Treasure Planet Revisited

(Welcome to Out of the Disney Vault, where we explore the unsung gems and forgotten disasters currently streaming on Disney+.)

Walt Disney Animation Studios has been the linchpin of the Disney empire. Though the company has had huge success with live-action endeavors and franchise acquisitions, their world dominance began with their animation unit. After hitting some very, very rough patches in the ‘80s, the studio went through what was later called “The Disney Renaissance.” 

From 1989 to 1999 Disney produced critically and commercially successful movies that gave us instant classics like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. However, after the release of Tarzan marked the end of the Disney Renaissance, the studio went through a bit of a sci-fi craze in the early ‘00s, releasing a series of films like Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsonswhich gathered mixed to negative reactions and barely made their money back.

Out of this period, only two earned Oscar nominations. Lilo & Stitch was a commercial and critical success, spanning several films and a TV show (and theme park rides). The other was a visually stunning film that puts a sci-fi twist on a literary classic, but never really took off. Let’s look at one of Disney’s biggest flops: Treasure Planet. 

The Pitch

There are probably no bigger names associated with the Disney Renaissance than Ron Clements and John Musker, who helmed the film that started the era, The Little Mermaid and one of the biggest successes of the decade in Aladdin. Even before making The Great Mouse Detective, the duo also had an idea for “Treasure Island in Space” that was rejected by Disney CEO Michael Eisner because Paramount was developing a Star Trek sequel with a Treasure Island twist, but it never reached production. Musker and Clements continued to pitch this idea several times throughout the decades, after the release of The Little Mermaid, and Aladdin, the duo finally got a deal to produce one more commercial hit before finally beginning work on their passion project. That movie was HerculesTreasure Planet was finally greenlit and completed by 2002.

There were several things that made Treasure Planet an innovative animated feature, but also a very risky project for the studio. For one, it came at a time when traditional hand-drawn animation was in decline, and CGI movies were all the rage.  

The film employed a combination of hand-drawn animation with Disney’s Deep Canvas software (developed for Tarzan), which allowed the filmmakers to have the same sort of camera work that James Cameron and Steven Spielberg had in their films. The software allowed them to build entire 360 degree virtual sets before they began to stage the scenes, with hand-drawn characters added on top of it, giving the film a painted image look, but with more depth perception. They even made a hybrid CGI/hand-drawn character in the form of the villain, John Silver, which had Disney Legend Glen Keane animate Silver’s biological half, while a team of digital artists created Silver’s mechanical arm, leg and half of its head using CGI.

Making a hand-drawn/CGI hybrid that, according to producer Roy Conli, employed over 1000 crew members and over 400 artists and computer artists resulted in the film amassing a budget of $140 million, making it one of the most expensive Disney movies ever at the time.

The Movie

Even beyond the technical differences between Treasure Planet and most other Disney films, this sci-fi retelling of Robert Lewis Stevenson’s classic book doesn’t exactly scream “popular with kids.” The movie isn’t a musical (though there is one banger of a song, “I’m Still Here” by The Goo Goo Dolls frontman John Rzeznik), most of its characters are either robots or aliens (none of the aliens look as cute as Stitch), there definitely isn’t a love story involving our main character, and there isn’t a traditional villain. 

Just like the original Treasure Island, Disney’s Treasure Planet follows a young Jim Hawkings (now a teenager instead of a kid, and voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who was way ahead of the curve in realizing that having an undercut was cool. Unlike most male protagonists of the classic Disney years, Jim is more like Han Solo by way of James Dean. 

The unconventional nature of the characters extended to its villain, or as close as the film gets to a villain. John Silver may be the leader of a mutinous and murderous crew that intend on stealing an entire planet full of treasure, but he also genuinely cares for Jim and acts as his surrogate father. Sure, he kind of tries to have Jim killed at one point, but he ends up sacrificing his treasure to save Jim’s life, and he concludes the movie sailing off into the sunset free of consequences or punishment. 

But what really sets the film apart is its production design. The filmmakers followed a “70/30 Law” when designing Treasure Planet, meaning 70% of the film had to look traditional, and 30% could be sci-fi. This means that the characters talk, act and dress like they’re from the 19th century, but the ships (despite having sails and everything) soar through outer space and fire plasma cannons. And of course, there are plenty of aliens. It results in an unique visual style that’s as close to steampunk as Disney ever got during this period, with a mixing of old and new that always has a surprising new design in store. 

The Legacy

When Treasure Planet was released, Disney went all-out, making it the first major studio feature to be released in IMAX theaters at the same time as regular theaters. Sadly, it didn’t do much for the film, as it grossed only $12 million on opening weekend, leaving it behind the second Harry Potter movie, Die Another Die and Disney’s own The Santa Clause 2. By the end, Treasure Planet grossed just shy of $110 million worldwide, which the Los Angeles Times described as one of the most expensive box office flops of all time, and certainly the biggest flop for Disney at the time, surpassing even The Black Cauldron. Unofficially, the movie also helped mark the death of hand-drawn animated movies at Disney.

Despite this, the film was nominated for the Best Animated Feature Academy Award, though it lost to Spirited Away. The box office disappointment made Disney cancel a planned sequel that would star Willem Dafoe as “Ironbeard.” Ron Clements and John Musker would not direct another feature until 2009’s The Princess and the Frog which would be a return to the golden age of Disney animation, and far different from their bold take on Treasure Island

Disney did release Treasure Planet on VHS and DVD in 2003, and again for a 10th Anniversary special edition Blu-ray/DVD combo in 2012. But now you can stream this movie on Disney+ and be angry that the era of big-budget sci-fi Disney movies never really took off.

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