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.