MOVIE REVIEW: “Treasure Planet” (2002)

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Widely derided and almost deliberately overlooked during its initial release in 2002, no one ever bothers to mention that Treasure Planet is the last Disney movie - ever - to actually provoke an honest emotional response out of its audience that wasn’t cloying or filled with treacle. (Not counting Pixar, of course.) While the movie unquestionably has its problems, it manages to offset these by hitting some sporadic highs that are better than anything The Mouse had attempted in thirty years or more. And yet reviewers seemed intent on ignoring its successes - and curiously also ignoring its specific failures - in favor of a blanket dismissal based on its admittedly-silly premise. Take, for example, this quote from Roger Ebert’s review:

>>I am not concerned about technical matters. I do not question why space ships of the future would look like sailing ships of the past. I can believe they could be powered by both rockets and solar winds. It does not bother me that deep space turns out to be breathable. I do not wonder why swashbuckling is still in style, in an era of ray guns and laser beams. I accept all of that. It's just that I wonder why I have to. << ( )

Now, I’ve long had a delicate and easily shaken respect for Mr. Ebert’s reviews, and while he claims to love science fiction, his reviews of genre films frequently suggest he just doesn’t quite ‘get it’, but what bothers me here isn’t a case of ‘not getting it,’ rather it’s a total failure of imagination on his part. Look, I’ll be the first person to admit that doing a space-based adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic pirate adventure novel “Treasure Planet” is silly. Doing it in a Victorian/steam punky fashion is sillier still, but just because something is unquestionably a little goofy doesn’t mean it’s bad, it doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t something new we can glean from looking at a familiar story through a new lens. Besides which, as any kid who’s ever wiled away an afternoon staring at a bunch of Yes album covers and daydreaming about how it would be to explore such a place can tell you: It’s freakin’ cool!

To be pointlessly fair, Ebert himself admits he’s more or less lost with this one:

>>>These are, I suppose, the objections of a hidebound reactionary. I believe that one should review the movie that has been made, not the movie one wishes had been made, and here I violate my own rule. But there was something in me that ... resisted ... this movie. I hope it did not blind me to its undeniable charms.<<<

I’ll be the first person to admit it’s difficult to wrap your brain around stripping a story from its normal setting and replacing it elsewhere, but if you can make that leap you’ll often find it rewarding. Orson Welles took Shakespeares’ plays, and transported them to 19th century Jamaica; Forbidden planet took “The Tempest” and set it on an alien world a few centuries in the future; Kenneth Branaugh took Hamlet and set it in Europe on the Eve of World War I. Akira Kurisawa’s brilliant Ran re-cast Lear in medieval Japan, and in so doing produced probably the greatest move I, personally, have ever seen. There’s neat stuff to be done here, and such translocations in time and space cause us to focus on the fundamental, timeless elements of the story as opposed to getting bogged down by the nature of the Danish Monarchy at that exact period in history.

That said, this movie is nowhere near up to the standards of the examples I cited, but it is, at root, a timeless adventure tale about a fatherless boy who manages to find some hope for himself, and that core remains in this version. Everything else is gravy. In fact, if there is a particular artistic failing to this film, it’s that it remains *too* literal to the source material, and waits too long to really put its own stamp on it and take it in new directions. I’d say that by the point it finally does veer off in to its own territory the critics had already lost interest, but that’s not really fair of me: the critics lost interest the moment they saw the movie poster.

If you’ve read Treasure Island, or seen one of the innumerable movies based on it, you’ll know the story. If you aren’t already familiar with it, I can only assume you’ve only recently learned English, or perhaps grew up in some weird religious cult. In a nutshell: A failing inn receives a dying pirate, who gives a map to a young boy. It leads to the treasure of a famous pirate. The inn is then destroyed by pirates looking for the map, but the boy and his widowed mom escape. A family friend decides to fund an expedition to retrieve the pirate, and they hire a crew. The ship’s cook, John Silver, befriends the boy. Upon finding Treasure Island, the crew turn out to be pirates, pretending to be respectable sailors, and mutiny. Silver was their leader all along. The boy, the captain, and a few others escape to the island, meet Old Ben, who’s been marooned there for ages, and hold out against innumerable odds while the pirates try to kill them and get the treasure. Silver changes sides for love of the boy, the good guys win, the bad guys die, and the ambiguous guys - just Silver, really - get off scott free.

