26 November 2012

Disney Daze: Week 43: Treasure Planet

In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released animated features, one per week.

Ron Clements and John Musker were two of the more successful men behind the decade-long Disney renaissance in the nineties. The pair, who scripted and directed both The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, two of the most successful films in Hollywood history, were the golden boys at Disney. While their last picture, Hercules, was less rapturously received by the public, it did little damage to their vaunted status. That is why when the duo once again pitched their idea of a science-fiction version of Robert Louis Stevenson's novel Treasure Island, a story that had been floating around since The Little Mermaid, they were given the green light. Working with another creative tag-team, screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, who would shortly begin scripting their own pirate story (this one based not on a book but a ride at Disneyland) the team began melding the sea-faring adventures of Stevenson with the cosmic grandeur of the universe. 

Treasure Planet possesses more overt allusions to films past than any other Disney feature in memory. There is a line lifted from Jaws and the home of the robot B.E.N. recalls the landscape of René Laloux's singular Fantastic Planet. But the film that Treasure Planet is Star Wars. The references are there from the film's opening shot which shows a hulking space ship entering the frame and being shot at by mercenaries. Switching the ship's direction and having the pursued be larger than the pursuer cannot hide the similarity. Meanwhile, a creature seen briefly in the film's early going emits a shriek that sounds as if it was lifted directly from the cries of a Tusken raider. Even Jim's awkwardly "hip" haircut, which features shaved sides and a ponytail, evokes nothing more than the Jedi-hazing Padawan coif.

The character designs in the film are incredibly erratic in quality. As mentioned, Jim's slightly edgy look relegates the character to the dustbin of millenial fashion conceptions. There are a plethora of aliens that populate the ship from the gelatinous, mutable puff known as Morph to the straightlaced feline Captain Amelia. The stumbling physicist Doctor Doppler, who convinces Jim's mother to allow the two to embark on the treasure hunt, is an anachronistic anthroporphized dog, akin to the species of Goofy or a mild-mannered resident of Duckburg. The best design in the film is reserved for the bulbous, exagerrated linework and cyborg circuitry hybridized into the scheming pirate, John Silver. The blend of the computer-generated and hand-drawn is elegantly achieved, as his glinting robotic eye hides within the organic flesh of a hard-living man. 

The secondary characters make little impression, except when they're annoying, which unfortunately, they frequently are. The picture's most egregious offender is the crew member who literally only speaks in fart sounds. The filmmakers run with the flatulent conceit, having Doctor Doppler attempt communication with the creature, placing his cupped hand under his armpit and wasting everyone's time, the audience's most of all. The worst character in the movie however is the silly sidekick robot, B.E.N., voiced by Martin Short at his most irratatingly energetic. B.E.N. has had his memory taken out and this leads him to constantly worry and repeat information. The best thing that can be said about B.E.N. is that he does not appear in the film until the last half hour. Moments after meeting him, Jim instructs B.E.N. that, "if you're going to come along, you need to stop talking." The filmmakers here needed to heed their own advice. 

The greatest element contained in Treasure Planet is the animation itself. The filmmakers pushed the envelope in terms of blending the computer-generated and hand-drawn, as evidenced in John Silver's design. The revolutionary Deep Canvas technology introduced in Tarzan is used to stunning effect here, creating a stunningly vivid three-dimensional landscape. The camerawork is surprisingly fluid, showing some swooping tracking shots onboard the ship, as well as a phenomenally rendered 3-D point-of-view shot as Jim scours the mess hall. The first shot of the space port where Jim and Doppler board their ship is also cleverly executed. From his home planet, Jim looks out into the night sky at the sliver of a moon. As the camera draws closer it is discovered that the moon is in fact a bustling way station with vehicles taking off and landing and all manner of odd-looking creatures milling about. Aside from matters of oxygen supply and other logistical necessities that remain unexplained, the imagery of wooden pirate ships floating through the vastness of space is a delight. The greatest visual sequence in Treasure Planet comes when the treasure-seeking vessel is careening towards a star that unexpectedly goes supernova before turning itself into an energy-sucking blackhole. There is a brief moment of darkness and silence before the ship comes hurtling out of the void, propelled by a great fiery explosion of stunning orange and yellow. 

Meanwhile the writing leaves plenty to be desired. The crucial elements of Stevenson's story are touched upon but there is little embellishment or time for deeper understanding. The segment that might have had the best emotional impact, a montage juxtaposing the memories of Jim's distant father with his newfound relationship with the conflicted pirate Silver, is completely undone by the overwrought balladeering of the Goo Goo Dolls' frontman John Rzeznik, who pens one of the absolute worst pieces of music ever to find its way into a Disney picture, the trite and terrible "I'm Still Here". Rzeznik's other contribution to the soundtrack, the equally abysmal "Always Know Where You Are" (notice any lyrical patterns here?) is quarantined to the closing credits. 

Treasure Planet was a complete failure at the box office. The film cost an astronomical sum to produce and only returned a fraction of it in the United States. The film was received with at best tepid admiration from critics. It didn't help that less than six months earlier the Walt Disney Studios had released another animated film with sci-fi undertones, the charming, witty, and thoroughly heartwarming Lilo & Stitch. Both films were nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar in the category's second year of existence. However they both lost to a film made halfway around the globe at a smaller studio in Japan. The winning feature told the story of a young girl whose parents turned into pigs as she was forced into service at a magical bathhouse for wandering spirits. The film was called Spirited Away and would become one of the best examples of animation's uniquely transformative powers. These films did not need to rely on proven properties or aggressively pander to their audiences. They could be majestic and idiosyncratic, finding their narrative way through intuition and dream logic, instead of beats from screenwriting 101. Spirited Away showed that the real treasure lay in the imagination and conviction of its creators who pushed the boundaries of art and storytelling in ways no one had done before. 

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