Writer-directors John Musker and Ron Clements have a hell of a track record at Disney. As key figures in the studio’s animation renaissance in the 1990s, they brought The Little Mermaid, Aladdin (the original one), and Hercules to the screen before the House of Mouse finally gave them a crack at their pet project – Treasure Planet, an outer-space adaptation of the classic Robert Louis Stevenson novel Treasure Island.
Featuring the voice talents of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, David Hyde Pierce, and Emma Thompson, the 2002 film reimagines Jim Hawkins as the tearaway teenage son of a single mother who obtains a digital treasure map from dying pirate Billy Bones. Fascinated by stories of the fabled Treasure Planet since childhood, Jim jumps at the chance to leave his backwater homeworld and join an outer-space voyage to discover the truth behind the legend.
Boarding an interstellar galleon crewed by all manner of scurvy extraterrestrials, Jim fails to heed Bones’ warning to “beware the cyborg” as he grows closer to the ship’s cook Long John Silver. You may know the rest, but this enjoyable remix of Stevenson’s novel hews close to the source material while also throwing black holes, skysurfing, and insane robots into the mix for good measure.
After many years in development, Treasure Planet arrived at a point where audiences wanted something different from animation and although it’s often remembered as a box-office bomb, it’s undeniably unique and arguably under-appreciated. From its conception to its execution, Musker and Clements’ overlooked adventure film looks, sounds, and feels so different from most other Disney movies.
Musker and Clements first pitched the idea for Treasure Planet in 1985. At that time, studio heads Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg would hold gong show-style presentations, whereby the creatives could pitch their ideas. Reportedly, Eisner rejected the idea because he was aware that Paramount was developing a Star Trek sequel with echoes of Stevenson’s novel.
On the other hand, Katzenberg simply didn’t have much faith in the idea, and instead encouraged the pair to develop their take on The Little Mermaid. When that pitch was translated into a global smash hit movie in 1989, essentially kickstarting the Disney renaissance that continued into the 1990s, Musker and Clements decided to revisit their two-page treatment for “Treasure Island in Space”, as the project was then known.
Unfortunately, the studio still wasn’t interested. Instead, the directors were offered a choice of three other projects – King Of The Jungle, which would eventually arrive on the big screen as The Lion King; Swan Lake, which was cancelled when Don Bluth started work on 1994’s The Swan Princess; and Aladdin, which the duo felt was most suited to their more contemporary sensibilities.
Aladdin became an even bigger hit when it was released in 1992, but Katzenberg still didn’t feel that their vision of Treasure Island would be a commercial hit. Instead, he wanted them to direct Hercules, but when Musker and Clements agreed to a new seven-year contract with Disney, they made sure it contained a clause stating that the studio would also have to make their Treasure Island movie (or another animated project of the duo’s choosing) afterwards.
During the development of Hercules, the Jim Henson Company produced and released Muppet Treasure Island through Disney, casting Kermit, Gonzo, and the gang as Stevenson’s characters, alongside Tim Curry’s Long John Silver. While not the definitive version of Stevenson’s story that their Christmas Carol adaptation arguably is for Dickens, it was probably just as well that Musker and Clements took their time to get Treasure Planet right and leave a bit of distance from the Muppets’ escapades.
The duo teamed up with Aladdin screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio to iron out the story and later co-wrote the script with television writer Rob Edwards. Inevitably, the adaptation is more faithful to the hard-edged, adventurous nature of Stevenson’s story than the Muppets version was (even if Martin Short’s insane robot is about as reverent a portrayal of Benjamin Gunn as Miss Piggy) and foregrounds the relationship between Jim and Silver.
Additionally, the writers created the characters of Dr. Doppler (an amalgam of Squire Trelawney and Dr. Livesey) and Captain Amelia (the feline captain of the Legacy) with David Hyde Pierce and Emma Thompson in mind to voice them. Both gladly accepted those roles ahead of principal animation commencing in 2000, with more than 350 animators and computer artists dedicated to bringing the film to life.
The 70/30 law
After more than 15 years in the making, the film arrived at a fateful juncture in animation history. As Pixar changed the game with the first two Toy Story movies and DreamWorks Animation emerged with the first Shrek film, Disney was looking to make more computer-animated features in-house.
Musker and Clements were already pioneers in marrying computerized elements to traditional animation, starting with their directorial debut The Great Mouse Detective, which ends with a landmark action sequence set inside Big Ben. Barring 2016’s Moana, Treasure Planet is the film of theirs that most visibly uses CGI.
The directors intended that Treasure Planet would look like a Steven Spielberg or James Cameron movie, complete with camera movements and cinematography that were rarely seen in animation. They succeeded thanks to Deep Canvas, a nifty CG animation tool that had previously been used by Disney in 1999’s Tarzan, but it’s the design of the film’s more or less unique sci-fi world that makes it so visually striking.
In creating this spacefaring swashbuckler, the filmmakers employed what they called the 70/30 law, which denotes the ratio of traditional elements to science fiction. So, while the USS Legacy is still a spaceship, it looks like an old-timey galleon, albeit one with rocket engines and solar sails. Later, when characters use blasters, the weapons have a colorful plasma-like muzzle flare that’s more reminiscent of gunpowder.
And of course, this guiding principle is epitomized by the design of the cyborg version of Long John Silver, who’s about 70% traditionally animated humanoid and 30% CG robot parts. The film also gives us an array of uniquely designed crewmembers, filling the roles of characters from the original story.
