“And what do you see off that bow of yours?”
-John Silver and Jim Hawkins, Treasure Planet
Twenty years ago today, a film released that puzzled critics, sank at the box office, and dazzled the handful of youngsters that watched it. Of course, to fully understand how Treasure Planet came to be and why it wasn’t initially well-received, you have to look back a bit further than two decades ago…
In the mid-Eighties, the Walt Disney Company was struggling to stay relevant in the entertainment industry. Roughly twenty years after the death of its founder, the company was drifting without any clear direction. They desperately greenlit all kinds of wild projects in an attempt to find the next big thing that would restore the reputation of the name “Disney”. All of their efforts failed: at best, they ended up with films that were too ahead of their time for audiences to appreciate them, and at worst… they made movies like The Black Cauldron. The movies Walt Disney Animation Studios had been producing weren’t particularly exciting or innovative. The Black Cauldron attempted to change that by being the first PG-rated animated film that the studio released (this was a big deal at the time, as PG wasn’t the default kids’ movie rating it is now). The result traumatized some children, bored others, and only grossed $21 million against a $44 million budget.
It was obvious to newly-installed studio head Jeffry Katzenberg and CEO Michel Eisner something needed to change, and the solution was to ask the up-and-coming animators at the studio to pitch their ideas for the kind of films that they wanted to make (an idea that Eisner had brought over from Paramount Pictures). During a pitch session in 1985, one idea presented by Ron Clements was a loose adaptation of Hans Christan Anderson’s The Little Mermaid. Directed by Clements and fellow animator John Musker, the 1989 film marked the beginning of the “Disney Renaissance”, a decade-long era of critical and commercial success for Disney animated films that also served as a sort of return to form. The Little Mermaid and the films that followed it borrowed a classic equation from the earliest Disney animated films: public domain story minus the dark and depressing bits plus songs equals success.
During the same meeting where The Little Mermaid was conceived, Clements pitched another idea, though this one seemed way more unorthodox. It was “Treasure Island in Space,” a reimagining of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island… set in space. Eisner quickly shot the idea down. During his time at Paramount, a Star Trek sequel inspired by Treasure Island was in the works, and he was worried that it would look like Disney was trying to copy their rival. However, time went by, and that iteration of a Star Trek movie never came to pass. Meanwhile, the directorial duo of Clements and Musker proved to be essential to the Disney Renaissance, as they directed Aladdin and Hercules. It became clear that the duo knew how to make hits, so perhaps it was best to let them make their weird little passion project about space pirates.
The creative team behind Treasure Planet was remarkably ambitious, especially with how they planned to blend traditional and computer animation. Techniques like this had been used in previous animated Disney films: like the ballroom in Beauty and the Beast, the escape from the Cave of Wonders in Aladdin, and the Hydra fight in Hercules, but Treasure Planet aimed to use computer-generated imagery on a much more vast and complex level. Virtual sets used the Deep Canvas technology first developed for the vine-swinging sequences in 1999’s Tarzan. The directors found using digital environments to be particularly liberating because it meant greater freedom with camera angles: the background was no longer “locked” into a single position that had been painstakingly hand-drawn. Also, the use of computers allowed animators to experiment with more complex characters. While John Silver is mostly drawn by hand, his cyborg components (his right eye, side of his head, arm, and leg) are all computer animated, allowing them to constantly shift and transform in small, intricate ways. As nothing like this had been done before, the animation team tested the technique out by taking some pre-existing frames of Captain Hook from Peter Pan, removing his arm, and digitally replacing it with a mechanical one.
The traditional and computer-animated elements don’t always mesh together seamlessly, but there is enough consistency in the art direction that makes all the digital elements feel like they belong in this film. Yes, the alien space whales look like they belong in a PlayStation 3 game, but at the same time, Silver’s prosthetics operate in perfect synchronicity with the rest of his body, and sometimes you can barely tell the wholly-digital B.E.N. was animated separately from all of the other characters around him.
The technology behind the animation wasn’t the only part of Treasure Planet that hybridized the old and the new. The creative team approached worldbuilding with what they called the “70-30 rule”: 70% of all designs had to have an old-timey 17th Century feel, with the remaining 30% being futuristic. This gave Treasure Planet a very distinct visual identity. The spacecrafts resemble sailing ships, with only the engines nestled in the back and the glimmer of the solar sails hinting at their spacefaring capabilities. Laser guns look like flintlock pistols, and the crescent moon-shaped Montressor Spaceport is covered in expanses of Victorian architecture. Even the reaches of space (dubbed “the Etherium” by the film) seem to have more in common with fantasy than science fiction, with its whimsical sights and colorful expanses. Galactic wonders are treated like nautical phenomena, with black holes serving as maelstroms and planetary sightings warranting a “land ho!” as though they’re islands. There are even ray-like aliens that flock like seagulls. Every frame of this movie radiates an instantly recognizable creativity.
