Saturday, January 11, 2020

Treasure Planet

Since first being published in 1883, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island has gone on to become one of the most ubiquitous novels, receiving a number of adaptations in the coming centuries while also arguably setting the initial default for pirate stereotypes; one of the most famous of these adaptations is Disney’s live-action film adaptation of the same name in 1950, with Disney’s own Pirates of the Caribbean from 2003 arguably overwriting the pirate stereotype into Jack Sparrow clones. The year 2002 would see Disney adapt Treasure Island again, this time fully animated and given a space/steampunk aesthetic under the name Treasure Planet. I had somewhat of an interest as a kid when it first came out, however I never ended up actually being able to watch it until recently, after having heard how good it actually was. Though it’s not without flaws, I did find myself enjoying it for what it was.

Fascinated as a kid by stories of pirate Captain Flint’s treasure stowed away on Treasure Planet, a teenaged Jim Hawkins (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) flies a hoverboard through a restricted area, getting reprimanded and returned to an inn run by his mother, Sarah (Laurie Metcalf), by the authorities. That night, a small ship piloted by Billy Bones (Patrick McGoohan) crashes on the dock outside the inn, leaving Jim with a mysterious orb and a message to “Beware the cyborg.” After escaping the inn as it’s attacked and burned to the ground by a mysterious pirate crew, Jim discovers the orb is actually a map to the legendary Treasure Planet. With the promise of using the treasure to help rebuild the inn, Jim sets off with astronomer Dr. Doppler (David Hyde Pierce) on a ship led by Captain Amelia (Emma Thompson). Early on, however, Jim is assigned to work under the ship’s chef, a cyborg named John Silver (Brian Murray).

Jim Hawkins (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, left) and John Silver
(Brian Murray, right) meeting for the first time.

The story of the movie is fairly engaging, telling the basic story of Treasure Island while still introducing some of its own concepts to make it stand out from the source material. The most obvious is the space setting and steampunk-inspired designs, however the changes it introduces set up an interesting world that cleverly incorporates normally sea-faring ship designs as space-faring ones, with elements such as solar sails and artificial gravity; it’s not entirely clear whether or not the characters are able to breathe in space, though it’s probably best not to think about that too hard. Some characters from the source material are also given interesting re-imaginings while still introducing new ones, such as a small creature that follows Silver named Morph (Dane Davis), who can change into any shape. That said, there was also an alien who spoke entirely in flatulence, whom Dr. Doppler is able to communicate with, that the movie could've done without.

One thing that deserves a lot of credit is the animation, which is very fluid and expressive. As with its spiritual counterpart Atlantis: The Lost Empire, the movie attempts a traditional/computer animation hybrid, the results of which are more mixed this time around. Some of the CG hasn’t exactly stood the test of time that well, such as a shot of giant space fish, while some are admittedly very impressive for the time and hold up amazingly well even today. One standout is B.E.N. (Bio Electronic Navigator) (Martin Short), a robot character who gets introduced in the second half to help move the plot along; while he’s obviously a CGI creation with what appear to be traditionally-animated eyes, his movements are extremely fluid and his design helps him blend in with the other cast members. One particular standout, however, is John Silver, also animated as a hybrid character; even though his cyborg parts (his right arm, leg and eye) are obviously animated with computer assistance, his movements are also very fluid and animated seamlessly with his traditionally-animated human half to the point where you almost fail to notice the computer animation.

B.E.N. (Martin Short, middle) gets to know Jim Hawkins (left) and Morph
(Dane Davis, right).

The voice acting is also well-cast and inspired, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Brian Murray, as Jim Hawkins and John Silver respectively, having a good chemistry with each other and selling the relationship between the two characters. While Hawkins has a thirst for adventure, he’s also selfless and willing to do the right thing. Though the movie doesn’t really hide the fact that Silver is the villain, being that the Long John Silver character’s identity as a pirate is well-known to the point of providing the namesake for a chain of seafood restaurants, he’s actually pretty well-rounded, even acting as the father figure that Hawkins never had as they sail to Treasure Island.

David Hyde Pierce, perhaps best known for his role as Dr. Niles Crane on the popular Cheers spinoff Frasier, is a good choice for Dr. Doppler, matching his personality and providing a certain amount of character that helps sell his relationships with the other characters. Emma Thompson manages to sell the charisma of Captain Amelia in whatever screen time she has, which is evident in that she still went on to become a popular character. SNL alum Martin Short turned out to be a fitting choice for B.E.N., as he provides some amount of comic relief that, to me at least, didn’t get annoying and his performance worked well with B.E.N.’s glitchy behavior as a result of missing part of his memory.

Despite some minor tidbits here and there, Treasure Planet is an enjoyable movie on its own and arguably one of Disney’s more overlooked animated films. The world it sets up is fascinating and the story is an interesting twist on Treasure Island that lets it stand out from the source material despite following the same basic story, backed by some amazing animation that at times perfectly blends the traditional and digital mediums. While it didn’t get as much attention as its contemporaries Lilo & Stitch (as a franchise on its own) or Atlantis: The Lost Empire (nearly getting an animated spinoff), Treasure Planet is definitely worth checking out, both for fans of animation and of Treasure Island.

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