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The movie begins with a very solid attempt at getting in my good books: it has opening narration by Tony Jay. Now, this movie certainly has its flaws but one complaint I hear levelled against it simply doesn’t hold up; that it’s scientifically inaccurate. I’m actually serious. This movie is one of the most scientifically accurate science fiction movies ever made. Don’t believe me? It all comes down to the very first line in the movie:
“On the clearest of nights, when the winds of the aetherium were calm and peaceful…”
See, this movie is not set in our universe. It’s set in the aetherium which has its own scientific laws (namely that people can breathe in outer space and spiders are assholes). Jay recounts the tale of Captain Flint, a merciless pirate who plundered merchant ships throughout the spaceways.
We watch as his crew launches an attack against a ship full of Georgian Wig Wearing Turtle People (my favorite Saturday morning cartoon from the eighties, incidentally) and there’s an epic battle. Now, Treasure Planet uses a lot of CGI which of course always runs the risk of leaving the movie looking dated as effects technology moves on. Throughout the film the various vessels are rendered with computer graphics while the characters that crew them are done in good old fashioned traditional animation. Honestly, I think the effects here hold up very well. Not that the ships are not immediately recognisable as CGI, but that’s not the point. The movie isn’t going for photo-realism anymore than the traditionally animated characters are supposed to look realistic. Instead, the CGI is put to work trying to create a science fiction movie that looks more like the paintings of Brandywine artists like NC Wyeth and I think they did a superb job.
The battle is cut short however by the sudden appearance of a massive child who towers over both vessels!
It turns out that all this is just a holo-book being read by little Jim Hawkins. His mother enters his bedroom and tells him that he should have been asleep an hour ago but he begs her to read the story to him. She relents, saying “Oh! Could those eyes get any bigger?” (He’s a Disney character. No. No they could not). Sarah Hawkins (Laurie Metcalf) was animated by Jared Beckstrand and Rick Kohlschmidt and the highest praise I can give to their work here is that I thought she was done by Glen Keane. There’s a real sense of an older, wiser and maybe cooler Ariel about her and her interactions with baby Jim are really charming.
Okay, so fast forward twelve years and Jim is now a teenage rebel with a cool hairdo and a problem with authority and zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…sorry, my “z” key got gummed up with melted cheese from my sandwich and also this is a really tired, stock character type. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like they did a bad job with the character of Jim. Joseph Gordon Levitt is fine in the part and he’s not obnoxious or anything but it’s just been done. It’d been done before this movie, it’d be done again after. Jim is out on his solar surfboard doing all kinds of radical and dangerous things because he doesn’t care about your rules, man when he gets arrested and brought home by robot cops and wait just a damn minute here!
At the Benbow Inn Sarah is getting dinner for the guests and gets talking to Doctor Delbert Doppler, a dog-faced alien voiced by David Hyde Pierce. She says that things were tough with Jim for a while but he seems to have gotten his act together. Cue the police dragging her son in front of all the patrons and telling her that this is his last chance and next time he’s going straight to space juvie. Sarah gives Jim the guilt trip special while he sullenly clears the tables. Originally, the scene was going to be Sarah turning around to give Jim the lecture only to realise that he’d already slipped out when she wasn’t looking, but they decided they didn’t want him to be that much of a dick.
Later Jim is brooding on the roof (oh man, he’s so troubled and brooding but maybe I could fix him?) and overhears Sarah talking to Doppler about how Jim’s just been unmanageable since his father left home. Jim then looks up to see a spacecraft crashing near the Benbow and runs to check it out because, hey, he might get one of those cool Green Lantern rings. Inside the ship is a wounded turtle alien named Billy Bones voiced by Patrick McGoohan. Bones stumbles out of the ship and whispers “They’s a ‘comin! Can you hear him? Those gears and gyros clicking and humming like the devil hisself!”
Bones tells him that “The Cyborg” is after his chest and Jim helps him get to the Benbow where he promptly dies from his wounds, but not before giving Jim a small round orb. Suddenly the inn is attacked by pirates and Jim, Sarah and Doppler only barely manage to escape before the whole place goes up in flames. On whole this is a pretty good opening act, nicely condensing the first few chapters of the book into around ten minutes. There is some good stuff that gets lost though. I especially would have loved to see a sci-fi take on Blind Pew, one of the scariest motherfuckers in all of children’s literature.
