Space Surfers: Disney’s Treasure Planet at Twenty

John Silver and Jim Hawkins on the search for the “loot of a thousand worlds”. 
John Silver and Jim Hawkins on the search for the “loot of a thousand worlds”. 

Treasure Planet fan Kambole Campbell space-surfs back to a childhood favorite to find the 2D and CG technical triumph with terrible timing is maybe, finally getting its due. 

Treasure Planet is a curious chapter in both animation history and the story of Walt Disney Animation Studios itself. The 2002 feature by long-time collaborators Ron Clements and John Musker, adapted from Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1883 novel Treasure Island, combined traditional 2D animation with newer computer generated technology, enabling deeper world-building and more thrilling camera angles on its flying vessels. 

Made on a $140 million budget, the tale of Jim Hawkins, a secret map and John Silver’s scheme to steal a great treasure from under everyone’s noses was one of the most expensive animated films of all time. Treasure Planet was well-received on arrival, with mostly mixed-to-positive reviews from a release plan that made it the first film to be shown in regular and IMAX theaters simultaneously. The film nabbed an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Feature, and yet: It was also one of the animation studio’s biggest commercial flops, earning just $38 million in the United States and Canada and $110 million worldwide

So why don’t we talk about Treasure Planet enough? What happened? The extent to which the film feels somewhat forgotten is puzzling to me. More people need to ride the space windsurfing current to this buried treasure, which these days is hiding in plain sight on Disney+. 

All aboard the R.L.S. Legacy, named for Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island. 
All aboard the R.L.S. Legacy, named for Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island

Treasure Planet came out at the end of 2002, a few years after what is characterized as the climax of the Disney Renaissance period, an evolutionary decade that began in 1989 with The Little Mermaid and somewhat officially concluded in 1999 with Tarzan. The reality of that time of change isn’t quite so uniform, of course. According to Chris Pallant in his 2013 book Demystifying Disney: A History of Disney Feature Animation, it’s a change that could be said to have been catalyzed by animator Don Bluth’s break from the studio to become independent back in 1979, and his direct competition with Disney in the decade that followed. 

The actual cinematic timeline of Disney’s releases in the ’90s is not simply a record of continuous hits. But Musker and Clements’ work on The Little Mermaid—financially, technologically, and stylistically—represented a huge shift in how Disney films would be made and perceived, and Tarzan came with Deep Canvas’ 3D painting technique, which led directly to the 2D/CG look of Treasure Planet

In the decade following Treasure Planet Disney would pivot to prioritizing CG-animated feature films, its theatrical output of traditionally animated features evidently slowing to a trickle. There was the 2.6 out of five star-rated Home on the Range from 2004, 2009’s The Princess and the Frog (also directed by Clements and Musker) and 2011’s Winnie the Pooh. Treasure Planet was, perhaps, a harbinger of that change (though Disney occasionally teases a return to hand-drawn films).  

Doctor Doppler, Jim Hawkins and Captain Amelia plot a course for treasure. 
Doctor Doppler, Jim Hawkins and Captain Amelia plot a course for treasure. 

There’s not any single decisive factor, according to Petrana Radulovic’s retrospective for Polygon on the making of the film and its financial failure; it was mostly a combination of changing audience tastes and unfortunate timing. Hindsight and a shift in Disney’s feature animation priorities toward CG-animated films might suggest that Treasure Planet had lost a cold war between mediums, but Radulovic says that the success of 2002’s other Disney 2D-animated movie Lilo & Stitch suggests otherwise, as well as its release of a small boom of sci-fi adventure of films like Titan A.E. or Atlantis: The Lost Empire. Not to mention that, with “Pottermania” in full swing, it went up against Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

On this point, Letterboxd member Siena jokingly theorizes a Disney conspiracy: “Disney released this the same week as Harry! Potter! in a ploy to kill 2D animation and that makes me want to scream into the space void!! WHO GAVE DISNEY THE RIGHT to abuse this technologically gorgeous and narratively gentle intergalactic adventure about love and finding personal strength despite all odds set against you ?!?”. As far as timing goes, it also went up against Spirited Away at the Oscars, though I don’t think I would protest that win even a little. 

In her exploration of Treasure Planet’s ideas and their reception, Radulovic cites co-writer Terry Rossio (who had also had a hand in Shrek and The Road to El Dorado around the same time). Rossio denies other popular theories—an over-saturation of Treasure Island adaptations, no big name stars, a strange concept, the boy wizard—in favor of his own: that a teenage Jim Hawkins was too old, too gloomy. 

Jim (voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) looks towards Treasure Planet. 
Jim (voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) looks towards Treasure Planet

I would personally refute this notion. My own experience of seeing the film as a child ranks among one of my most vivid earlier memories of going to the cinema (I was about seven when it was released). I remember delighting in Jim’s edgy impetuousness, in his rebellion (the ponytail, the undercut, the earring!)—and, perhaps, I related somewhat to his buried need for paternal approval. 

