Think about the animated movies released in the year 2006. In my relatively short life, I haven’t seen a more fearful moment for animation than the mid-aughts. It seemed like audiences couldn’t get enough of computer animated movies starring sassy talking animals. Ice Age 2, Over the Hedge, Open Season, and Happy Feet were all released in 2006. And they were all terrible. It seemed like we were going to be trapped forever in a vortex of rapping penguins, with Pixar as the sole bright spot for good, reliable animation. And the worst part of it all, was that Disney had just announced that it would no longer produce traditionally, hand-drawn animated movies. Computers had won the war. And I was sad.
But what made Disney decide to abandon the art form they had been championing and perfecting for more than sixty years? I mean, beside their movies constantly being outgrossed by Pixar and Dreamworks, and the drive to always gain more money (something that should never be underestimated when talking about Hollywood studios)? Well, it is rather clear that the movie that finally tipped the scale towards the doom of traditional animation, was Treasure Planet. This was the dream project of Ron Clements and John Musker, the guys who had basically made Disney a fortune with The Little Mermaid and Aladdin. They had been pitching their idea of “Treasure Island in Space” for more than a decade until they finally took the directing chair of Hercules on the condition that they could do Teasure Planet next. November 27, 2002 saw the release of Treasure Planet, which got pretty decent, if not actually good, reviews from critics, but became one of Disney’s biggest and most notable failures.
Not that it had much of a chance to succeed. As we’ve already established, Disney and action-packed adventures are not two words that go well together. Not to mention the fact that the movie was sandwiched between the releases of mega-blockbusters Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. No matter how all the cards were against it, Disney executives saw the numbers for Treasure Planet and decided that they were through with hand-drawn animation. A million Disney fans weeped, and three years later we got the most horrendous movie ever made by Disney, but more on that in a couple weeks. Right now, I want to tell you how one of Disney’s most infamous failures is actually nowhere close to resembling any kind of train-wreck. I mean, it isn’t good, but it’s also not a disaster. The movie that ended it for traditional Disney animation is actually just… “meh”.
It doesn’t feature, for example, anything as sloppy as the angular character animation in Atlantis: The Lost Empire. Neither is it as misguided and confusingly complicated to the point of nonsense in its story. It is just mediocre. The big reason for this is that it is based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasrue Island, which is one of the most-adapted pieces of western literature for a reason: It is a pretty rad story. Treasure Island is very much a straightforward adaptation of Stevenson’s original. Well, except for the fact that it has spaceships and aliens, but otherwise it is very faithful. While we are on this subject, let me just say that the idea of spaceships shaped like galleons makes absolutely no sense, and there is little in the movie to suggest why these people would have designed ships this way, which shows the deep weakness in Treasure Planet’s world-building, something that puts the nail on the coffin of thinking of this as an at least interesting science fiction movie.
Going back to Stevenson’s novel, the movie understands that the heart and soul of the story lies in the relationship between young boy Jim Hawkins (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who in true Disney fashion is an incredibly bland male lead, and Cook/Pirate John Long Silver (Brian Murray). Even if the movie isn’t as careful in its adaptation as Disney’s 1950 version (the studio’s first live-action movie, and probably the best adaptation of the novel), nor does it find an innovative voice, as the absurdly comedic Muppet Treasure Island, the bond between Jim and the ambiguous nature of John Silver as a father figure is strong enough to make the movie work. Celements and Musker know this, as you can see in the following montage, scored to a terrible song written by the frontman of the Goo Goo Dolls.
If there is something that stands out as impressive in Treasure Island, it’s the animation work done on John Long Silver. Instead of being a one-legged pirate, the story turns him into a cyborg with a robotic hand, leg, and eye. All these robotic limbs are animated using CAPS computer technology, which has to integrate with the hand-drawn rest of the body. The first time I saw the movie, I didn’t know about this mix of animation (I was 10), but watching the movie knowing what the animators had to work with, I just can’t look at Silver the same way, the result is rather fantastic, showing how far the talented animators at Disney had become in mastering their craft. That we still don’t get to see these talents working at full power is just one more tragic aspect of Disney’s growing disdain for the medium.
The other extensive use of computers in the movie is in the backgrounds. I talked about Deep Canvas technology in the post on Tarzan. Treasure Island features the most extensive use of Deep Canvas of any of Disney’s movies. It is used mostly for the galleon-like ships, which makes a certain amount of sense when we see them float around in space, but the animators go a little overboard using the freedom of movement of Deep Canvas a little too much, as when we look around John Silver’s kitchen, a set that is not particularly special in its design, let alone one that deserves the camera roaming around for us to see every corner. Not only is Deep Canvas overused, but it actually doesn’t look as good as it did in Tarzan. It may have something to do with the texture of the backgrounds, which are much more plain and clean in Treasure Planet, making it more apparent that they are CG.
That it doesn’t look as good as Tarzan doesn’t mean it look outright bad, though. After all, if there is something that characterizes this age of Hollywood blockbusters, it’s crappy CGI. We have gotten used to these fake-looking images, and thus, it is pretty easy to forgive the Deep Canvas of Treasure Planet. The movie’s true problems lie elsewhere. Namely, in its character design, which is, for the lack of a better word, ugly, featuring a set of either creepy looking or just plain boring and generic aliens. Second, it’s the movie’s use of comedy, which very much atrocious. In charge of the comedy are aloof Professor Dillbert (David Hyde Pierce) and manic robot B.E.N. (Martin Short). Pierce is a good actor who just can’t do much with the material he is given (which includes, of course, fart jokes), while Short is too over-the-top to make the already over-the-top writing funny. Even more ridiculous is the fact that Emma Thompson voices the Captain of the ship, and is given virtually none comedic dialogue. If you are at all familiar with Emma Thompson, you will recognize this as basically a crime against humanity.
That being said, despite all these misjudgments getting in the way, the movie is never unbearable to watch, or atrocious, or anything like that. Like I said, it is just mediocre, which is still a death sentence in its own right, just a different one.
Next Week: Brother Bear