It must have been one of the great moments in pitch-meeting history: John Musker and Ron Clements, the guys behind Aladdin, looked Disney CEO Michael Eisner straight in the eye, paused for effect and said, "Think Treasure Island...in space." Then again, this could be one of those bonehead ideas that only seemed good at the time, for it's not entirely clear that Treasure Planet, which Disney has put a considerable effort into, will find the loot it's looking for. Remember when the Mouse House had its finger on the pulse of America's tots and tweens, with Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King? Well, that was several movies ago, movies like Pocahontas and Hercules and Atlantis. Ladies and gentlemen, Mickey needs a mega-hit.
Heading back to the future, Treasure Planet adapts Robert Louis Stevenson's classic adventure story to the Star Wars universe that today's youngsters inhabit, and the result is a retro/futuro hybrid that's set in both the 18th century and ' oh, I don't know ' the 28th. Once again, young Jim Hawkins sets sail on a swab-the-deck galleon that may harbor a pirate or two, but this time the sails are solar-powered and the pirates look like they were picked up at that Tatooine cantina. Instead of sailors, we have "spacers." Instead of peg-legged John Silver, a cyborgian ship's cook with a glowing eye and a robotic arm that could put Ron Popeil out of business in one fell swoop, not to mention one swell soup.
The soup in question has an eyeball in it, one of the several instances of gross-out humor, the grossest being a heavily orificed critter that speaks "Flatula." Otherwise, the movie follows the basic outline of Stevenson's novel while gaily transporting everything into outer space. According to the press material, Musker and Clements went for a 70/30 past/future split, but what about the present? Jim, who's become a troubled teen raised by a single mom, opens Treasure Planet by "solar-surfing" through one of the most dynamic animation sequences since Tarzan swung through the trees with the greatest of ease. Disney's "Deep Camera" effect, which it seems quite proud of, will thrill anyone who's never seen a live-action film before.
Extreme sports and gold earring aside, Jim is yet another bland hero recruited from the Mousketeer Club of Musker and Clements' imaginations. He's admittedly moody, thanks to a father who left him and his mother to fend for themselves. But all he really wants is to "chart my own course," which the movie spells out in no uncertain terms. Luckily, Jim's course steers him past some rather enjoyable characters ' a cowardly canine voiced by David Hyde Pierce, a courageous feline voiced by Emma Thompson and a short-circuiting robot voiced by Martin Short. Of the three, only Short seems to have been given carte blanche Ã la Robin Williams in Aladdin, and he makes the best of it when it's not getting the best of him.
The whole movie's like that, damp with flop sweat. The directors are so desperate to make contact with their target audience that they lose their touch. John Silver, one of the most compelling characters in all of children's literature, is voiced by Brian Murray, who does a wonderful job of capturing this rogue with a brogue. But the animation isn't quite there; the gestures lack crispness. And so does the characterization. Silver's supposed to be both Jim's best friend and his worst enemy ' i.e., a complicated character. But Stevenson had a few hundred pages to work that all out. Treasure Planet has about an hour and a half, and it's not enough. Maybe if Jim wouldn't spend so much time solar-surfing....
As usual with Disney, the artwork is first-rate, taking its cues from N.C. Wyeth's painterly illustrations for the 1911 Scribner's edition of Stevenson's novel. Everything's bathed in Rembrandtian shades of gold and brown. And the movie skillfully blends hand-drawn and computer-generated imagery. But none of this succeeds in transporting us to another realm, perhaps because the filmmakers are trying so hard to do so. There's a little pink blob named Morph that can transform itself into virtually anything at a moment's notice ' Tinkerbell by way of Aladdin's genie. But isn't that too magical? And don't Musker and Clements realize that, when it's not transforming, the thing's a dead ringer for Mr. Bubble?