Tomorrowland may be a success at the theme parks, but Disney hasn’t had much luck venturing into animated space. Apart from “Lilo and Stitch,” which was as all about Hawaii except for a few visiting aliens, House of Mouse space shots have fizzled. Last year there was the disappointing “Mars Needs Moms,” and in 2002 it was “Treasure Planet” that fell short in its updating of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1883 adventure, Treasure Island.
Pirates in space?
Why not? But the thing is, “Treasure Planet” is a strange combination of futuristic space age, current pop culture, and 17th century elements. Ships that look like Spanish galleons fly in the air. Whales fly. Jim Hawkins, the lad at the center of Stevenson’s tale, has a solar board and rides it like a skate punk or parasailor. And the architecture? It’s like Tortuga in space.
The plot and characters have one foot in the past and one in the future. It’s the same with visual design. Disney was trailblazing in its combined use of 2D and 3D animation, and the results are absolutely stunning to look at. But the past-and-future mix doesn’t work nearly as well when it comes to content.
Fans of Disney’s live-action “Treasure Island” will be disappointed that the spaced-up version has more breakneck action and not nearly the intrigue of the 1950 classic. What’s more, Robert Newton carried the old film as Long John Silver, playing just the right blend of a benign old peg-legged pal who fascinates Jim Hawkins, and a menacing fellow with a hidden agenda—a blackguard who could be ruthless when the time came.
We don’t get that same type of character in “Treasure Planet’s” John Silver, who’s a menacing looking cyborg from the start. His face is drawn a little like Fagin from “Oliver & Company,” but fuller and meaner. And he’s armed with a gadget that slices, dices, shoots, and scares the heck out of everyone. There’s only menace in this fellow, so he’s nowhere near as interesting as Newton was in the more complex live-action role.
But fans of Stevenson’s novel will at least have fun picking up plot points and variations. In this animated version from directors Ron Clements and John Musker (“Aladdin,” “The Little Mermaid”), Jim Hawkins (voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a bit of a delinquent at a crossroads. His mother (Laurie Metcalf) runs the Benbow Inn, and the adventure begins when Jim finds a dying pirate named Billy Bones (Patrick McGoohan) and brings him back to the Inn. In short order, he’s dead, Jim is holding an orb the size of a grapefruit and told to “beware the cyborg,” and pirates are ransacking and torching the place, forcing Jim, his mom, and a family friend, Dr. Doppler (David Hyde Pierce), to flee.
As in the book, Silver (Brian Murray) and his crew keep their identities secret and hire on as hands on a mission to follow the orb-map to Treasure Planet . . . which is curious, since their own planet, Montressor, is French for basically the same thing. Oh well.
Unlike the 1950 film, this souped-up, spaced-out version drags a little, despite the action, because the characters and their relationships are more superficial. Take Ben Gunn, for example. Instead of a lunatic who’s been away from people for too long, it’s an annoying robot named B.E.N., who’s supposed to provide some of the comic relief. The rest comes from the doddering Dr. Doppler, a dog creature with an obvious fondness for the catlike ship’s captain (Emma Thompson), and a little thing that looks like one of those goofy, unidentifiable things that Olympic cities present as mascots. Morph (Dane A. Davis) is a shape-shifting blob of pink mass that perches on Silver’s shoulder, like a parrot. But I’ll take the parrot any day.
So what does that leave us with? The stunning art and animation, which, for Blu-ray fans, could be enough to make a 6-out-of-10 film worth buying. Andy Gaskill worked as a visual development artist on “The Little Mermaid,” and, promoted to art director, he oversees a crew that creates frame after frame and sequence after sequence of breathtaking art design and animation.
I don’t know that I’d call the video presentation “demo worthy,” but it will impress people who check out your home entertainment system. The palette is largely orange and brown, and yet there’s plenty of visual pop. Only in a few scenes do we get grain and a soft image. Everywhere else, edges are crisp, black levels are spot-on, colors are nicely saturated, edge delineation lends itself to a nice sense of 3-dimensionality, and there’s plenty to marvel at. I saw no problems with the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a 50-gig disc. “Treasure Planet” is presented in 1.66:1 aspect ratio, “enhanced” from its original 1.85:1 ratio so that it fills the entire 16×9 screen.
The audio is just as impressive. When Billy Bones’ spacecraft glides in for a crash landing, the right-to-left movement is distinctly heard across the sound field with no audible gaps. Rear speakers get a lot to do with this release, spitting out all kinds of ambient sounds and audio effects. And the bass? It booms. Yet, none of it overwhelms the dialogue. The mix seems perfect.
The featured audio is an English DTS-HD MA 5.1, with additional options in Spanish, Portuguese, and French Dolby Digital 5.1 and subtitles in English SDH, French, Spanish, and Portuguese.
This is the 10th Anniversary Blu-ray, and Laurie Metcalf, who plays Jim’s mother, handles the introductions. The main bonus feature is a collection of short features in standard definition, all of which are so brief that you wish a Play-all option would allow you to just sit back and watch the roughly 40 minutes of material in succession.
The other main feature is the commentary from Clements, Musker, and producer Roy Conli. Look for it on the audio options menu, not the bonus features. It’s an above-average look at the film through the creators’ eyes—one that will likely have you re-watching it and feeling a little more generous in your response.
Other than that, there are more features ported over from the DVD: three deleted scenes, a 12-minute “DisneyPedia: The Life of a Pirate Revealed” for the little swashbucklers, a “Virtual 3D Tour” that shows how the ship was designed, and a slightly shortened (14 min., not 20) version of the “Disney Animation Magic” tour that Roy Disney led on one DVD extra.
Movie Met’s John J. Puccio said that “In attempting to update the novel, Disney filmmakers have dulled the characterizations, action, and dialogue and given us instead a lovely series of picture postcards from outer space.” I’d have to agree. But for me, the success of a Disney animated film depends on the villain, if there is one, and the cyborg John Silver is a drag on a film that could have used more wind in its sails. Given the amazing artwork, if a better character had been inserted, we’d be talking about “Treasure Planet” as another Disney classic.