Okay so they hide out in Delbert’s manor and Jim manages to unlock the sphere which turns out to be a holo map to Treasure Planet. Jim decides they should go on a treasure hunt so that they can use the money to rebuild the Inn. Sarah’s dubious, but Doppler convinces her by saying “Hell, you’ve tried everything else to get Jim to straighten up. Why not the unfathomable dangers of deep space?” We now get an absolutely jaw dropping transition shot where they’re looking out of the window at the crescent moon and…hell, just look for yourselves.
So Jim and Doppler go wandering around the gorgeously realised space port and find their ship, the RLS Legacy (not the Hispaniola like in the book because why would aliens name a ship after a Caribbean island?). Jim and Doppler meet the ship’s first mate, a massive rock monster called Mr Arrow who’s voiced magisterially by Roscoe Lee Browne and who comes across like a very genteel Ben Grimm.
We also meet the ship’s captain, Amelia, voiced by Emma Thompson and hands down my favorite character in this thing. The original book is kind of a sausage fest so the filmmakers decided to gender flip Captain Smollett and also species flip while they were at it. Amelia is a cat-like alien and Thompson has an absolute blast with her. She’s probably the funniest character in the movie. Doppler and Amelia don’t really get along (cats, dogs what are you gonna do?) and she berates him for mentioning the treasure map in front of the crew who seem to consist entirely of space monsters, thugs, mutants, scoundrels and okay, who hired this crew?!
Amelia pretty much lays down the law then and there, Jim will address her as “Captain or Ma’am” , the map will be kept under lock and key when not in use and Doppler is to “shut your howling screamer.” She then tells Jim that on this ship, you work, and sends him down to work in the galley for the cook.
Alright, so let’s talk about Long John Silver. The Silver of the novel is one of the all time great villains of literature, a wonderful and surprisingly complex creation. Whereas most children’s literature of the period featured one-dimensional villains, Stevenson dared to make Silver likeable and even admirable in a way. He is an irresistibly charming figure, easily overcoming Jim’s suspicions of him and becoming a surrogate father to the boy, before his role as the leader of the mutiny is revealed. He’s dangerous, but also courageous, and does possess a sense of loyalty. The relationship between Jim and Silver is the heart of any good Treasure Island adaptation and unfortunately this is the movie’s big flaw for me. It’s Silver is just not that great.
We also meet Morph, a floating ball of red snot who acts as Silver’s pet. Jim is naturally suspicious of Silver because of Billy Bones’ warning and expertly probes him for information, saying stuff like “Hmmm…these fruit are like the ones we had on my homeplanet. Montressor. You ever murder a pirate and blow up an inn on Montressor?” but Silver plays coy, saying that Bones must have meant a different cyborg because “There’s a slew of cyborgs roamin’ this port.” And ain’t that the truth?
Well anyway, the ship launches and Silver puts Jim to work cleaning the deck (urge to make a “poop deck” joke rising, rising, rising aaaaaaand it’s gone) and Jim starts to notice something a little unusual about this crew. Particularly, they have an odd habit of gathering in little groups, casting furtive glances and whispering what sounds like “Mumble mumble mumble BLOODY MUTINY mumble mumble EAT THE CABIN BOY mumble mumble.” Jim makes the mistake of talking sass to Mr Scroop, a terrifying alien spider voiced by Michael Wincott but Silver saves him at the last minute. But later Silver confronts the crew and reveals that he is actually planning a mutiny!
A few hours later it’s night…in…space…
Okay, I may have been overstating the case with this movie’s scientific accuracy. Jim thanks Silver for saving him and Silver asks him if his father never taught him to pick his fights more carefully. And Jesus, Silver, c’mon. This kid might as well have DADDY, WHY DID YOU LEAVE ME? shaved into the back of his stylish non-conformist hairdo because he’s a rebel and everyone else is just a fucking sheep. So Silver takes Jim under his wing resolves to teach him the ropes, which is done in a montage to the song I’m Still Here written and performed by Johnny Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls, who coincidentally also did the soundtrack to my entire miserable adolescence.
