Disney is not usually restrained in letting you know what animated movies it owns. They’re still making new theme park rides based on cartoons the studio made in the 1930s. Meanwhile, they’ve been controversially promoting works on social media that they acquired from the Disney/Fox merger as if they’ve always been a part of the Disney library. Throw a stone and you’re bound to hit a billboard reminding you that Disney is the studio behind properties like Zootopia or Raya and the Last Dragon. The Mouse House has cultivated its brand over these kinds of iconic animated properties. However, that doesn’t mean every animated feature that Disney has produced has gotten this kind of ongoing push. Take, for example, Treasure Planet.
One of the more forgotten properties in the Walt Disney Animation Studios canon, you won’t be seeing new theme park attractions at Shanghai Disneyland based on the exploits of Jim Hawkins (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Long John Silver (Brian Murray). Meanwhile, it’s doubtful that there are any plans for Disney+ shorts continuing the in-universe adventures of these characters. Why would there be? Treasure Planet was a legendary box office disaster that informed Disney’s decision to forego hand-drawn animation in its feature-length projects. Those financial results largely led to Disney treating Treasure Planet like The Black Cauldron or Home on the Range, a box office dud without much reason to be acknowledged. But Treasure Planet is a movie with plenty of virtues worth recognizing. In fact, Treasure Planet has so many unique charms that it’s well worth calling this passion project from directors Ron Clements and John Musker one of the unsung gems in the Walt Disney Animation Studios canon.
Based on the Robert Louis Stevenson novel Treasure Island, Treasure Planet takes the story of Jim Hawkins and his search for buried treasure and places it in the stars. Though many of the characters from the source material remain, they’ve been translated to fit archetypes and molds common in sci-fi entertainment. A peg-legged pirate like John Silver, for example, is now a cyborg. Meanwhile, a parrot, the usual companion pet of a pirate, is now a pink blob named Morph that can transform into a miniature replica of anyone or anything, like a cosmic version of the Pokemon creature Ditto.
Treasure Planet isn’t about eschewing its older roots, it’s about blending them with new outer spacing trappings. This manifests itself in various creative ways, but one of the most exciting examples is how it bleeds over into production design. Treasure Planet takes place in a world where voyages to other planets are common and aliens are just your next-door neighbors. However, it also uses architecture and costumes ripped straight out of the 19th-century when Treasure Island was first published. This vision of futuristic sci-fi as imagined by someone from the 1800s is immediately captivating, especially since it goes hand-in-hand with a similar fusion of hand-drawn artistry and computer-animated wizardry. In the early 2000s, there was a thought of these two art forms being at each other’s throats for dominance. Treasure Planet dares to ask the question of why they can’t co-exist and work off each other? Thus, the humans and aliens are lovingly hand-drawn creations, while several environments, like the lush forests on the titular location, are realized through the same means.
However, they’re accompanied by CG accentuations in places like the mechanical doubloon-covered center of Treasure Planet or to represent a black hole that the characters almost get sucked into. Using CG for these elements of the production quietly succeeds at suggesting how out of place a tormented teenage boy is in these daunting environments. The hand-drawn Hawkins stands out against these backdrops and that’s the point, he’s supposed to immediately look like an underdog who doesn’t belong here. As for the CG cyborg parts on Long John Silver, they look fantastic and work incredibly well at instantly conveying how much of himself this character has sacrificed in pursuit of a legendary treasure. Nearly every hand-drawn animated film made in the 21st-century has utilized CG tools to some degree, but few have used them for such thoughtful means.
And then there’s the emotional heart of Treasure Planet, which deals with a young man grappling with his daddy issues. Jim Hawkins is one of many Disney protagonists to deal with absent parental figures, but many of these individuals have fond visions of their parents or lost them due to tragedies beyond anyone’s control. Hawkins, meanwhile, lost his dad in more grounded circumstances, with his father leaving his family one morning without warning or even saying goodbye to his offspring. Aging up Hawkins to a teenager, compared to the child version of Hawkins from Treasure Island, means the trauma from these experiences has simmered to form a hard shell around Hawkins.
Going this route with the character makes Hawkins a distinctive figure in the realm of Walt Disney Animation Studios protagonists. The uniqueness of his internal plight is further fleshed out in the best sequence of Treasure Planet, a montage of Hawkins and Long John Silver bonding set to the original tune “I’m Still Here (Jim’s Theme)”. In another departure from Disney norms, “I’m Still Here” is a non-diegetic song, one whose appropriately raggedy vocals from John Rzeznik seem to be speaking from Hawkins’ heart, not his lips.
Going this route is a genius move since it allows the characters to focus on gradually bonding through small physical gestures (like Silver lending Hawkins a coat after a long day of work) rather than singing and dancing. The realistic behavior in this montage is put to especially great use when the scene flashes back to the morning Jim’s father left his family. The vocals and instrumentals in “I’m Still Here” take on a new level of urgency as Hawkins races over to a dad that’s about to vanish forever. The quietly devastating behavior of adolescent Hawkins breaks your heart. Meanwhile, Hawkins getting taken out for a ride amongst the stars with surrogate father figure Silver proceeds to make your spirit soar.
Eschewing dialogue here doesn’t just allow aid the tonal variety of the “I’m Still Here” montage, it also gives the animators a chance to impress. There’s no dialogue in this sequence, everything these characters are feeling comes down to the body language and tiniest features in the animation to convey the emotional importance of these moments in Hawkins’ life. Even the transitions between moments set in the past and the present see the animators finding creative ways to suggest how the trauma of yesteryear bleeds over into the modern-day psyche of Hawkins.
Outside of the Fantastia films, it’s hard to find other Disney Animation films that take the time to forego dialogue and take advantage of the visual storytelling skills of hand-drawn animators. The sheer emotional power of this bonding montage wouldn’t be there without these talented artists rising to the challenges of such a bold scene. No matter what angle you look at it from, this “I’m Still Here (Jim’s Theme)” montage is incredible and a microcosm of the unique creative instincts that make Treasure Planet such a rich film.
Even the film’s ending departs from Disney norms by refusing to tie everything up into a bow regarding the relationship between Hawkins and Silver. An opportunity for the two to continue to work side-by-side, which conceptually sounds like a typical “happy ending”, is eschewed. Instead, Hawkins makes a conscious choice to chart his own future rather than relying on a father figure, surrogate, or otherwise. It’s a moment of quiet realism that serves as a perfect extension of the authentic feelings conveyed in the earlier “I’m Still Here (Jim’s Theme)” montage. By refusing to just go the easy route in wrapping up this dynamic, Treasure Planet reaffirms its commitment to unique and emotionally resonant storytelling.
Of course, this directorial effort from Ron Clements and John Musker isn’t perfect, no feature from Disney Animation is devoid of shortcomings. Comic relief character B.E.N. (Martin Short) is too loud and comes into Treasure Planet far too late to feel like a necessary part of the plot. There are also clumsy pieces of dialogue while the entertainingly bravura character Captain Amelia (Emma Thompson) getting sidelined for the third act with a brutal injury is a waste of one of Disney’s more memorable action heroes.
However, those flaws are outweighed by truly impressive creative decisions, particularly in its visuals and a gangbusters montage sequence, which makes it unlike any other entry in the Walt Disney Animation Studios canon. Treasure Planet deserves to be known for far more than just its box office struggles. It’s an unsung gem in this canon that Disney has tragically ignored for decades. The only advantage to the movie flying so far under Disney’s radar is that it can now serve, for those who’ve never seen it, as something akin to cinematic buried treasure once they watch it.
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