?), another experiment ("can we dodge the blockbuster summer and avoid getting buried by our own Pirates sequel") that didn't pay off.

Then again, Pixar too has been hit by the expectation punch. Most of their films since Nemo haven't done near Nemo's numbers in the box office, hinting to some pundits that Pixar should go back to making movies "just for little kids", in spite of the strong critical acclaim and very impressive merchandise sales (think Cars). Toy Story 3 is the recent exception that seems to prove that rule.

Anonymous said...

I blame two things for Treasure Planet being so overlooked:

1. It had to succeed against HPCOS AND LorR - that's a tall order for any movie.

2. Too many people just don't get over the setting. I don't know how many reviews I have seen or heard start out with "Why did Disney do that?" If you approach the movie with this mind set, it's unlikely that it will win you over.

It's too bad - I'm an avid Treasure Island fan and have seen all adaptation I could get my hands on, and this one is actually one of the best.

Kryzon said...

I was far too young to see it in the theaters when it came out, but I've seen it now and became a fan right away, so unique that is this Disney movie.
It's frustrating to know that it didn't do well, especially when there's evidence that a sequel was planned and scripted, but kept away because of the film's box office results.

I can confidently say that I've fallen in love with this movie, its story and its characters; It's clear that a lot of work and talent was involved in bringing it to life, and if there's anything of a cult following to this movie, I proudly belong to it.