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Treasure Planet (2003)
Directors: Ron Clemens, John Musker

review by Richard Bowden

There have been critics of the unscientific aspects of Disney's most recent animated feature, of the ships with 'solar sails', travelling through space as if the void was breathable, the peculiar arrangement of the heavens, and so on. But one shouldn't find these liberties distracting in what is clearly a clever fantasy, and a lot of the fun is to be had from discovering exactly how the studio has reinvented Stevenson's classic. This isn't the first time that Disney has based a work on a well-known work of fiction, as those who remember Oliver And Company (1998) will know. Ron Clemens and John Musker, directors of Treasure Planet, work well as a team, having been previously responsible for several Disney hits, notably The Little Mermaid (1989) Hercules (1997) and Aladdin (1992). Treasure Planet is less rumbustious than the latter two, less romantic than the former. It treads a fine line between imaginative reworking of a text that offers adapters a range of possibilities, and sensitivity towards the distinctive elements of Stevenson's original. For the most part it is successful, although at the cost of injecting some characteristic Disney dumbing-down. There's also less of the post-modern knowingness familiar from Hercules, and The Emperor's New Groove (2000).
   Treasure Planet transplants the novel's action into a never-never world of space galleons, colourful alien sailors and planetary gold, retaining most of the novel's narrative landmarks. It begins with the young Jim reading a pirate book, reliving the interstellar exploits of the sabre-rattling, and ship-boarding Captain Flint (who appears later in Treasure Planet, his outsized skeletal remains and broken craft reminiscent of discoveries in Alien, 1979). This opening scene is an effective way of locating what follows in a literary context - an advanced form of the 'page turning' intros in such other Disney's as Robin Hood (1974), Sleeping Beauty (1959), etc. Jim's mother considers such stories just fiction but his credulity, then and later, happily blurs the difference between 'reality' and fantasy, leading us comfortably into the main part of the film. We next see the youngster considerably more grown up, rocket skateboarding through the planet Montressor, before being returned to his mother, who works a still recognisable Admiral Benbow Inn. She's now at her wits end for lack of money. Before long the turtle-like Ben Bones arrives, his nemesis hot in pursuit precipitating the start of the action proper.
   The central relationship between Jim and Silver, the charismatic cyborg cook on board the RLS Legacy, is worked very well. Confronted with one of the most colourful figures in fiction, Disney's animating crew makes Silver into an excellently characterised figure, whose appearance owes more to Wallace Beery's rather than Robert Newton's more famous interpretation of the role. His early scenes with the boy are standouts, generating a real feeling of respect and camaraderie as the lad learns the ropes. It is rare in Disney these days to see such a convincing association between characters, as the humanity commonly gets lost in the humour. For Silver, feeling for the lad is both a strength and weakness, and the sympathy it exposes within himself ultimately handicaps the planned mutiny. Jim is another one of Disney's orphans/one parent families; spunky waifs who seek sympathy and understanding elsewhere and then grow into maturity. After a period of disillusionment, he eventually finds his father figure and it's Silver who, in a moment reminiscent of The Lion King's "our father who art in heaven" scene, finally smiles down at him munificently from the clouds.
Treasure Planet poster 1 Treasure Planet poster 2
The transformations continue down through the cast: Silver's parrot has become a small, red, metamorphosing alien, while Ben Gunn is less dangerous than in the book, here styled as B.E.N (Bio Electronic Navigator), a batty robot looking for his lost memory chips. On the good ship Legacy the animators create a whole crew of colourful, bizarre sailors, some of which are more convincing that others. The flatulent alien is rather juvenile, and perhaps shows a failure of imagination, but kids will love it. Scroop, the menacing spider-like bosun, is more the stuff of nightmares, and his confrontation with Jim and B.E.N when they return to the ship to recover the map is one of the best cell-animation sequences, as well as a fine piece of direction. More controversial is Emma Thompson who voices the feline Captain Amelia who jars, to these English ears at least, used to the traditions of Hornblower. Patrick McGoohan voices the short-lived Billy Bones (his first Disney voiceover?) and his dramatic scene, in which he gasps, "Beware the cyborg!" before wheezing his last, is as starkly memorable here as it is in the original. Frasier's David Hyde Pierce provides amiable voice talent as the bumbling Doctor Doppler, the mild incompetent and the film's best comic relief. His final romance is less convincing as too abruptly staged, but this is not enough to damage his character. Apparently interactions aboard ship were originally sharper, but meddling by studio heads made some drastic changes to continuity and the look of the pirate crew - which peculiarly included the removal of most cutlasses from the final release!
   The film mixes CG backgrounds with traditional cell animation to great effect, utilising a highly successful approach called 'deep canvas'. Such moments include what is the single most remarkable scene in the film, the approach to Spaceport Crescentia. From a distant shot of what one presumes is the moon, the image grows and becomes more detailed until the viewer realises that, far from being Lunar, it is a busy space metropolis that fills the screen. Such is the success of this bustling, imaginatively realised creation that one regrets that the presentation of Treasure Planet itself is more mundane. Vaguely recalling the Krell's Altair-4 in Forbidden Planet with its long-dormant, alien internal engineering, the planet is barely explored and once there matters are wrapped up too peremptorily. Perhaps the tinkering by front office had its worst effect at the back end of the picture. For whatever reason, a few more minutes in this new environment, some time to stand and stare, would have made all the difference. No amount of animated gold (and the amount of Flint's hoard when seen is, frankly, ludicrous) can replace our curiosity denied elsewhere.
   But even as it limps towards a somewhat efficient and routine wrap up, Treasure Planet - the film at least - remains very entertaining. It is helped along the way by James Newton Howard's score, also good, although the makers still can't resist adding a rather uninspiring song to the mix, rather than going the whole hog and resetting the original shanties. At the end one takes away a few strong impressions with considerable pleasure. The spaceport for instance, then the growing warmth between Jim and Silver; the herd of 60 space whales ('Orcus Galacticus') off the ship's side; the dramatic attack on the Admiral Benbow, full of shadow and hidden menace, or the great space going vessels unfurling their great sails. So if not entirely unalloyed gold, Treasure Planet is still rich enough to be worth investigating, although one should add that smaller children could find the more tense moments scary.
Treasure Planet
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