Animated features of any length are difficult and expensive to make, more so the more lavish you get. Ralph Bakshi spoke about how his animation was never quite as polished and perfect as Disney’s, which was certainly true. Yet, it was probably a blessing: Bakshi’s transitions weren’t always perfect, but he made some truly epic and unforgettable animated features in his time, partly because he wasn’t constrained by unrealistic standards and partly because, well, he knew he was never going to be competing with the Mouse House. Traditional two-dimensional animation on the order of Disney’s level of perfection is so expensive, so labor-intensive, that niche features or overly-artsy stuff is a poor investment. So it stands to reason that when an animated feature flops, nobody is going to take the same risk again.
Right around the turn of the millennium, the risk more than one major studio wanted to make was “a sprawling sci-fi adventure with an alt-rock soundtrack starring a brooding loner.” It was a risk that basically ended Don Bluth’s directorial career in 2000. And in 2002, 20 years ago, it was a certified flop for Disney with Treasure Planet.
In a version of outer space in which there is apparently oxygen and the solar winds are powerful enough to propel ships between stars, young Jim Hawkins (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, just one more rock removed from 3rd Rock from the Sun at that point) is a wayward youth who dreams of the stars, a daredevil in trouble with the law. As his mother and the supportive Dr. Doppler (David Hyde Pierce) try to rein him in, the call to adventure lands right on his doorstep in the form of a dying pirate (Patrick McGoohan?!!) with a stolen treasure map and a warning to beware of a cyborg. Moments later, his house is laser-blasted and burnt to the ground by a band of marauders.
As it turns out, the map leads to the biggest score in the universe, and Jim and Dr. Doppler decide to hire a ship and a scurvy crew to go find it.
As the name implies, Treasure Planet is a loose adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, and fairly faithful to the book in its broad strokes if not its specific beats: Doppler’s character is a combination of two mentors from the book, while the no-nonsense captain of Jim’s chartered ship is a yardarm-leaping cat alien voiced with evident glee by Emma Thompson. And of course, “John Silver” (Brian Murray) happens to be a cyborg with a shapeshifting critter companion. It’s actually a pretty effective way of keeping the physical disability of Long John Silver (and the talking parrot) while changing the setting of the book to floaty steampunk sci-fi.
Nothing about the plot breaks much new ground as a result, though it’s fair to say that the film steers even more strongly than the book into making Silver a father figure to Jim. So strongly, in fact, that they got John Rzeznik to sing about it:
That sequence is notable because it is simultaneously most of what works about Treasure Planet and also everything about it that really doesn’t. The animation throughout the movie is incredible, and like Atlantis: The Lost Empire the year before, the movie ditched the usual musical trappings that have come standard on Disney movies since 1937 and seemed to be targeting the older siblings of the kids most Disney movies are aimed at.
I don’t know why it doesn’t feel right. It’s an effective montage that conveys the passage of time and moves the stories of the principal characters forward without dialogue. Saying that it’s the Goo Goo Dolls backtrack making it feel too schmaltzy is like saying Impeachment: American Crime Story has too many bad wigs: You aren’t wrong, it’s just that everything was like that back then.
Treasure Planet flopped, and it’s all the more embarrassing because this had apparently been on the wishlist of its creators for decades. Directors John Musker and Ron Clements reportedly first spoke the idea aloud in a pitch meeting with then-CEO Michael Eisner in 1985—the same meeting that, as it turns out, the movie that kicked off the Disney Renaissance was first pitched. The suits at Disney shot the idea down multiple times over the years: Once after The Little Mermaid brought the studio back from its Reagan-era slump and again after Aladdin hit it big. Musker and Clements eventually prevailed upon Roy E. Disney, nephew to Walt, to put a bug in Eisner’s ear about it, and it was agreed that they would finally get to work on it after Hercules was done.
It is kind of hilarious that this idea stood in the wings during almost the entirety of the Disney Renaissance, to be unveiled to middling reviews and financial failure as that era was drawing to a close. The tastes of the public are apparently mean-spirited and ironic. Here is the thing: I like these weird, sci-fi-tinged, pulp-inspired misfires. Atlantis: The Lost Empire, for which Mike Mignola of Hellboy fame did some of the concept art, is one of the best-looking Disney features ever. So is Treasure Planet, with character animation that is some of the best that’s ever come out of Disney. They are movies that think about maybe, possibly flirting with the darkness of Don Bluth’s oeuvre. It’s not that they’re not just for kids, it is that they are not as godawful soft about what is for kids.
Not enough people went for it, though. Disney, a studio so large that it needs to go as broad as possible in every single feature, couldn’t succeed where Bluth’s Titan A.E. failed. It didn’t exactly wreck the studio’s 2D animation, but in retrospect it feels like it dealt a deathblow to any experimentation at the same time as 3D animation was becoming the new standard that made in-betweeners obsolete. The pace at the studio certainly slowed down after that: There was a gap between 2003’s Brother Bear and 2009’s The Princess and the Frog that felt much wider than just the six years that separated them. Disney’s purchase of Pixar just so happened to occur right in the middle of it.
Disney hasn’t released a traditionally animated feature-length film in wide release since Winnie the Pooh in 2011, more than 10 years ago, and it’s hard to imagine them bothering now, as even their own founding mascot struggles to find people to animate him. Treasure Planet was not that daring: Disney has adapted the very same story at least one other time. But it remains unfortunate that the most minor deviation from Disney’s polished approach resulted in such a rebuke from critics and the movie-going public, right before the art form essentially took a nosedive—and I still remember it more clearly than I do The Princess and the Frog.
Kenneth Lowe is a regular contributor to Paste Movies. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.