Going in, I expected this one to be a bit like “Atlantis: The Lost Empire”, a somewhat bleak and uninteresting attempt at an action oriented drama. In one way it is quite similar, and that’s in the visual choices. “Atlantis” chose for no real reason to be set in the Victorian era, thus utilizing steampunk super-technology for their vehicles. In “Treasure Planet”, we have sort of the same ideas at play, only far dumber.
Obviously from the title, this is an adaptation of Robert Louis Stephenson’s famed novel, Treasure Island. It’s the classic tale of adventure on the high seas, swashbuckling pirates, buried treasure, and the treacherous Captain Long John Silver. Here, it’s been clunkily updated to become a space opera, complete with 19th century galleons sailing through open space. Already this leaves the movie open to various questions. Obviously, this is not science fiction but fantasy, for how else could you justify having an open deck out in space, leaving all the crew of human and alien alike exposed to the utter lack of breathable atmosphere, not to mention the laundry list of reasons we need special suits just to function in the great void. Also, and I’m no expert on the matter, but I think a wooden space ship is a design flaw.
The design remains a bit too stuck on the setting of the book, forcing everything to be a space version of what you’d expect in a pirate story. Space galleon pirate ships (complete with sails, though I can’t imagine what purpose they serve), laser pistols that resemble the old flintlock guns, and even the fashion is clearly based on 19th century design. It’s everything else that clashes with this, from the variety of cartoon aliens and goofy side characters to the way that a small island with buried treasure is now a massive planet with a hollow core and a portal to all parts of the galaxy. There are too many clashing ideas that don’t blend together the way the creative team probably hoped that it would.
I think that Treasure Island could actually have been a pretty good Disney film, if only a different approach was taken. Even watching this movie you can kind of see the strengths of the source material. If they really wanted to push for the whole space opera angle, perhaps they should have committed more fully to it, turning the ships into actual space cruisers and putting these characters into a true science fiction world. By keeping one foot in the world of the book, they limited themselves visually. The plot alone would have been enough to pay homage to the material. This is just one messy step too far.
Another way would have been simply to do Treasure Island and set it when it was written to be set. Let it take place on the sea and have all the classic images of pirates that are associated with the story. Maybe even make it a musical. Swashbuckling adventure lends itself well to such things, after all. Instead this feels like a movie that doesn’t know what it wants to be, and that is its biggest failing.
Other failings are more typical, being the utter lack of interesting characters. James Hawkins (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is about as bland a main character as you can get. He seems only more so by how colorful and varied the rest of the characters are. John Silver (Brian Murray), famed for his peg leg and talking parrot, is now a cyborg with a pink amorphous blob called morph. As wacky and distinct as everything looks, nothing gets much deeper than the visuals. It’s sad to say, but these characters just aren’t that interesting.
“Treasure Planet” joins a list of a few Disney animated features that just can’t seem to figure out what it is. Like “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” and even “Hercules”, it has the distinct feeling of people standing around and throwing everything they can think of into a pile. Doesn’t matter if it fits, just put it in there and see what happens. Unfortunately, not much.