Picture a majestic galleon straight out of a Melville novel. Huge sails swell from the exhale of a hearty gale. The creaky planks of its enormous wooden deck await a good swabbing. Powerful rocket boosters fire enthusiastically, eager to transport the vessel on its quest to the outer reaches of the galaxy. While it may sound like an odd juxtaposition, that combination of 19th century swashbuckling and space-age technology mesh quite well in Treasure Planet, an exciting new animated adventure yarn that’s part Robert Louis Stevenson, part Gene Roddenberry.
Jim Hawkins is a sullen 15-year-old who has been in and out of trouble with the law since his father walked out. Among his Gen-Y transgressions are reckless skyboarding and wind-surfing in restricted areas. He dreams of more, but lacks direction and a strong male influence in his life. Jim’s mom does her best to raise the angst-ridden lad alone while tending to the diverse alien clientele at her inn. One night, when a one-man spaceship crash-lands nearby, Jim helps the wounded pilot reach the inn, only to have the creature hand him a holographic treasure map and wheeze a few cryptic words before dying. Young Hawkins sees this turn of events as his ticket to redemption. "I know I keep letting you down," Jim tells his cautious mother, "but this is my chance to make it up to you."
Accompanied by scholarly dog-man Dr. Doppler (Frasier’s David Hyde Pierce), Jim sets off to find Treasure Planet and "the loot of a thousand worlds" with a professional group of spacers led by the feline Captain Amelia (voiced by Emma Thompson with spit-and-polish aplomb). She’s on the level, but most of her crew are actually bloodthirsty interstellar pirates waiting for an opportune moment to mutiny. As they traverse the cosmos, Jim discovers the rewards of labor, teamwork and responsibility in the role of cabin boy. His mentor is the genial John Silver who is half-human, half-cyborg. Silver becomes a friend and father figure to Jim, and tells him, "You’ve got the makin’s of greatness in you!" Imagine Jim’s shock and disappointment when, just before the scheming band of thieves decides to strike, he learns that Silver is their ringleader. The remainder of the story involves wild chases, amazing discoveries and an unlikely romance.
Written and directed by Ron Clements and John Musker (the same duo who helmed The Little Mermaid, Hercules and Aladdin), Treasure Planet is a cleverly offbeat, yet faithful adaptation of Stevenson’s literary classic. Instead of crashing waves and heaving swells, the ship gets buffeted by space storms, cosmic debris and a black hole. Rather than a peg leg and an eye patch, John Silver sports a mechanical leg, cybertronic eye and a right arm that functions like a high-tech Swiss army knife. This version also injects playful comic relief by substituting a shape-shifting blob named Morph for Silver’s parrot, and a hilarious robot (voiced by the manic Martin Short) for the person of Ben Gunn.
"We wanted it to be as if Stevenson had written science fiction," says Clements. "It’s the future from an 18th century perspective. There are no computers, televisions or microwave ovens, but rather things that someone from that time period might picture the future as having. Our retro combination of elements—with a strong emphasis on the past—gives the film a warmth the genre doesn’t usually have."
In addition to being visually dynamic and flat-out entertaining, the movie includes themes parents and teens can explore together: The source of true wealth. Choosing friends and judging character. The transformation of Jim from an aimless troublemaker to a young man of purpose. Self-sacrifice. Loyalty. Mercy. Justice. Treasure Planet is a coming-of-age story with a young hero to whom preteens can relate, and a villain far more complex than most animated antagonists.
Furthermore, while Disney is notorious for doing away with one or both of the hero’s parents in its films, Treasure Planet does more than just use an absentee dad as a convenient device to imply a transition to adulthood. It explores the specific implications of that abandonment on Jim’s character. His angst. His delinquency. At one point his mother says, "Ever since his father left, Jim has just never recovered." A rock tune courtesy of Goo Goo Dolls vocalist/guitarist John Rzeznik lays over a montage of bonding moments between Jim and John Silver, which are interspersed with Jim’s painful memories of his father’s indifference. It’s a powerful sequence that illustrates every boy’s need for a caring, involved dad.
Families may wonder if a film with so much going for it has anything working against it. Not really. There’s some bloodless gunfire and swordplay. Several characters—including a noble shipmate—die by disappearing into voids or floating off into space. A few scenes feature comic crudities (an alien’s native tongue sounds like flatulence) or gross images (an eyeball bobs to the top of a bowl of soup), but nothing parents of adolescents should find objectionable.
Meanwhile, Disney hopes the thrill-seeking young males they’re targeting haven’t already written off animated fare as beneath them. In the summer of 2001, Disney tried to create a profitable sub-genre by aiming at preadolescent boys "too cool for kiddie cartoons" with a slightly more mature ink-and-paint saga. But the PG-rated Atlantis: The Lost Empire failed to make a strong impression, and further disappointed Christian families with its New Age spirituality. Fortunately, the studio’s second PG journey to a legendary locale is a vast improvement. It would be a shame for teens to cast it off. In a movie season sure to be dominated by Hogwarts and Hobbits, Treasure Planet may not be the most anticipated holiday release, but it’s definitely one of the best.
dvd bonus material: On the whole, Treasure Planet’s bonus features are very educational and well worth having on the shelf. Highlights include "Disney’s Animation Magic," a 14-minute backstage tour that examines the evolution of ideas from models and storyboards to the film’s final blend of CGI and hand-drawn animation. Children will enjoy the disc’s dynamic, 11-minute history of pirate origins, their flags, treasure and more. While it takes patience to scroll through the stills, impressive galleries of concept art are loaded with hundreds of drawings, detailed schematics, character sketches and fully realized paintings so lush and colorful that you’ll wish you could use them as computer wallpaper. There are also movie trailers, three-dimensional set designs and a stylish rock music video for John Rzeznik’s "I’m Still Here (Jim’s Theme)" that subtly ties to the film without lazily lifting montages of animated scenes and dumping music on top—it’s an MTV-ready artistic creation in its own right.
For behind-the-scenes insights, you can’t beat the "Visual Commentary" which operates like a normal DVD commentary (filmmakers talk over the top of the action, discussing the scenes as they play out) ... but with a twist. Every few minutes we’re transported out of the action to view a deleted scene, an illustrator’s discussion of a character, etc. While this is a novel idea, it also brings up one of two problems with these bonus materials: redundancy. At first glance it looks like there’s more content on the disc than there really is. Once you start clicking icons, the same clip will show up under several headings. You click it only to realize you’ve already seen it. For example, an animation test in which John Silver’s CGI arm was attached to Peter Pan’s Captain Hook is cool the first time, but you’ll stumble across the exact same clip four times throughout the extras. If you’ve already worked through those bits one by one, watching the Visual Commentary will start to feel like surfing the Web and being assaulted with intrusive pop-up ads. Every time it pulls you away for an extracurricular moment, it’s a familiar clip. To avoid frustration, I’d recommend watching the Visual Commentary before bouncing through the other add-ons for a more fluid experience. Then pick and choose from among the individual clips to fill in the gaps later.
I mentioned two problems. The other is a sluggish 3D virtual tour of the sailing ship. The first pass is a bit of a chore, but the very same tour occurs three times—move for move—with different voiceovers describing different issues. That gets tedious very quickly. But in the grand scheme of things, those shortcomings are overshadowed by fascinating discussions of character development, story structure and the tough artistic decisions that get made at the highest levels of the craft.