On a more superficial level, he was a kid who space-windsurfs in a sequence not entirely unlike the pod racing from The Phantom Menace, while the soundtrack layers guitar licks over top. Few Disney protagonists could be more aspirational to me at the time, a kid who utterly lacked the coordination and balance for skateboarding.

Today, the film maintains something of a cult following, as evidenced by its high standing for a lot of Letterboxd members (almost 60,000 members have given it the heart; 2,300 have it in their four favorites). It could be that it stands as a starry-eyed Disney experiment that symbolizes something of a lost era, now that the company has mostly left behind traditional animation. With a constant influx of positive reception over the past decade, trends of ratings and viewings on Letterboxd suggest as much: The average daily rating for Treasure Planet has risen from the low-threes to the current 3.7 out of five star average over the lifetime of Letterboxd. 

Mr Arrow (the distinctive voice of Roscoe Lee Browne) with Captain Amelia (Emma Thompson).
Mr Arrow (the distinctive voice of Roscoe Lee Browne) with Captain Amelia (Emma Thompson).

Even with that tumultuous history the film continues to find its fans two decades later, like Ian West, who expresses regret at only discovering it now. “I somehow managed to know nothing about this twenty year old movie and had no idea it was a sci-fi Treasure Island Star Trek episode of Futurama,” he writes. “I wish I could go back in time and tell seventeen-year-old idiot me to watch this.” 

The Narrator notes that “the most egregious of the mandated Disney comic relief is largely frontloaded before they set sail”, with Treasure Planet ultimately becoming “a wonderful adventure yarn told refreshingly straight”. Houston Coley writes that “it’s one of [Disney’s] most visually psychedelic and inventive” films, while fellow Journal correspondent Alicia Haddick demands a “mass cultural re-evaluation”, praising Treasure Planet as a rich canvas and a “triumph of 2D animation”. 

Sofi, who has logged the film every year for a few years now (props to you, sincerely), reckons "this movie didn’t deserve to flop the way it did”. Noah Thompson makes a plea that highlights how Clements and Musker’s ambition still stands out: “With any luck, and a little bit of magic on our side, films as entertaining, creative, and uniquely heartwarming as this will return to the forefront of the Mouse’s animated catalog. Even if it doesn’t, it’s better it existed and bombed than never existed at all.” 

The adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid shunted Treasure Planet back in the Disney production queue. 
The adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid shunted Treasure Planet back in the Disney production queue. 

Much of what I and other Letterboxd fans personally love about Treasure Planet is intrinsically tied to the surprisingly long history of its production—and the animation philosophies that came to define it. Starting at the beginning, Treasure Planet is, in a sense, something of a late addition to the animated films that made up the Disney Renaissance. This is because the idea for Treasure Planet actually extends much farther back than one might expect: it was pitched in the very same meeting in which the directors also offered The Little Mermaid

At the time, Michael Eisner was the head of Disney and had brought over the idea of “Gong Show” pitch meetings from his tenure at Paramount. Writers and directors would develop a quick, superficial sell of their feature idea, and Eisner and other higher-ups would ask for more details or simply “gong” it (i.e. dismiss it). Clements brought aboard Musker, his old collaborator on The Great Mouse Detective (1986), to help pitch The Little Mermaid and “Treasure Island in space”.  

The studio chose The Little Mermaid, and Treasure Planet got trapped in development hell for a time as the duo were pulled into other projects chasing approval from then-Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg. After Katzenberg’s departure for Dreamworks, production finally began in earnest and the directors got to make the film as they saw fit. 

Directors John Musker and Ron Clements with a maquette of Treasure Island’s Captain Amelia.
Directors John Musker and Ron Clements with a maquette of Treasure Island’s Captain Amelia.

Just as they anachronistically fused gospel music to the Greek pantheon in Hercules, spaceships combined with galleons in Treasure Planet. In an interview with Scene magazine, Musker and Clements talked through the hybrid art style: as Clements often highlights, they followed a rule where “seventy percent of the film would somehow be recognisable and relate to the old, and thirty percent would be fantasy-oriented and futuristic.” 

That hybridization and division also carries through to Musker and Clements’ methods of animation, marrying old and new on technical and conceptual levels. As the directors themselves told Scene, “50 percent of it has been done on the computer and 50 percent of it has been done by hand”, as the two carried forward the ‘Deep Canvas’ 3D painting technique that Walt Disney Animation Studios developed for Tarzan, a way to create fully 3D environments that would integrate relatively naturally with 2D cel animation. James Bestalel’s review highlights these techniques as a standout part of the film, writing that the 3D environments “remind me of a lot of early 3D Final Fantasy cutscenes and backgrounds in the best way”. 

Concept drawings of John Silver.  
Concept drawings of John Silver.  