Treasure Planet sailed into theaters on November 27, 2002, and it bombed harder than a supernova. With a budget of $140 million, it’s the most expensive animated movie ever made, but it only managed to scrape up $110 million at the box office. The film opened fourth in the United States behind Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Die Another Day, and The Santa Clause 2. Some speculate that Disney sabotaged Treasure Planet by giving it a release date so close to the sequel to one of the highest-grossing films of all time, a James Bond film and one of their own movies, as well as not putting enough effort into marketing. However, I remember the commercials. I had the Scroop Happy Meal toy from McDonald’s and the Gameboy Advanced tie-in video game. Maybe it was just because I was consuming a Disney-centric diet of media, but Treasure Planet seemed unavoidable when I was a wee lad.
I have another theory as to why Treasure Planet was dead on arrival: John Musker and Ron Clemments’ passion project was killed by their past successes. Movies like The Little Mermaid and Aladdin had defined what audiences had expected from Disney’s animated films for a decade: musicals, often including or focused around a princess. Tarzan is, fittingly, the missing link between two eras of Disney animation. At the turn of the Millenium, the studio was dipping its toes into action-filled genre films, and Phil Collins’ soundtrack for Tarzan seemed to be an attempt to ease the transition. However, by the time Disney was releasing movies like Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet, it’s very likely that parents were confused as to where the princesses and singing animals were. Lilo & Stitch is somewhat of an outlier in this time period, as it was successful at the box office, but it’s important to note that there was an aggressive marketing campaign that tied the movie to the Disney brand by having Stitch invade movies like Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. Treasure Planet and Atlantis: The Lost Empire didn’t offer anything familiar or “Disney-like” to audiences, and as a result, they’re both astonishingly unique and creative films that few showed up to see in theaters.
There’s a certain irony to Treasure Planet being one of the animated Disney films that aren’t a musical because it probably has my favorite use of a song in any of these movies. The montage using “I’m Still Here” (by John Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls) gives me goosebumps every time I watch it because of how it tells you everything about Jim and Silver’s dynamic in the most emotionally raw way possible. Rzeznik’s anthem of teen angst plays against Silver trying to put Jim to work, trying to teach him how to do things while he resists. Not only is Jim suspicious that Silver is the cyborg that he was warned about, but he’s also having flashbacks to his father leaving him as a kid. Jim refuses to open himself up because he never wants to let himself get hurt like that again. However, as the song’s dismissive “I’m not here” turns to an “I’m still here,” Jim and Silver connect with one another. Jim lets his guard down and bonds with Silver, and you just feel this rush of emotions because you’re happy to see Jim finally have a father figure who’s there for him, but at the same time, you know that Silver’s betrayal is inevitable.
Speaking of Silver, he really is a fascinating character. While he’s the central antagonist, he never really fits the mold of a traditional villain. In fact, he goes through as much of an arc as Jim does. Silver spends the entire movie split between his lifelong pursuit of Captain Flint’s treasure and his genuine care for Jim, trying desperately to have it both ways. You can see Silver making compromises to his schemes as he tries to find the least painful way to stab Jim in the back, something he has to do to keep his crew’s respect. However, the climax of the film reveals that Silver can’t have both the treasure and Jim- he’s forced to make a choice. Even if it seems a bit cliché, it’s a brilliant payoff to this man’s inner conflict.
It’s sort of fascinating that Musker and Clemments were able to be so blunt with Jim’s dad abandoning him. There are a lot of Disney films with single parents, but this is the only one I can think of where they point-blank confirm that one of them walked out. In fact, I didn’t immediately understand it as a small child. In the part of the flashback where Jim runs down the deck and cries out as his father sails away, I thought that he was going off to war or on an adventure, and I imagined a follow-up to Treasure Planet, where Jim finds the planet his dad was marooned on and they have a happy reunion. It wasn’t until I got a little older that I realized that sometimes fathers disappear on purpose, and they don’t want to be found. Of course, knowing now what I didn’t know then, it makes the finale of the movie all the more bittersweet. As a child, Jim was helpless to stop his father from leaving. However, at the end of the film, Jim has found a new father in Silver, but poetically, he has to choose to let him go so that he can be free. Both times, Jim watches the father figure he has a complicated relationship with fly off in a little boat, but this time things are ending on his terms. This time, Jim knows that he’s loved, he’s aware that he’s made someone proud, and above all, he gets to say “goodbye.”