This is probably my latent emo bias showing but I actually quite like this song and I think this whole sequence is actually pretty damn effective. The scenes of Jim and Silver bonding are nicely done (it may help that it’s all wordless and Murray’s annoying accent isn’t a problem for once). It’s also intercut with flashbacks to Jim’s childhood where his father abandoned the family which is pretty damn harsh. I actually think Disney deserve credit for breaking new ground here. I don’t think we’ve ever seen an absent dad who doesn’t die but simply abandons his wife and children oh wait…
This gets cut short though when a nearby star goes supernova and the ship has to navigate away from the explosion and avoid all the flaming rocks that come shooting out of the supernova which then instantly collapses into a black hole and okay, okay, okay, this movie pisses on the grave of Science’s mother. I don’t know what I was thinking.
Amelia tells Jim to secure the ropes holding all the crewmembers to the ship (c’mon guys, at least call them “space ropes” or something) but Arrow gets swept overboard. His rope holds but Scroop murders Arrow by cutting the rope because
he was too difficult for the animators to draw he was getting close to uncovering the mutiny.
Scroop tells Amelia that Arrow’s line wasn’t secured but Jim protests that he checked the line. Amelia is devastated by Arrow’s death and retreats to her cabin while the rest of the difficult to animate characters look at each other nervously and wonder who’s next.
Jim in inconsolable, blaming himself for Arrow’s death but Silver tries to buck him, reminding him that if it wasn’t for him half the crew would be doing the Sandra Bullock right now. Silver tells Jim that he has the makings of greatness in him and gives him a hug. Now, the thing is, Silver is not faking this. And this is actually another first in the Disney canon, a villain who genuinely cares about the hero and doesn’t want him to come to harm. I keep comparing this movie to Atlantis in my head but honestly, this is the better of the two. Atlantis was a noble failure, Treasure Planet is more a noble partial success (apologies to everyone who was excited for BLOOD!!!). I can see what they were aiming for with both movies, but Treasure Planet actually gets there at least some of the time. There are good character moments, and even a few good characters and the plot is much stronger too (mind you, that’s hardly a huge ask, with Treasure Island you have probably one of the most proven stock plots in all of fiction). Again, I’m not laying all the blame on Brian Murray, but overall Silver is the weak link in all this for me that pulls down what had the potential to be maybe one of the all time great Disney movies, and certainly the most original.
Alright, so we now get the movie’s version of the famous apple barrel scene. After he chases Morph into a barrel of space apples he overhears Silver giving the mutineers their marching orders. Scroop wants to kill everybody and then murder their corpses to be on the safe side but Silver tells him to button his fly-hole. Scroop says that Silver’s gone soft on Jim and Silver angrily tells the pirates that he doesn’t give two space shits about “some nose-wiping little whelp.” Jim is devastated.
Jim manages to warn the Captain and Silver orders the men to get their mutiny on. Amelia, Doppler and Jim make a run for the lifeboats and Amelia holds off a mob of pirates with a laser rifle because she’s like a Thundercat Ripley.
Jim grabs the treasure map and Silver tries to stop him but just can’t bring himself to shoot and really he should just hand in his villain card right there. Jafar won’t even look him in the eye after that.
They try to make a landing on Treasure Planet but have to crash after they get shot down. Amelia is injured so Doppler stays with her while Jim goes exploring. He tries consulting the map only to find that it’s actually Morph in disguise and the real orb is still on the Legacy. Jim then comes across this movie’s version of Ben Gunn; BEN, a robot who’s been marooned on the planet and is played by Martin Short. Short gives, honestly, one of the most beautifully restrained and subtle performances I have ever heard in an animated film, using only the bare minimum of dialogue to express oceans of loneliness and stoic resignation I am of course fucking with you he mugs and screams like a lunatic. Honestly, I feel like I should hate BEN more than I do, but he’s really only mildly annoying and not the unmentionable horror that “wacky robot voiced by Martin Short” would suggest. Anyway, it turns out that BEN has amnesia because a massive honking chunk of his brain has been torn out (yep, that’ll do ‘er). Jim tells Ben that he needs to find a place to hide and BEN offers to help him look but asks if they can stop off at his place so he can use the bathroom.