You get all of that here, but transplanted in to a crazy 1970s prog rock album cover version of outer space, as if populated by the British navy at the peak of it’s Victorian power. I will openly admit that it is every bit as senseless and foolish as a perfume add, but that doesn’t deny that it’s freakin’ cool. The visual design is frequently eye-popping, the ships have an elegance and charm that only an old fogey from Chicago wouldn’t appreciate, the character designs are inventive and frequently quite funny, and the music - by Howard Shore, who I usually don’t like - is quite good. I mean, listen to this:

or if that link doesn’t work, try here: The good stuff comes in at 1:10, but oh my God, listen to that fanfare! Seriously, it’s just gorgeous, how can anyone not like that when the horns come in? Everyone raves about the crappy “Pirates of the Caribbean” soundtrack, but there is not a thing in it that can match the sheer joie de vivre and just plain old get-out-there-and-swash-yer-buckle excitement of that little phrase. It’s beautiful.

The major difference this time out is that Jim is a bit older in this version - he’s a sullen 17 year old, and troubled kid. Reckless, going nowhere, gets in trouble with the cops. A cliché, really, and yet to the credit of the writers and to voice actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, he rises above his obvious latchkey kid status, and remains likeable despite his disadvantages. We see him as someone who’s striving against his own limitations, not just a whiney attention-seeker from a broken home. Though his mom (Laurie Metcalf, who’s also great, and captures the harried tone of a woman facing financial disaster, but not wanting to scare her kid beautifully) doesn’t quite get it, Jim is lacking direction because he’s lacking a father, or, failing that, a father figure. This is a surprisingly conservative, non-PC thing to throw in to a film, yet there it is.

Long John Silver - a cyborg rather than a pegleg in this version of the story - and Jim have a lot in common: Both of them have believed in Treasure Planet their entire lives, while everyone around them has told ’em it’s not real. This is an interesting bond invented by this take on the story, and it adds some resonance to their relationship. For whatever reason, Silver takes a liking to the boy, and quickly realizes the lad never had a father. For reasons that start out mercenary, but quickly develop in to genuine affection, he takes the boy under his wing and starts teaching him stuff. Since this is only a 90 minute movie, all the long bonding scenes between them take place in one musical montage, but you know what? It totally works. The scenes of Silver teaching the boy, intercut with scenes of his father neglecting and ultimately abandoning him years earlier are very effective, and hard to ignore. Here, check it out:

(or if that link doesn’t work, try here )

Jim’s a good kid, we like him by this point, and how the hell could his father be so selfish as to walk out on them? And because we like Jim, and because Jim likes Silver, *We* like silver too, even though we know he’s no good. Yeah, this is the same conclusion that we come to in the book and the more normative movie versions, but the way Jim needs Silver in this version of the story is much more palpable, much more desperate, and surprisingly honest for a Disney flick. When Jim hears Silver’s plan, he’s pretty devastated, and what little is left of his world is spinning on the edge of destruction.

Jim rises to the challenge and they escape to the planet, where they meet Old Jim (Martin Short, in full-on Jerry Lewis mode here. Annoying.) and it’s at this point that the story starts to go it’s own way. A recurring question about the late Captain Flint was how he was capable of coming out of nowhere, literally nowhere, to attack ships and loot them. Turns out he had a giant space portal, kinda’ like a stargate, and the planet itself is an ancient Forbidden Planet-like mechanism created by a dead race, which he discovered and used to his advantage.

The conclusion is exciting, clever, and makes sense within the confines of this odd film’s universe, and when Jim is talking to Silver in the end, and admits that he finally sees a future for himself, it’s every bit as moving as when Captain Kirk says “I feel young.” and “It’s something a friend was trying to tell me on my birthday.” There’s a very strong emotional through-line here, and in the wordless denouement, when we see a slightly older Jim, well on his way to becoming a much better man than his father ever was, it’s hard not to be a bit moved by that as well.

The animation is an interesting blend of CGI, hand-painted background, and ink-and-pen stuff that mostly works quite well, and is more experimental - particularly in terms of lighting and shadow - than the usual Disney fare. There was a short late-sequence period when Disney’s traditional animation department was bleeding money and desperately trying to hold on to an audience that was getting wooed away by the CGI flicks on every corner. They were willing to take a lot more chances with the format during this period, and this film and Brother Bear are the best examples of that, though Brother Bear is essentially traditional 90s Disney Fare (Schmaltz, basically), whereas this movie rises above that.

So there’s a lot to like here, if you’re not the kind of person who judges a book by it’s cover, or the kind of critic who misjudges a movie by it’s marquee.

Worth a look. Definitely worth a look.