Disney was on quite the sci-fi roll by this point, with their third one in a row premiering the same year as their previous one. As far as quality and entertainment value goes, I’d rank Treasure Planet much higher than Atlantis: The Lost Empire and significantly lower than Lilo & Stitch. On the surface, it has a great deal more in common with the former, at least from a design standpoint, being a steampunk-infused adventure that features nautical travel of sorts, along with exploration and discovery of long-buried treasure and fellow sailors betraying our young hero. When it comes to emotional substance, however, it hews closer to Lilo & Stitch‘s example, featuring a story of a difficult boy with behavioral problems who forms a close, familial bond with a most unlikely partner.
In some ways–perhaps many ways–Treasure Planet is a rather goofy film, transplanting Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic pirate novel, Treasure Island, into a futuristic, unEarthly setting filled with ridiculous alien creatures, all dressed in styles and surrounded by objects approximating and/or calling to mind Victoriana. I can’t help but love it.
In Treasure Planet, Long John Silver is a tiger-like alien whose missing limbs have been replaced by cyborg parts. And instead of the classic parrot, he has an adorable, floating, jelly-like creature named Morph who can take on any shape it pleases.
The look of the film is extremely retro-futuristic, with sailors and pirates traveling the stars rather than the seas. Unlike most science-fiction stories that translate ships into starships, however, in Treasure Planet, the ships don’t look like our general conception of spaceships but rather exactly like old-fashioned ships, other than the fact that they glide through outer space. And that, in many ways, is the film’s strongest suit. There is a tingling sense of childlike awe at the concept of a ship sailing through the sky. Watching this literal space ship calls to mind similar feelings I had as a kid watching the Jolly Roger fly in the final moments of Peter Pan. Treasure Planet captures that wonder at exploration and might-as-well-be-magic far better than Atlantis.
Furthermore, its outlandish story is grounded in genuine emotion. This is helped a great deal by excellent voice work from the always fantastic Joseph Gordon-Leavitt (whose recording of this role overlapped with the final season or two of Third Rock from the Sun) as Jim Hawkins and Brian Murray as Silver. In this version, Jim’s dad left his mom and him when he was still a young boy, leading to years of his acting out and feeling out of place. Not unlike Lilo, he wants to please his mom but is constantly besieged by restlessness, not to mention unspoken feelings of inadequacy and abandonment issues. And the seemingly friendly cook begins to fill the hole his father left in his life, forming a close bond and surprisingly touching relationship. Naturally, Silver begins to soften due to Jim’s influence and, although he has trouble giving up on his selfish dreams of piratical wealth and plunder, he does truly grow to love the boy. This might not be particularly unexpected or groundbreaking for Disney but it does demonstrate the sort of deeply felt heart that emerges in all of their greatest work, even if Treasure Planet might never actually be considered to be in that category. Although it’s a relatively minor film, it’s emotionally resonant and far more memorable because of it.
It’s also difficult to fault a film that has David Hyde Pierce playing an uptight, dog-like alien, Martin Short as an android on the fritz (named B.E.N., his character is an analogue to the Ben Gunn from Treasure Island, who had gone mad due to having been marooned there for countless years), and best of all, Emma Thompson as Captain Amelia, a feline alien with the no-nonsense, proper precision of a British naval captain, with a swashbuckling heart full of bravery and an unquenchable thirst for both adventure and tea.
All in all, although from many standpoints, Treasure Planet could hardly be considered a Disney masterpiece, it is still an extremely fun, if somewhat slight, adventure that in its most exciting moments can be truly dazzling, and in its quiet ones genuinely touching. While, other than Jim and Silver’s relationship, one could accuse the film of sometimes favoring its gorgeous, steampunk style over substance, what glorious style it is.
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