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Treasure Planet
2002 - PG - 95 Mins.
Director: Ron Clements, John Musker
Producer: Ron Clements, John Musker
Written By: Ron Clements, John Musker, Ted Elliot, Terry Rossio, Ken Harsha, Rob Edwards, Robert Louis Stevenson
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Brian Murray, Emma Thompson, David Hyde Pierce, Martin Short
Review by: Marc Eastman
After spending several years trying (apparently) to alienate anyone who has ever liked anything Disney (by sequeling everything into absurdity), and moreover seemingly championing Pixar as their only hope (by proving they can do nothing nearly as well), Disney returns to their only competent in-house team, Ron Clements and John Musker. What we learn, by the time we’re done watching ‘Treasure Planet’, is that we can hope for a good movie out of Disney once every three to five years. Unfortunately, Disney is whipping them out at a much more furious pace. Worse yet, when a good one rolls around everyone is so used to bashing Disney films (and rightfully so) that the good ones tank at the box-office, making the next sequel to a movie that was useless in the first place all the more likely.

Clements and Musker (and a pair of people who look like they are likely to be named ‘Clements and Musker’ you will never run into) are the team responsible for ‘Aladdin’, ‘The Little Mermaid’, ‘The Great Mouse Detective’, and to a lesser extent ‘The Black Cauldron’. That’s the short list of about the best Disney’s had to offer in quite some time. They do have the black mark of the hopelessly forgettable ‘Hercules’ on their record, but we’ll forgive them that one.

With ‘Treasure Planet’, Clements and Musker make an attempt to move to a slightly higher level than their previous work, certainly a whole other world than anything else Disney. The same level ‘Atlantis’ failed so miserably to attain. While ‘Aladdin’ and ‘The Little Mermaid’ (though ultimately not that interesting) were quite good, they still fell prey to an unfortunate number of ‘Disneyisms’. They too aimed at something, but I suspect they had enough sense to realize they weren’t going to get there. They aimed, as does ‘Treasure Planet’, at a return to what made Disney movies great in the first place. A sense of wonder and adventure.

‘Treasure Planet’ tells the classic Robert Louis Stevenson story, but with an obvious twist. Our young lad Hawkins lives in a world (or Universe, I suppose), which its creators describe as a 70/30 mix. 70% Old World technology. 30% futuristic marvel. Thus, the Jim Hawkins of this movie lives in an inn straight out of the 17th century, and period ships abound. The difference is that laser guns and holographic images abound as well, and the ships sail the open sea of space to other planets.

After a slightly too cute, and then slightly too whizbang, introduction, Billy Bones arrives in the form of an alien whose longboat crashes near Jim. Jim acquires the fateful map, and we’re off to the races. Jim manages an attempt to find the spot marked by the X with the aid of family-friend Dr. Doppler (which is a semi-clever gag name), or at least his money. We’re soon on board with appropriate versions of the captain, first mate, John Silver (who for some reason isn’t Long anymore), and the clearly-going-to-be-mutinous crew. We climb aboard the R. L. S. Legacy (and that’s a bit goofy, but what the hell), and we sail off in search of a whole planet full of treasure, and an adventure.

For a good many years, the goal of most things Disney could be summed up in one word, ‘fun’ (alright, you might put in ‘cute’ as well). That goal, and I think Walt would back me up on this, sucks. They should be fun, of course, but that’s not a goal. Not a legitimate goal anyway. Bent on achieving this goal, Disney fare spares no expense (interesting characters, story, etc.) when it means tossing in inane gaggery, and silly sidekick high-jinx. ‘Treasure Planet’, on the other hand, spends its time putting forward a story we can latch onto, and does so in a way that loses us in the adventure. It’s fun, but like ‘Peter Pan’, ‘Pinocchio’, and ‘Snow White’, it’s not overly interested in the fact. Also like those movies, ‘Treasure Planet’ has some fairly intense moments, but not by way of the bizarre slaughter-fest that takes place in ‘Atlantis’. We also get a bit of grey-shading to our bad-guy, uncharacteristic of recent Disney efforts with their slapdash ‘pure evil’, which is to say, of course, that we’ve grown up a little.

The disenchanted may poke fun at Morph, the small blob of a character that can change into anything, as being just another Disney slapstick, stooge sidekick. There may be something there, but at least in this instance it’s a ‘character’ that’s supposed to be there, spending lots of time on Silver’s shoulder. What’s that other word for ‘mimic’ again?

There are a lot of reasons you can find for not liking ‘Treasure Planet’, after all, you can find a reason not to like anything really (that there aren’t more fairies in ‘Peter Pan’ never made sense to me), but I wonder if those reasons hold up. It’s all the fun and adventure of the original story, as well as the better film adaptations, but it’s all to the nth degree, and it manages to include the story into the bargain. It even has a song segment that serves a legitimate, developmental purpose. That’s a sentence you won’t find me repeating, perhaps ever.

Compare all this with ‘The Lion King’ (I hear the “what about ‘The Lion King’ protests already). It’s not even completely sporting to dislike ‘The Lion King’, of course, as Disney never succeeds by straying into the realm of original thought, but the movie encapsulates all there is to dislike about the Disney trend. Whatever there may be to like about ‘The Lion King’ (and apart from a snappy tune here and there, there isn’t much), there certainly isn’t any wonder in it, and there’s barely a story besides. Corny simpleton characters are everywhere, and their only use is to distract us from the fact that the thing is taking a feature-length amount of time to deliver its one sentence plot. Edie Brickell, according to Disney, didn’t know how right she was when she said, ‘religion is the talk on a cereal box’, as overburdened moral platitudes struggle under the weight of dancing and singing their way alongside a story whose ultimate dilemma is might-makes-right gone wrong, while casually glossing over any hint that it wasn’t right in the first place. All of it buried under a deluge of ethical high-ground catch-phrases meant to somehow gain our support for a system masquerading as some ennobled monarchy, wherein all the subjects of the crown are potential meals.

In light of my previous statements, that might sound like simply being able to find fault with anything, and you may have a point. I stand by it though, and though it may seem I’m just ranting about ‘The Lion King’ to no purpose, I think it relevant. While I might be with you, to some degree, in thinking that I’m being too hard on ‘The Lion King’, there’s a difference in the movies. The difference is that one of them is trying to be ‘fun’, and I’ll admit that it succeeds, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a stupid story. The other movie, however, is trying to tell a good story, and succeeds, and that actually does mean that it doesn’t have a stupid story. While I may be analyzing ‘The Lion King’ to not entirely legitimate extremes, it is nevertheless the story, and its execution, I don’t like. Meanwhile, ‘Treasure Planet’ has been widely criticized, to what I consider no less illegitimate extremes, but the microscopic eye of analysis seems to have been trained mainly on the movie’s inability to live up to the utter goofiness of many of its predecessors, when trained on anything at all. “Where’s my dim-witted toady slathering a hearty ‘nobody spits like Gaston’ while being pummeled? That cracks me up.” ‘Treasure Planet’ sails on.

At the beginning of the story, a young (three, I believe) Jim Hawkins watches a similar movie, sort of, and he can’t tear himself away. You’ll notice that he’s not giggling, no one in the movie he watches whistles a goofy tune for no reason, and his eyes never glaze over. Young Jim is enthralled with the magic of an interesting story displayed before him with incredible visuals. He isn’t watching ‘fun’. He’s having fun. Watching Jim in ‘Treasure Planet’, so was I.

I think Walt would have liked it, and even more surprisingly, I think R. L. S. would appreciate his legacy.
Movie Guru Rating
A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic.
  5 out of 5 stars

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