Treasure Planet

Treasure Planet ★★★★

Towards the end of the era of traditional animation in Disney, the studio began to start taking some strange risks in an attempt to regain the ground they were losing to computer generated animations like Toy Story and Shrek. One of the biggest of these risks came in finally allowing directing duo John Musker and Ron Clements to undertake their long gestating passion project: Treasure Island in space.
This film often gets folded into the catalogue of middling disappointments for Disney, with Lilo & Stitch being the only Disney film of the immediate post-Renaissance remembered as a classic with anything but niche nostalgic appeal. It's easy to look at this and Atlantis as two of a kind, released concurrently and both with more of a sci-fi adventure tone, both to middling praise and disappointing box office. I wasn't overly enamoured by Atlantis and it rapidly faded from my consciousness, so I moved this seeming companion piece onto the back burner. However, now that I've seen it, I'm really kind of shocked at how well it holds up. It does have issues and I think with one rather large change would've been required to elevate it to the true Disney pantheon, but you can feel Musker and Clements's passion for the project in every frame. It was clearly a labour of love, that creativity and sincerity does comes across.
The film follows Jim Hawkins (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) a teenager who dreams of adventure and acts out to his single mother (Laurie Metcalfe) who finds the destiny he may have been looking for when a storied treasure map falls into his hands. He and an eccentric family friend (David Hyde Pearce) hire a crew to find the treasure, but dischord soon begins to materialise as Hawkins flies under the wing of the ship's shady cyborg cook John Silver (a fantastic performance by Brian Murray). The voice cast is superb, also including Michael Wincott, Roscoe Lee Browne, Patrick McGoohan and even Emma Thompson as the feline captain. The only possibly sour note is struck by Martin Short as the trying too hard toy-friendly robot who materialises in the last third. But the consistent standout is Murray who strikes a perfect balance between paternally reassuring and sinister as the roguish Silver. His scenes opposite Hawkins give the film it's emotional core and both play their roles perfectly with real heart and resonance to their interactions.
The other place you really feel the creative passion is just in the look of things, in 2002 Disney this is about as advanced as traditional animation ever got and it's a stunning film to look at. The designs mixing 18th and 28th century aesthetics and the slick, the eccentric aliens and the fluid movements of the characters are all phenomenal, and it all goes into a well paced coming of age adventure story with fresh humour that at times feels almost-Futurama inspired, and thrilling action set pieces making the most of the new technologies available, blending CGI environments with the characters seamlessly.
That does ultimately lead us to the one big fix and what some could identify as the film's fatal flaw: Jim Hawkins's character. He is underwritten, especially in the setup. This was the first movie Musker and Clements worked on that wasn't a musical (the wiki says it was their first since The Great Mouse Detective, but that has a few notable song numbers so I'm counting that as a musical too) and Jim is crying out for a big musical number establishing his motivations. There's a perfect moment for one too when he is sitting alone on the roof after fighting with his mom just before the point of attack when the map arrives at his door. And the movie has one written too! The John Rzeznik song "I'm Still Here" recorded and used in the film would've made a perfect "I Want..." song for Jim to sing himself at this early juncture. Instead it plays over a montage of life aboard ship as he gets to know Silver, and that works great too, it's a fantastic sequence that works emotionally, but it doesn't resonate the way it would if it were the character singing it diegetically and not Rzeznik's disembodied narrator. This song is way better than Collins's compositions, but it's the Tarzan problem all over again where the lack of musical numbers really takes something out of the characters. Give Hawkins a proper "I Want..." song that firmly establishes his character and motivations right out of the gate and this would be an elite tier Disney movie and easily the most underrated film in the whole canon. Instead, we have a great movie held back by a slightly underwritten lead.