The overall effect is completely unique for the time at which it was released. Despite its outer space setting, it’s got none of the cool color scheme of a Star Trek, despite the irresistible gag where Hyde Pierce’s Doppler gets his “Dammit, Jim” moment. Instead, the warm color palette gives the universe a more lived-in feel, and the use of 360-degree virtual sets create a sense of depth that isn’t always typical of so-called “2D” animation.
Put simply, it wasn’t until 2014’s Guardians Of The Galaxy that anyone else made a film that looks anything like this. That’s not to say that director James Gunn specifically took inspiration from this, but it’s a weird-looking, visually splendid movie in a similar vein. Even if the use of 2000s-era CG doesn’t always hold up to today’s standards, there’s no faulting the design and art direction.
Off the map
Beyond the design, it feels like a very atypical Disney film. For a long time before the studio acquired Marvel and LucasFilm, executives were said to be looking for more content that appealed to boys. Although Musker and Clements’ contracts compelled the studio to start developing Treasure Planet anyway, the timing of this sci-fi take on one of the most well-known boys’ adventure stories seems to fit that trend.
However, the film’s development was outstripped not only by Muppet Treasure Island but also by 2001’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire, a similar kind of departure from the musicals that had put Disney’s animation department back on top in the 1990s. Released against Shrek and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, that film underperformed compared to expectations but was by no means a flop in cinemas or on home video.
This aside, the absence of songs is more keenly felt in the latter film. In both of the big moments where characters might usually burst into song in another Disney film, Treasure Planet opts for a pop-rock music montage instead. The soundtrack does have two original songs, “I’m Still Here” and “Always Know Where You Are,” which are written and performed by Goo Goo Dolls frontman John Rzeznik.
While the directors’ previous films had toyed with different genres, (a detective mystery, a fantasy comedy, and even a superhero movie) they had all fit into the modern musical trend that they themselves had revived with The Little Mermaid. This doesn’t, and that’s one more thing that makes it feel quite different from other Disney movies of the time.
Then again, it was always going to be tough to do better numbers than the Muppets, so maybe it’s better that composer James Newton Howard (who also provided the score for Atlantis) handles the music here. The 70/30 law applied for the audio as well, with Newton Howard’s score taking more influence from classical Celtic music than John Williams’ Star Wars scores.
Sticking with sound, the voice casting is also quite enjoyable to listen to. Aside from Hyde Pierce, Thompson and Short, all of whom seem likely to show up in this sort of thing at this point in Disney’s history, there’s a nice tendency to cast character actors. As well as giving young Gordon-Levitt an early film role, the film boasts terrific voice performances from Brian Murray (Silver), Roscoe Lee Browne (Mr. Arrow), Michael Wincott (Scroop), and even Patrick McGoohan (Billy Bones).
But going off the map and doing things differently yielded something that no other filmmakers were doing at that point, and have seldom matched since either. Treasure Planet puts a lot of work into giving us a cosmos ripe for the kind of spin-offs that were afforded to a lot of Disney projects at the time, but as it turned out, one 95-minute movie is all we got.
Although Treasure Planet gained a lot from being sandwiched between animation trends, it didn’t necessarily profit from it. The cost of experimenting was pretty steep, and the film racked up a whopping $140 million budget. With a large negative cost to recoup, Disney put its marketing machine into gear pushing Treasure Planet to audiences in late 2002.
Nevertheless, the film only made $109m back from the worldwide box office during its cinematic run. In the US, it opened in fourth place behind Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets, Die Another Day, and Disney’s own Santa Clause 2, to give you an idea of the stiff competition it faced in the pre-Christmas period.
Interestingly enough, Treasure Planet holds the distinction of being the first major studio film to be released in IMAX simultaneously with its conventional cinematic release, setting it apart from other offerings and giving the biggest possible showcase to the film’s stunning visuals. Such a gambit is far more common nowadays, but it wasn’t enough to blaze a trail for a film that definitely would have benefited more from it later on.
At the Academy Awards, Treasure Planet was nominated for the Best Animation Picture Oscar in the new category’s sophomore year, but it eventually lost out to Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away. Still, it’s fair to say that Disney wasn’t thrilled with the film’s overall performance, as plans for a sequel and spin-off TV series were quickly swept aside.
To add insult to injury, Disney had a huge, unexpected sleeper hit with the first Pirates Of The Caribbean film in the quieter August season of the following year. With a script by Elliott and Rossio, this swashbuckler connected with audiences at a time of year with less competition to sink it, and then went onto spawn a cavalcade of far less enjoyable sequels.
Entirely separate from the film’s reception, the directors’ relationship with the studio deteriorated over the following years, and they submitted their joint resignation from Disney in 2005, after executives axed their Hitchcock “wrong man” pastiche Fraidy Cat. A year later, John Lasseter became Chief Creative Officer and invited the duo back to direct 2009’s The Princess And The Frog, a second-to-last hurrah for conventional hand-drawn animation. They also went back into the water with their first fully CG-animated feature, the brilliant Moana.
In the context of the studio’s current rummaging through the vault for remake material, Treasure Planet holds up as a film that would work almost as well if they started making it today. While methods differ, the concept for this film could only have been realised this well (and this expensively) at Disney. It leaves little for a live-action reimagining to do, because it’s already a daring, watchable, and wholly creative take on its particular story.