The robot needs to take a piss.
Anyway, Jim realises that BEN’s “place” is actually a highly defensible fortress and he moves Doppler and Amelia in there just in time for the pirates to attack. Jim manages to hold them off and Silver offers him parlay. In the book the negotiations are between Silver and Smolett, but here Jim takes the Captain’s place which I’m tempted to say is the better choice narratively. Silver tries to charm Jim, telling him that he didn’t mean the things he said and that if Jim just gives him the map he’ll make sure he get a fair slice of the treasure. Jim tells him to screw off so Silver changes tack and yells that if he doesn’t get the map he’ll order the ship to open fire on them and limps away. Jim realises that without the map they’re on Planet Shit without a cyber-paddle but can’t figure out how to get past the pirates who’ve surrounded the fort. Then BEN just casually reveals that the entire planet is one giant alien mechanism and that there’s a tunnel leading out underground. Jim, Ben and Morph leave Doppler to look after Amelia and make their way back to the Legacy to find the map and also disable the ship’s weapons so Silver can’t use them. They get attacked by Scroop who was left behind to guard the ship but BEN disables the artificial gravity causing Scroop to fall upwards into space.
Jim returns to the fort only to find that Silver and the pirates have beaten him to it. Silver takes the map, but since Jim is the only one who can open it for…some…reason (maybe because of his slim girlish fingers?) he has to take him along. They reach a dead end but Jim slots the map into the surface of the planet which causes a huge portal to open up. Jim realises that this portal can be opened to anywhere in the galaxy and that this was how Flint was able to strike and disappear without a trace.
Jim realises that Flint hid the treasure in the centre of Treasure Planet and opens a portal to the planet’s core. The pirates step through and are instantly crushed to pulp by the colossal gravitational forces at the centre the end. Nah, they’re fine of course and start helping themselves to the loot of a thousand worlds. While Silver’s distracted Jim and BEN go exploring the wreck of Flnt’s ship and find the old priate’s skeleton with te missing piece of BEN’s hard drive still in his hands. Jim slots it back in to BEN’s head and the robot goes apeshit because he suddenly remembers that Flint rigged the whole planet to explode if anyone ever tripped the alarm. Right on cue the planet starts to break apart and the pirates fall to their doom in order of how difficult they were to draw.
Silver has to make a choice between saving some of the Treasure or saving Jim from plummeting to his doom and saves the boy. Honestly, I’m not even sure we can still call him the villain of this movie. If it weren’t for the fact that it’s based on Treasure Island and he’s Long John Freakin’ Silver I’d probably just call Scroop the villain and be done with it. They make it to the surface to find Amelia, Doppler and Ben waiting on the Legacy. They try to escape but the ship is damaged and Doppler calculates that they won’t be able to escape the explosion. So Jim jury-rigs a solar surfboard and leads the ship through the crumbling planet to the portal and just barely succeeds in opening it to the Montressor spaceport just before the whole enchilada goes BOOM. It’s honestly a pretty thrilling scene. Jim catches Silver trying to make a run for it on the last longboat and decides to let the old scoundrel go. They share a teary goodbye and Silver tosses Jim some treasure so that he can rebuild his mother’s tavern. Fast forward a few years and Jim returns to the newly rebuilt Benbow Inn as a graduate of the Naval Academy. As he celebrates with his mother and friends he looks out the window and sees in the clouds the image of Silver, smiling down proudly on him like a piratey Mufasa.
Great movie? Nah. It has a weak villain and the script is no great shakes (I think it’s telling that the best lines are all ad-libbed either by Emma Thompson or David Hyde Pierce). It certainly doesn’t hold a candle to the greatest pirate movie ever made.
But it is a fun romp, a solid and often beautifully animated adventure movie that certainly did not deserve the box-office keelhauling it received on its release. In spite of some pretty decent reviews the movie was a genuine bomb (although it did have a strong second life in DVD sales). Any progress in staunching the bleeding that had been made with Lilo and Stitch was instantly undone. Traditional animation at Disney was once again on the endangered species list, and with the next release, it’s prospects would only become bleaker.