Come sail away
For most audiences, Treasure Planet is not an unfamiliar story. If you were not required to read or dissect Robert Louis Stevenson's 18th century novel in high school or college, you will undoubtedly come across one of the no less than five feature film and/or television adaptations. In fact, Walt Disney's 1950 live-action version is considered to be a classic in its own right. This only goes to prove that good stories never die—they are merely reinterpreted for generations to come. Such is the case that lies before us. While on the surface Treasure Planet would appear to be a failed experiment in high tech Disney animation (only garnering $40 million at the box office), hiding underneath is a fascinating character drama worthy of a second look.
Facts of the Case
Troubled teen Jim Hawkins (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) gives aid to a dying stranger and is rewarded with a map and a warning—"Beware the cyborg!" No sooner are these words uttered than a band of bloodthirsty pirates descends upon Jim's home, forcing his family to flee for their lives. When the map is found to reveal the location of the legendary Treasure Planet, Jim and family friend Delbert hire a ship and a crew, setting off for the adventure of a lifetime. Unfortunately, when there is treasure involved, the worst elements within a creature more often than not come rushing to the surface. What begins as a coming of age tale quickly becomes a fight for survival for young Jim and the people he cares for—especially when he is unsure of whom he can trust. What he discovers is that, in the end, all we are left with is ourselves and our choices.
For as long as I can remember, the release of a Disney animated feature was an event to be anticipated. Months in advance, the merest glimpse of a teaser trailer in the dark expanse of my local theatre would bring about an instantaneous catch in my throat. Alas, those days ended years ago, most likely with the release of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the last Disney feature I saw on the big screen. While I've continued to pick up Disney releases on video or DVD, the magic of films like Fantasia, Sleeping Beauty, and The Lion King has somehow been lost. I've enjoyed elements of more recent releases such as the soul-searching quest of Fa Mulan, the struggle between Tarzan's inherent humanity and animal instincts, and the hard lessons learned by deposed Emperor Kuzco. Yet the studio continues to suffer a long drought without a true masterpiece. Perhaps the Midas touch of old has taken up new residence at Pixar, where creativity and inventiveness is bountiful and each new release builds upon the success of its predecessor. Perhaps Michael Eisner and company have become too complacent and too diversified in their corporate holdings and activities, losing sight of what originally made the studio a success. Whatever the reason, that magic well has run dry, rendering it inert with no power to grant any more wishes. The well-worn formulas no longer work, and the studio must go back to the basics, blending new ideas with a creative use of technology to create compelling new tales for a more discerning audience.
Enter Treasure Planet. From directors Ron Clements and John Musker, the creative force behind The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, comes an otherworldly take on this classic tale of self-discovery amid treachery and deceit far from the comfort and safety of home. Combining classic 19th century illustration techniques with grand historical sea-faring vessels and settings, along with futuristic technology and interplanetary locations, Treasure Planet offers up a whole new world for Disney animators. A 70/30 approach takes 30 percent traditional hand-drawn animation and injects it into a world of computer-generated elements and backdrops. The challenge—make it all appear seamless to the naked eye. The question—did they succeed? The answer—no…and yes.
The film's first three sequences all contain moments where two- and three-dimensional animation mesh about as well as oil and water. The opening flashback showing the notorious Captain Flint in action, Jim's solar surfing ride through a series of canyons (reminiscent of a certain George Lucas pod race), and the crash of Billy Bones' ship all elicited an "oh, that's CG" response from my rather discerning brain. Perhaps that's an unfair judgment, as I went into this knowing full well the challenges these animators faced. Then again, what put the nail in the coffin for me was the unveiling of the Crescentia Space Port and their ship, the RLS Legacy. This is simply a blatant mismatch of animation styles punctuated by a long shot backdrop that looks to have been lifted from Star Wars Episode I or II. At this point, I wrote off Treasure Planet as nothing more than an expensive misstep in moving Disney towards 21st century animation. Sadly, I was only 18 minutes into the picture.
Then a funny thing happened. The introduction of Long John Silver lit up the screen—brought to life by the combined forces of Disney legend Glen Keane, CGI animator Eric Daniels, and the vocal talents of veteran stage actor Brian Murray. Trapped in a world of obvious artificiality was this vibrant and complex life force, leaping off the screen in the most subtle and effortless of manners. Like an MVP of any team, Silver possesses the innate ability to raise the performance level of those around him. The relationship he develops with Jim, heretofore a cardboard replica of teen angst, is a joy to behold. We see it and Silver knows it. Walking a delicate line between mutineer pirate king and unexpected surrogate father, we are drawn to empathize with his every conflicted thought and feeling. In the tradition of the Disney masters, the team of Keane, Daniels, and Murray single-handedly rescue the film from Black Cauldron obscurity.
