Treasure Planet is Robert Louis Stevenson meets George Lucas. More specifically, it’s Treasure Island meets The Phantom Menace.
The movie’s story is substantially that of Stevenson’s classic tale of pirates and adventure on the high seas, while its setting and visual storytelling language draws heavily on Lucas’s classic Star Wars series.
This movie turns on the concept of irony, but unless you’re a literary purist, this beautifully-drawn fusion of the past and the future works. The spaceships in Treasure Planet are elegant seafaring ships fitted with solar sails to push them between the stars. (They actually look a good bit like the airships designed by Dallas-area artist Real Musgrave.) The costumes are reminiscent of the eighteenth century, but usually there are extraterrestrials inside them.
The plot follows Treasure Island more than one might guess. It would be impossible to do the entire book in a movie with a run time of 95 minutes, so many things have been omitted or compressed, but the basic plot of the movie intersects with the book a great deal. Stevenson’s book is a ripping adventure tale with more plot twists and more character depth than many children’s books. By following its story as closely as they have, the filmmakers have retained much of what made the novel a classic.
The movie also pulls much from Lucas’s work, particularly from The Phantom Menace. In fact, in some ways it even bests what Lucas did. For example, less than five minutes into the movie there is a sequence that not only mirrors Phantom Menace’s pod race but in significant respects improves on it. In this sequence we meet the teenage hero of the movie, Jim Hawkins (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), riding a floating, solar-sail surfboard through a dangerous, twisty valley that looks just like Beggar’s Canyon on Tatooine. He’s clearly a monster-cool board rider, pulling off death-defying, better-than-X-Games stunts. But unlike Lucas’s pod-race sequence, Jim’s escapade doesn’t drag on for twelve minutes and there is no heavy "This kid has got to win or we’re all doomed" atmosphere hanging over it. Jim’s doing his solar surfing for the sheer joy of it, and we get to share that joy with him.
That is not to say that Treasure Planet is successful in every respect. There are plot holes, some of which could have been fixed with a single line of dialogue. For example, when Jim and his travelling companion, Dr. Doppler (David Hyde Pierce), charter a space-faring vessel to take them to Treasure Planet, there is no onscreen explanation why the captain assigns Jim — one of her employers — to duties as a cabin boy.
Also, the plot is usually quite predictable. Though there are a large number of plot twists, the set-ups for these are so obvious that it is quite easy to tell what’s coming (at least if you’re an adult).
Despite the plot’s predictability, the pace of the action is quite brisk, with one notable exception: The denouement is just too long. After we get past the movie’s action-intense climax, we just don’t need another five to seven minutes of talky supplemental material showing what happened to the characters afterward. Half of that would have done.
For some viewers, one of the weak points in the film will seem eerily reminiscent of The Phantom Menace. Two-thirds of the way through the movie a character is introduce who is a rapid-talking, spastic robot (Martin Short) who likes to give (entirely innocent) hugs. He is almost as annoying as Jar-Jar Binks. Fortunately, he isn’t in that much of the movie.
Another potentially annoying character is one of the sailors on Jim’s ship, a blob-like alien who speaks a language that is entirely made up of flatulence noises. Fortuately, they don’t come from his posterior region, and he doesn’t have that many lines in the film. (Actually, in small doses, this character can be really funny.)
On the other hand, Emma Thompson’s character, Captain Amelia, is a real treat to watch and listen to. Physically beautiful and feline, Amelia makes an eighteenth-century captain’s uniform look better than it has in centuries. Her strict spit-and-polish attitude is excellently realized by Thompson, whose formal British enunciation also suits the droll dialogue Amelia is frequently given.
Like the recent Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Lilo & Stitch, Treasure Planet departs somewhat from the formerly iron-clad Disney Formula hammered out and rigorously enforced between The Little Mermaid and Mulan.
For example, there are no show-stopping musical numbers. For another, characters die (offscreen) in this film. We never actually see the deaths, but several characters fall or float into oblivion. Older kids will realize the implied deaths, though younger children probably will think of these characters as just "gone" (especially since nobody ever dies in most of the cartoons they see).
Still, substantial elements of the Disney Formula are still in place. We have a young hero (Jim Hawkins) who must strike out on his own (find Treasure Planet) because things are bad at home (it burned down and his mother has no money to rebuild). He has an absent or defective father (actually both: Jim’s father abandoned his family) and a goofy animal (-like) sidekick (a tiny, shapeshifting blob named Morph).
The level of Political Correctness in the movie is lower than one might fear. True, Jim’s father is both gone and a jerk, but as in Lilo & Stitch Disney gives the brokenness of the protagonist’s family a pro-family spin. Far from normalizing Jim’s family situation, the film is so clear about the nature of the problem that I began to wonder whether it might prove disturbing to children from broken homes.
It is made very clear that what Jim’s father did was wrong and that his wife and son suffered as a result. In particular, Jim has not matured has he should, due to the absence of a father to teach him the ways of manhood. It is fortunate for Jim, then, when he is assigned to serve the ship’s cook, Silver (Brian Murray), who begins to function as a surrogate father and who teaches him the responsibility he needs to become a man.
Ironically, Silver is more than just a wholesome role model for Jim. As in Treasure Island, the ship’s cook is secretly a pirate — Long John Silver — only in this case he has way-cool cyborg prosthetics instead of the stereotypical eye-patch, wooden leg, and hook for a hand. (Morph functions in place of a parrot on his shoulder.) The morally ambiguous status of Silver — based on a parallel ambiguity in Long John Silver — adds significant character depth and moral drama that one usually doesn’t find in movies of this sort.
Of course, these aren’t the elements that one is most looking for in Treasure Planet. The audience is really there to see a collision of the eighteenth century and the twenty-eighth century, of galleons and clipper ships rigged with solar sails and exotic aliens in the place of exotic natives. All that is there in spades.
The eye-candy factor is extreme. The animation — a combination of hand-drawn and computer-generated — is gorgeous. We get to see incredible architectures and landscapes that are realized in amazing detail. (It’s a pity that we get to see several of them for only a second or two!) A lot of inventiveness went into making this movie — the locations, the aliens, the technology. It’s a real kaleidoscope. Even on the level of dialogue there’s a lot of cleverness here. It’s as if Disney said to its production crew, "Make us a movie that’s really interesting to watch."
Which is ironic, because Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Treasure Island when his stepson challenged him to "write something that’s really interesting to read."
He did. The original Treasure Island has its own kind of adventure thrills, as well as its own lessons about life (including the evils of too much drink). If your kids are old enough, make sure they read it after seeing Treasure Planet — if not before.
With its swashbuckling action and blend of traditional and 3D computer animation, Sinbad most resembles Disney’s Treasure Planet — yet for once DreamWorks handily outdoes its archrival, with bravura action set pieces, a surprisingly complex romantic triangle, and an even more remarkably thoughtful exploration of moral issues and character.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.