KIDS' STUFF: Treasure Planet (2002)

Treasure Planet (USA, 2002)
Directed by Ron Clements & John Musker
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Brian Murray, David Hyde Pierce, Emma Thompson

There are a number of core texts in English literature whose influence runs so deep through our culture that it is hard to re-approach them in a straightforward manner. King Solomon's Mines remains a milestone in the emerging action-adventure genre, but a straight-laced film version seemed somehow redundant after Indiana Jones and Romancing the Stone. The stories and tropes are so well-known to us that the original can often seem hackneyed or risible when played out in such a no-frills manner.
The same problem applies to Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson's hugely influential novel whose roots run through most if not all modern pirate fiction. Among the many recent adaptations, the most appealing have often been those that restaged the story in an unusual manner while being faithful to its spirit - for instance, Muppet Treasure Island. The kindest thing that can be said about Treasure Planet is that it demonstrates the hardiness of Stevenson's story, both by staying very faithful to the plot and by not adding very much that is new in the process.
Many of Treasure Planet's shortcomings can be explained by understanding the ethos of Disney's solo CG works in this period. While PIXAR was hitting a rich vein of form, making films which pushed the envelope of what children's animation could do, Disney was trying to push the same old stuff overlaid with snazzier visuals. This approach was nothing new - it's arguably what they'd been doing since The Little Mermaid. Treasure Planet was first pitched around the same time as that film, and to some extent epitomises the ruthless consolidation of the formulas and strategies of the Renaissance - strategies which in many cases encumbered good storytelling.
As the title suggests, the main quirk of Treasure Planet is setting Stevenson's story in space. There have been many attempts to restage classic stories in space before, and while it's often used as a gimmick when pitching a film, there are numerous examples of it working well. Forbidden Planet successfully restaged Shakespeare's The Tempest on a distant world, while Alien is on one level just Hallowe'en in space.
Treasure Planet is distinctive in the visual decisions it takes to transpose the story. The world of Jim Hawkins juxtaposes intergalactic space travel with 18th-century nautical designs and details, with rocket boosters being combined with sun sails and wooden hulls. It's not steampunk per se, but it shares with steampunk the idea of futuristic societies being run (at least to some extent) on antiquated technologies. However we care to explain it, the detail in the ship's designs makes us feel that at some effort was expended on the production.
Unfortunately, setting the story in space also betrays how much of the film is deeply derivative. There are whole sections which not only owe a massive debt to Star Wars, but which are so close that they are practically ripping off the series. The whole ship-buying sequence is structured like the Mos Eisley scenes in A New Hope, with all manner of strange creatures walking around and Captain Amelia's cockiness standing in for that of Han Solo. The film incorporates Luke's backstory into Jim's, retaining his rebellious spirit but letting George Lucas take care of the rest.
Some of the Star Wars touches can be excused on the grounds that the film was in production for a very long time, during which two of the three prequels made it to our screens. So while Jim Hawkins does look scarily like Anakin Skywalker, right down to having the same haircut as he does in Attack of the Clones, this is almost certainly a coincidence since they wouldn't have had time to fundamentally alter his character just to cash in. Other touches, however, are less easy to overlook; Ben is essentially C3PO but more annoying (and his Jaws joke is completely needless).
When I reviewed A New Hope, I commented on how the film is more notable for its technical innovation than for its storytelling - something which has carried over into much of mainstream sci-fi or space fantasy. Treasure Planet does look pretty good, with its expansive setting, appealing colour scheme and whizz-bang action. But all too often the film carries itself on visual spectacle, neglecting the plot for the sake of a few passingly good diversions. The encounter with the black hole or the escape from the planet (through a portal ripped off from Stargate) are ultimately over-long, and the more the running time is padded out, the less interest we have in the characters.
When the story does take charge, the film turns out to be pretty faithful to the book. Like Trishna it gets the basic beats of the story down pat, such as the fateful encounter with Billy Bones, the Benbow being destroyed, the scene in the apple barrel and the treasure hunt using Flint's map. Even with all the interpolation of tropes and key scenes from Star Wars, it still feels like the story we know and love, and unlike Trishna we are left anticipating how the next key plot point is going to be restaged.
The departures Treasure Planet makes are a mixed bag; some of their changes are reasonable, others are inexplicable. On the one hand, the futuristic setting makes it acceptable to tone down all the talk about drinking; the pirates are already a motley bunch without throwing space-age rum into the mix. And the idea of Flint's planet being booby-trapped does kind of work, reinforcing the theme of the treasure being unobtainable and the characters' development being more important than their goal. On the other hand, the film omits all the talk about the black spot, for no sensible reason: Muppet Treasure Island played up this aspect and still got a U certificate.
This brings us on to the characters, which is where the film begins to look more like the product of a committee. In Muppet Treasure Island each of Stevenson's characters was given a different personality, the result being an interesting blend of both the original and the Muppet that was playing them. Here the characters have the same functions as in the novel, but they are written in very broad strokes. The crew comprises many oddly-shaped creatures, physically distinctive but otherwise unmemorable, and there is a goofy sensibility to the film which undermines the drama. Like The Black Cauldron there are one too many sidekicks, and some of the character choices are just bizarre: did we really need a sailor that only communicates by farting?
This problem becomes magnified when it comes to Long John Silver. Silver is one of the most distinctive and complex antagonists in English literature, someone who is ruthless and brutal but also capable of selflessness. Making him a cyborg rather than a peg-leg is fine - in fact the character design is pretty cool. But the film seems torn over how the character should be played; sometimes it wants him to be as in the novel, other times it wants him to be a traditional Disney bad guy. The result is conflicted but ultimately successful, if only because of Brian Murray's performance.
While the characterisation in Treasure Planet is off-kiltre, the voice acting is quite impressive. The cast is filled with famous names, like Emma Thompson, David Hyde Pierce and a young Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but it doesn't feel like a Dreamworks-style cameo fest with said famous people showing up to enjoy themselves. Put simply, the voices match the characters well enough to make us focus on the protagonists without constantly thinking who is playing whom (watch out, incidentally, for Patrick McGoohan, who plays Billy Bones in his final performance).
Treasure Planet is a middling effort from Disney, boasting some impressive animation but being let down by its storytelling and characters. As a transliteration of Treasure Island it works perfectly well, retaining the main plot points and providing a few thrills, but the characters are too broad and their surroundings too derivative to fully hold our attention. It is ultimately as flawed and frustrating as The Black Cauldron, providing good disposable entertainment but not a great deal more.