This isn't to say the supporting characters were not carrying their weight. Laurie Metcalf as Sarah Hawkins, David Hyde Pierce as Delbert, Michael Wincott as Scroop, Roscoe Lee Brown as Mr. Arrow, and Emma Thompson as Captain Amelia all turn in respectable performances. However, they all pale in significance to the dynamic between Silver and Jim.
The picture gets a last minute shot of adrenaline in Act III with the introduction of B.E.N. (Bio Electronic Navigator), marooned on Treasure Planet eons ago, after the demise of Captain Flint and his crew. Here is one of only two CG elements that achieve the blended reality Disney animators were shooting for (the other being Silver's cybernetic arm). Played with all the combined force of Jiminy Glick and Ed Grimley by the maniacally funny Martin Short, B.E.N. provides a welcome infusion of comic relief that carries the film through to its climactic, special effects-laden finale.
Presented in 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen, Treasure Planet is a clean digital-to-digital transfer that should receive high praise. Unfortunately, the use of digital camera angles and rapid movement through its computer-generated environs often comes across as distractive and disorienting, complicating the film rather than providing an intended new level of depth. In addition, the complex lighting effects, while intriguing to see in use, often wash out certain character elements leaving them in somewhat of a haze. The color palette used is dynamic and diverse, providing stark contrasts between the warmth of home, the dark wonders and dangers of outer space, and the deteriorating world of Treasure Planet itself. On the other hand, Treasure Planet makes exceptional use of its Dolby 5.1 audio track, most notably on the ship, where we can hear ambient sea-faring noises, muffled offstage discussions, and special effects as clearly as we do in our own reality. What's more, James Newton Howard's magnificently understated score lends the perfect amount of emotion to each and every scene, coming across crystal clear through all five channels.
As has been the case with most recent Disney releases, Treasure Planet is loaded with a trove of bonus features. In addition to an enhanced set of interactive menus, we find…
Visual Commentary—An interesting mix of audio commentary over the picture, intercut with behind-the-scenes footage and mini-features. A very nice enhancement for those who have already seen the film.
Deleted Scenes—The original prologue, an alternate ending, and another bit of exposition on Jim's relationship to his estranged father. There is a reason why they were cut.
The "Hook" Test—When the idea of having Long John Silver incorporate the use of CG elements was discussed, animators took original pencil drawings of Captain Hook from Peter Pan and replaced his right arm with a CG replica. The test was used to show the studio how this process would work—and it did so very well.
Virtual Tour—Hop aboard the RLS Legacy for a multi-faceted
tour. Using the same digital animation, you can view this as
Disney-pedia: The Life of a Pirate—Appears to be a Disney-fied history lesson on the life and times of classic pirates. Wish I could tell you more, but try as I might I could not get this feature to work on my DVD player.
Disney's Animation Magic—A look behind the scenes at the Disney animation process as used during the making of Treasure Planet, hosted by Roy E. Disney, former head of Disney Feature Animation. Roy recently resigned his post and left the company over creative differences with CEO Michael Eisner and has been very vocal about the direction the studio is taking.
Gallery—Character Concept Designs
Featurette—Brandywine School of Illustration
Featurette—The 70/30 rule
Featurette—Delbert, Silver, and other Pencil Animation Tests
Music Video—"I'm Still Here (Jim's Theme)" by John Rzeznik
Original 1950 Live-Action Theatrical Trailer
The one thing that bothers me most about the supplemental materials on this disc is the way they have been packaged. Most of these elements can be found in multiple locations throughout the bonus menus. For instance, John Rzeznik's music video can be found under "Behind the Scenes > Music" and "Intergalactic Space Adventures" and as part of the "Visual Commentary." It's like the DVD designers wanted the appearance of having more material than they actually do. In fact, most, if not all of all, of the elements listed above are used (in whole or in part) throughout the Visual Commentary. In other words, save yourself the time and simply watch the commentary.
Credit Disney for taking a classic tale and putting a unique spin on it for a new audience to enjoy. Granted, the film is not one of the studios best, due mostly to the fact that this was a learning experience for everyone involved. Given the recent parting of ways between Disney and Pixar, the studio now more than ever needs to upgrade itself to continue delivering quality product amongst growing competition. Films like Brother Bear will no longer continue to engage an audience who has seen what the animation medium can offer. Nor will they keep the Disney coffers full. Perhaps it is time to pursue talent such as Hayao Miyazaki and others animators from Studio Ghibli. Since Disney will be unable compete digitally with Pixar, it may be best to excel with traditional animation and define new standards of storytelling. Treasure Planet is a respectable start, but the journey has only just begun.
Disney and Treasure Planet are hereby found not guilty. Here's hoping they will not forsake quality storytelling and characterization for the glitz and glare of the digital arena. This court is adjourned.
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• Visual Commentary
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