This may be one of the few movies I loved as a kid that I love even more as an adult.
It appears the general public has also grown more fond of Treasure Planet as time has gone by, and I suspect that this won’t be the only article out today celebrating the movie’s 20th anniversary. Maybe Disney themselves will reflect back on Treasure Planet as something other than a project that cost them millions. They actually did imagine a bright future for this movie and its universe before the box office numbers came in. There was a sequel in development before the film’s release, which would’ve followed Jim in the Royal Interstellar Academy. He would’ve teamed up with his classmate and love interest, Kate, and reunited with John Silver. Together, they’d have to stop Ironbeard, a robotic pirate (set to be voiced by Willem Defoe), from breaking out the inmates of the Botany Bay Prison Asteroid.
Tommy Walters of the Eels and Abandoned Pools (and the man behind the Clone High theme song) was attached to write and perform original songs for Treasure Planet 2. Director Jun Falkenstein and screenwriter Evan Spiliotopoulos were involved in the film’s early development. It’s unknown whether this was meant to be a theatrical release or one of Disney’s notorious direct-to-video sequels, but the fact that they planned to hire talent as big as Willem Defoe (who had just starred as the Green Goblin in Spider-Man) suggests the former. Regardless, as soon as it became clear that Treasure Planet was going to be a financial flop, all plans for Treasure Planet 2 were dropped.
However, there actually was an officially-released follow up to Treasure Planet that follows Jim’s time in the Navy… and it was released before the movie came out. One of Treasure Planet’s tie-in video games was the PC title Treasure Planet: Battle at Procyon. Set five years after the film, the game depicts Jim as a captain in the Royal Navy. Captain Amelia has been promoted to an admiral, and Silver only comes up in rumors, which link him to a sinister plot by the catlike Procyons. However, it’s later revealed that it was actually a robotic imposter, and the real Silver helps Jim stop the Procyons by ramming their ship with his at the very end. The Queen (yeah, this game reveals there’s a space queen) awards Jim and his crew with the “imperial starburst” and posthumously knights Silver, but it’s teased that he’s not really dead… somehow.
Battle at Procyon is a naval strategy game, so there are no character models- just boats. However, we do get to see what Jim looks like “five years later” through illustrations at the end of each level. For some reason, they all look like haphazard MS Paint drawings, which makes you wonder why they couldn’t get someone better at replicating the artstyle of the movie. Regardless, we see that “future Jim” is rocking a scar and a soul patch- this is certainly a game that came out in the year 2002. His icon braid is still missing in action, as it was after the end of the movie.
Looking at Battle at Procyon, it makes me wonder if it’s for the best that Treasure Planet never expanded into a proper franchise. Don’t get me wrong, I’d kill to live in the universe where Willem Dafoe voices a robot pirate, but there’s something special about Treasure Planet being a gorgeous little film that failed to make its money back rather than another gigantic IP that Disney will endlessly mine for content. Of course, if one Treasure Planet movie isn’t enough to satisfy your desire for a sci-fi box office bomb from the early 2000s that heavily combines traditional and computer animation to tell the story of a young man who was separated from his father long ago and seeks to escape his futureless life by following a map that only he can unlock… then there’s always Titan A.E.
I joke, seeing as Titan A.E. and Treasure Planet are actually two very different films. However, it’s impossible to ignore how they share enough tonal and aesthetic similarities so that Titan A.E. comes up in every conversation about Treasure Planet, and Treasure Planet comes up in every conversation about Titan A.E. The two movies are quantum entangled twins separated at birth and destined to form the ultimate double feature.
It’s a miracle that Treasure Planet ever got made. The higher-ups at Disney kept shooting it down because they didn’t believe it would be a hit with audiences, and from a financial standpoint, they were right. Treasure Planet is the kind of movie that keeps executives up at night, because they’d rather not take the risk of doing something as absurd as “Treasure Island, but it’s in space and it’s not a musical” (the “musical” part is important, because that’s what got them to greenlight “Hamlet, but it’s with lions.”).
Thankfully, the movie had two visionaries in its corner to prop it back up every time it got knocked down by the studio. Musker and Clemments showed kids a wondrous universe unlike anything they had seen before. Through Jim, a lot of us learned that it’s normal to feel lost or misunderstood, and that even troublemakers have the potential to achieve something great. Twenty years later, Disney may have moved on from Treasure Planet, but the fans…
We’re still here.