It’s all part of how Treasure Planet continues the studio’s search for ways to make new technology feel natural in tandem with the traditional. This fusion of the artist’s hand with developing software isn’t just embodied in the props and production design but in the characters themselves. Long John Silver is a cyborg, his mechanical half computer animated, while the biological half is drawn by one of Disney’s most renowned, expressive animators, Glen Keane

To go even further, the character himself is also divided in two: softened a bit from Stevenson’s story as he is torn between his ruthless pragmatism and his unlikely paternal love for Jim, which becomes more real the more he insists it is only an act. Besides all the film’s technical ambitions, Jim and John’s tender, familial relationship is perhaps the film’s standout element. 

In that sense, it’s of a piece with what Clements and Musker began in The Little Mermaid, Pallant highlighting in his book how the “technological subtext of The Little Mermaid’s final scene lends the sequence a symbolic quality: beneath the onscreen unification of Ariel and Eric, the studio’s animators had found a way to embrace computer technology without betraying the aesthetic principles of traditional Disney animation”. 

Concept drawing of Jim Hawkins and John Silver. 
Concept drawing of Jim Hawkins and John Silver. 

What I love about that embrace of new animation technologies is somewhat similar to why I love the CG animation in a film like Mamoru Hosoda’s Belle, where 3D computer animation is considered thematically (also worth noting Belle’s Disney-esque character designs via character artist Jin Kim). Perhaps more than other contemporaries of Treasure Planet that attempted the same kind of hybridization, Belle is split a little more evenly down the middle, but Treasure Planet's own connections between its characters and the “70/30” mix of traditional seafaring costume and architecture and Star Wars-esque industrial space fantasy also eases the friction between the two techniques. It’s a mix of the traditional and something more modern, more alien. 

My own view of the film has, of course, evolved a bit further from the “wow, cool surfboard!” reaction of my seven-year-old youth. But even today Treasure Planet’s striking blend of traditional and digital animation is still quite exceptional, if rough around the edges. Among the more inelegant moments, there are plenty of simpler pleasures to behold, like in James Newton Howard’s magnificent score with various 2000s pop-rock inserts from John Rzeznik of Goo Goo Dolls. And in some of its voice performances, like David Hyde Pierce channeling his usual prim nervousness as the rich dog-man, Doctor Doppler, or his foil and love interest, the fast-talking Captain Amelia, played with alluring cool by Emma Thompson.

The deep world-building in Treasure Planet became possible with a blend of CG and 2D animation. 
The deep world-building in Treasure Planet became possible with a blend of CG and 2D animation. 

There’s a romanticism in the combination of Treasure Planet’s disparate visual elements. As Clements and Musker put it on the Fantasy/Animation podcast, it’s a fantasy world that keeps the romantic air of the open sea, no helmets to separate its characters from the environment. The film’s ambition sometimes outstrips its means; in certain moments, the CG space galleons look ropey, the 3D-rendered objects too foreign to the rest of the movie’s look. But there are also shots that are genuinely inspiring, as Musker and Clements leverage the freedom of camera movement and the lighting control that computer animation provides. A moment where the camera majestically swoops around the ship—a simple yet lavish flourish—may be the best illustration of what could be done with their adoption of Tarzan’s virtual painting techniques. 

Jim with B.E.N. (voiced by Martin Short). 
Jim with B.E.N. (voiced by Martin Short). 

The digital objects themselves can be hit or miss, though the character B.E.N. (voiced by Martin Short) is hypnotic to watch as a CG character being animated and visually treated like their 2D counterparts, with the same kind of bouncy, emphatic acting. As a result, the animation of B.E.N. fits better than the rest of the CG elements—with all his clockwork gears and shabby copper detail he feels like he exists in the same realm of tangibility as Jim and the others. Speaking of which, the character acting in Treasure Planet is delightfully understated at times, Keane’s outstanding, soulful work on John Silver and animator John Ripa’s supervision on Hawkins being prime examples. The latter slowly strips back the boy’s defensiveness to find the vulnerability beneath, largely through his eyes (Ripa directly cites James Dean and Leonardo DiCaprio in Jim’s physicality). 

Space windsurfing in concept form. 
Space windsurfing in concept form. 

I will, at the very least, concede that the film’s comedy is hit or miss at best—with its annoying mascot characters it can be a sometimes frustrating collision of sensibilities. But today, Treasure Planet maintains something of a cult following, as evidenced by its high standing with many Letterboxd members. It is a starry-eyed Disney experiment that symbolizes something of a lost era, now that the company has mostly left behind traditional animation. Most of all, it’s an early example of what can be done when abandoning the myopic idea that 2D and 3D-CG animation are diametrically opposed. 

I’m still not sure what exactly can be learned from Treasure Planet two decades after its release. I just know that I still feel something for it, for its romance and ambition, and maybe just because I still think space windsurfing is pretty cool. 


Treasure Planet is streaming on Disney+.

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