Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Disney Remakes The Robert Louis Stevenson Classic Creatively, But Unremarkably, With Treasure Planet!

The Good: Good voice acting, Decent story/themes
The Bad: Incredibly predictable, Erratic animation
The Basics: Treasure Planet was something of an unsurprising flop for Disney as it retells Treasure Island in a creative futuristic setting.

With the way Disney animated films redefine the classics for so many children, it is sometimes hard to recall that virtually all of the Disney feature films are simply retellings of classic (public domain) stories. The sanitized way Disney presents Grimm’s fairy tales has created a family-friendly children’s library of home videos for decades and the latest generation seems to have no idea that most of those films are based on stories that are usually gruesome and gory. Every now and then, Disney makes a much more obvious adaptation of a work that is less old. It did so in 2002 with Treasure Planet.

Treasure Planet, despite its futuristic setting, is an obvious retelling of the Robert Louis Stevenson novel Treasure Island. It is one of Disney’s non-musical animated features and Treasure Planet has the distinction of being one of Disney’s all-time biggest box-office losers. Given the erratic quality of the animation (characters proportions change frequently and the film has unfortunately inconsistent physics in it), it is less of a surprise that this charmless movie did not catch on with its target child demographic.

As a child, Jim is told tales of the great space pirate Flynn and his massive treasure. Apparently, he plundered hundreds of planets all over the galaxy and somehow made off with the treasures of those worlds which he stashed somewhere secret. As a young adult, Jim Hawkins meets Doctor Doppler and unlocks a holographic map that Doppler was unable to access. Doppler believes that the map might lead them to the fabled treasure planet. They board Captain Amelia’s space pirate ship to go in search of Treasure Planet.

Aboard the ship, Jim is treated as a common deckhand and John Silver tries to keep him busy and away from the other alien deckhands. While Doppler develops a romantic relationship with Amelia, Jim uncovers a mutiny brewing among the disreputable deckhands. With the help of a tiny shapechanging alien, Doppler, Amelia, and Jim manage to escape the mutiny aboard the ship to reach the fabled planet where the treasure is supposed to exist. While outwitting the deckhands, Jim meets a baffled robot, B.E.N. With B.E.N.’s help, Jim unlocks the secrets of the Treasure Planet and learns how the long-dead pirate robbed planets all over the galaxy and the dangers he left behind to protect his stash!

Arguably the best aspect of Treasure Planet for adults like me is the participation of David Hyde Pierce as Doppler. David Hyde Pierce plays Doppler in a way that is surprisingly similar to his trademark character Niles from Frasier (reviewed here!) and as a result of some typecasting, he is given the best lines of the movie. For sure, Doppler is a somewhat snobby, fish-out-of-water alien character on the spaceboat and the role is well within Pierce’s established wheelhouse, but it does not stop his delivery of jokes from being enjoyable and virtually all that makes Treasure Planet watchable.

The story, of course, is one that is packed with themes of greed vs. altruism and the usual Disney coming-of-age story. Unfortunately, in this concept, Jim Hawkins is a largely unremarkable protagonist. Instead of developing his character to be truly compelling in any noticeable way, Disney crammed as many of its usual conceits into this production as it could. As a result, the Doppler/Amelia romantic subplot is a poorly-developed, thoroughly predictable plot device more than it is an organically-developed character interaction. The usual Disney sidekick appears in Treasure Planet in two forms: Morph and B.E.N., either of which seem like they could have been thrown in for a merchandising angle.

On the more factual front, the story is fairly predictable for anyone who knows the concept of Treasure Island. Greed leads mutineers to come into conflict with the brave intellectuals who run the ship and want to gain all the riches in the galaxy for undefined, nefarious, purpose. The film is essentially a few monolithic good characters versus a few monolithic bad characters with only John Silver as a shifty character that switches sides. But the change in allegiance that Silver goes through is more based on expediency than ideology, which makes Jim’s acceptance of him more a form of ignorance than character.

Amid the highlights of Treasure Planet are the vocal performances. Joseph Gordon-Levitt does an adequate job of playing Jim Hawkins with youthful exuberance, even if the character is somewhat unremarkable. Emma Thompson plays another strong female character in the role of Captain Amelia. The character might be a bit monolithic, but Thompson presents the leader of the ship as a credible authority. Her voice is strong and she is good for embodying that type of character in a realistic way. Similarly, Laurie Metcalf is good at vocalizing Ben’s mother and all of the rest of the cast does a decent job at giving their alien personas slight pirate accents.

Despite the erratic animation in Treasure Planet and the simplicity of the way the concept is reimagined, the shorter Disney film is not bad, just unremarkable save some of the performers and the way they rise to the occasion of presenting the material.

For other Disney animated films, please visit my reviews of:
Monsters University
Wreck-It Ralph
Toy Story 3
A Christmas Carol
The Princess And The Frog
The Incredibles
Lilo & Stitch
Atlantis: The Lost Empire
Monsters, Inc.
The Lion King
Beauty And The Beast
The Little Mermaid
Lady And The Tramp
The Sword In The Stone
The Aristocats
Sleeping Beauty


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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