Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Retro Review: You're Going to Rattle the Stars, You Are

I just recently revisited Treasure Planet for the first time since its home video release in spring of 2003.  Even though I enjoyed the film very much when it was released in 2002, it faded rather quickly from my memory, no doubt in part due to its lukewarm critical reception and rather disastrous box office returns.  People for the most part, including even the most passionate of Disney fans, simply stopped talking about it.  It even seems that the Walt Disney Company itself has subtlety disowned it.

It deserves better.

Treasure Planet does have its passionate supporters of which I now include myself.  Voyages Extraordinaires author Cory Gross called the film an "unsung Disney classic" and noted, "It proposes a swashbuckling, romantic aesthetic for the Hubble Age that prefigured the popularity of Disney's pirate band and silhouettes them against beautiful novae and nebulae."  You can find Cory's intelligent and very articulate review of Treasure Planet here; he pretty much states all of the things about it that I wish I could have included here in this Retro Review.  Needless to say, I wholly agree with his conjecture that it is perhaps the company's most underrated film since Fantasia.  Similar to Fantasia, Treasure Planet, in concept, design and execution, was most certainly years ahead if its time.

I was drawn back to Treasure Planet, primarily due to my recent fascination with Victorian-Edwardian Scientific Romance and Retro-Futurism.  (Again, a nod to Cory and his Voyages Extraordinaires site, where I have been extensively educated in these matters, and in the nuances and ambiguities of what many people now refer to as "steampunk.")  My Hawkins Strongbox project reflects this passion, and my interest in matters of this regard can be easily traced back to the formative Disney years of my youth.  This was when I had only a passing interest in animation and had yet to experience a theme park, but was drawn like moth to flame to Disney live-action adventure films.  In Search of the Castaways and The Island at the Top of the World are among the Saturday matinee memories that I still cherish to this day, and I have no doubt that those experiences laid the subconscious groundwork for my most recent explorations into these aforementioned genres that encompass almost every known category of entertainment.  (Yes, there is even a steampunk category of music; check out Abney Park for starters.)

Treasure Planet is in my opinion, a creative amalgamation of themes attributed to three of the 19th century's most recognized authors of fantastic fiction: Robert Louis Stevenson, Jules Verne, and Edgar Rice Burroughs.  The connection to Stevenson is of course direct, being based on that author's classic adventure tale, Treasure Island.  From Verne and Burroughs come notions of space travel and otherworldly settings.  Treasure Planet filmmakers John Muskers and Ron Clements (writers-producers-directors) married these notions to some retro-modern technologies and crafted a stunning and often visually complex masterpiece, for which they have never been given enough credit.

One consistent criticism of the film is that it "lacked heart."  I have always found this to be a particularly shallow critical cliche and one all too easy to get away with.  Visually dynamic films frequently fall victim to this conjecture and Treasure Planet proved to be no exception.  The centerpiece of any Treasure Island adaptation is the relationship between the young Jim Hawkins and the always questionable Long John Silver.  Treasure Planet serves well that story element and brings to bear an emotional resonance that culminates with film's final interaction between the two characters.  Silver's journey of redemption rings especially true when he tells Jim with unabashed pride that, "You're going to rattle the stars, you are."

Hopefully in the years to come, Treasure Planet will shed some of the critical and box office baggage it has been forced to burden and move beyond the general apathy that continues to plague it.  It will certainly never receive the top-tier status afforded the likes of Snow White and Beauty and the Beast, but perhaps it will at least be able to rise to a more respectable level within the rankings of Disney animated features.


Jeff Kurtti said...

This great film was made a political pawn in machinations of the Company, and deserves to be seen and appreciated for its depth of pleasures, not the least of which is the co-performance of John Ripa and Glen Keane as Jim and Hawkins.

In coming decades, people will puzzle over its box office failure, and it will achieve more of the attention it deserves.

Joe Shelby said...

well, I don't think they'll over-puzzle over the box office because one can look at one simple thing that dominated the early 2000s: Lord of the Rings. Treasure Planet was buried in apathy at the time because EVERYBODY was going to Two Towers, talking about Two Towers (particularly the rant-fest about the direction of Faramir), seeing Two Towers again.

Next thing you know we're in awards season and the apathy (combined with a growing anti-Eisner sentiment already taking hold - "Save Disney" was just a few months away) took hold against BOTH Disney releases that year as everybody was watching for Ice Age vs. Stallion (and then being shocked at Spirited Away's coup). The films were getting buried not just by the competition, but by Eisner's overreaction to their low box office as Eisner's accounting policy was often to not consider the home video market to really be a part of a film's larger returns.

Me? I actually saw Treasure Planet in the theater INSTEAD of joining my office-mates in seeing Two Towers, though that was partly so that I didn't see TTT without my wife, who'd have been very cross with me.

Rich T. said...

Great post on a truly underrated film! Treasure Planet's a great but somewhat flawed movie.

I think everything in the film that's played straight works wonderfully: Jim, Jim's Mom, Silver, Scroop, the Captain, etc. I find the "humorous" characters grating and obnoxious (Doppler, the numerous one- joke alien crewmembers, and especially Martin Short's character). I think Mulan shares this problem. Morph gets a thumbs-up just because he's such a logical twist on a parrot.

My biggest complaint is that the flood of weird aliens onboard makes it hard for an audience to relate to, because there's no depth there. I wish they'd stuck to three or four well- designed alien species (Silver, the Captain, Scroop) and presented variations on each one to give the universe some sense of continuity. What would a non-cyborg member of Silver's people look like?

Overall, though, the strength of the central story with Jim and Silver far outweighs the problems. Thanks for bringing some focus on this terrific flight of fantasy.

Anonymous said...

Funny I was revisiting this movie a couple of weeks ago too, doing some visual research for my own work, and I remembered how much I like the overall movie, but even though I agree with Jeff about the main characters, I have to side with RIch on the rest of the cast. They were a distraction that stained the good stuff.
I really like this movie but like Atlantis, has to many characters all over the place.
Both songs are some of my favorite and visually and conceptually the movie is great.
I remember looking at some of the conceptual artwork in the studio (back in the day) and being amazed by it, especially the characters... but those just didn't worked on the film.
Still more people should have liked it.
And I'd love a park attraction for this movie or Atlantis... too bad.

Cory Gross said...

Thanks for the shouting-out my blog!

I don't think the variety of background characters is really a major issue. This is a Sci-Fi movie, and Sci-Fi movies always have background colour. The good Star Wars films and every Star Trek have those well-decorated extras, limited only by the expense of costuming them. Animation did what animation does and did them all. The issue might be that none of them were well-developed as characters, but they're extras. They're not really supposed to be.

I suspect, however, that Silver and the Captain are the same species if that helps ^_^

Interesting observations from Joe about what was going on that year too!

crocko33 said...

Just found this review and loved seeing it.

I for one agree that this is sadly an under-appreciated Disney movie.

When I think back to my boyhood I can recall that I loved to watch Robin Hood and Sword & the Stone all the time. Throw in an occasional showing of Jungle Book and life was good. For me, Treasure Planet is the same kind of great movie. If I were a kid again and had time to watch a Disney movie every day, this would be one I'm sure I would love to watch again-and-again.

Besides the great retro-futuristic scenery, there is a very emotional background to this story that touches me any time I watch the movie -- the relationship between Hawkins and Silver is extremely touching. Furthermore, just a great song by John Rzeznik (I'm Still Here)