So, stop me if you’ve heard this one, but Treasure Planet wasn’t exactly a box office hit when it opened on this day 15 years ago.
There may be no other Disney animated movie–with the possible exception of The Black Cauldron–that has become more synonymous with the word “bomb” than the 2002 science-fiction epic that took Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and sent it into outer space. And though the studio had been enjoying a very good year, with both Lilo and Stitch and the actually really good Peter Pan sequel Return to Never Land turning in respectable profits, Treasure Planet became the only movie anyone in the entertainment media wanted to talk about. A common narrative at the time was that a reason for the film’s financial failure was that it was done in what was then referred to as “traditional” animation. This was a little bogus, as Treasure Planet had plenty of computer animation in it, complete with a fully digital character in the marooned robot B.E.N. and a combination of hand-drawn animation and CGI to create Long John Silver. Nevertheless, the film became the scapegoat for so-called 2D animation being on its way out the door, and even today the press will still refer to it as one of “Disney’s duds.”
There are a number of extreme misconceptions about the film, chief among them probably being the theory that then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner made the film solely so it would bomb, thus giving the Mouse House an excuse to shut down several of their animation studios. This is hogwash. Disney had high hopes for the movie, giving it their coveted Thanksgiving opening weekend which had worked wonders for them time and time again and continues to do so today (ironically, the studio’s most successful film of all time, a little movie called Frozen, shares an anniversary release date with Treasure Planet. Happy fourth birthday, Elsa!). A TV series and a sequel were already well into production, and would’ve seen Jim Hawkins reuniting with John Silver to stop a villainous pirate named Ironbeard (a love interest for Jim also would’ve been introduced). And no one with business interests in mind invests $140 million in a movie hoping it will fail.
At the end of the day, sometimes things go wrong. Perhaps releasing Treasure Planet two weeks after the second Harry Potter movie was a mistake, or maybe Disney made an error by having the film come out not long at all after their own quite leggy The Santa Clause 2 (which beat Planet during its debut weekend despite being in its fourth week of release). The marketing could also be blamed, I suppose, with the film’s teaser showcasing the spectacular animation and nothing about the story, and the full trailer providing a groan-inducing tagline: “Jim may be on a quest for a gold, but he’d better watch out for Silver!”
Whatever one might say about how Eisner ran the company during his final years there (I never really did follow the increasingly ugly feud between him and Roy Disney when it was happening), no one can say he didn’t allow the studio to take risks. When The Hunchback of Notre Dame was in production, the filmmakers were concerned over showing Eisner the “Hellfire” sequence, worried he might demand it be cut over it being too sensual and scary for children. Instead, Eisner encouraged them to go still further with the song than they were initially going to. Similarly, Treasure Planet was also a film which was Eisner was apparently quite supportive of…at least before box office returns came in. It’s also the sort of project John Lasseter almost certainly never would’ve allowed to be made had he been creative consultant at Walt Disney Feature Animation at the time. When Lasseter took that position shortly after Eisner had left the company, one of the first things he did was cancel work on any projects he didn’t see as “Disney enough,” even firing Lilo & Stitch co-director Chris Sanders from his film American Dog (which would ultimately be turned into the charming but still extremely safe Bolt).
(As for the allegations currently against Lasseter and what they mean for his future at the company, those are better suited to be discussed in another article)
In any case, Eisner and everyone else at the studio would try to distance themselves from the film after its perceived downfall, though the proclamation of defeat was possibly premature. Treasure Planet, contrary to popular belief, got a reasonably warm critical reception from reviews, and Disney could’ve turned it into a word-of-mouth hit if they had kept TV advertising prominent. Instead, the movie would finish with $38 million domestic, and would largely be blamed for the company’s shares falling during the fourth quarter.
Yet Treasure Planet’s legacy goes beyond its infamous box office tale, and its fandom may have risen because of its industry shortcomings rather than in spite of them. The backlash against the film encouraged those who enjoyed it to purchase the DVD as soon as it was released, to buy merchandise while they still could, and to tell their friends about it online. It’s notable that, despite everything that had gone wrong for the movie, it managed to lead the home video charts when it hit store shelves, generating more than $1 million in its first week alone.
Treasure Planet is the brainchild of Disney vets John Musker and Ron Clements, who had the idea for the film as far back as when they were still working on The Great Mouse Detective. As insane as its concept might sound on paper, the execution of it on screen is brilliant. Instead of flying around in Star Trek-style spaceships and the like, the characters soar around on ships with sails. Everyone has laser guns, but no one has a television set. There’s been debate as to whether or not Treasure Planet should be considered “steampunk” or not, but it looks absolutely spectacular regardless of what category it falls under, ranking with Tarzan as one of the studio’s most eye-popping films at the time. There’s a heavy amount of action, and it’s all thrilling, particularly Jim’s deadly encounter with the nasty spider-alien Scroop (who might be one of Disney’s scariest villains…ever). Balancing the intensity of the fight with the comedic antics of B.E.N. (voiced by a very funny and fully wired Martin Short), it’s a remarkably well-executed sequence, culminating with Scroop’s blood-curdling scream as he floats off into space.
Though there are accusations from some who would say otherwise (probably from people who haven’t seen the film), Treasure Planet isn’t all explosions and adventure, and has plenty of heart to go around. A romantic subplot between the canine scholar Dr. Doppler and the spunky feline Captain Amelia (voiced by Emma Thompson, who’s perfect) is extremely welcome, but the soul of the story is the relationship between Silver and Jim. Long John is certainly “softer” in this adaptation than in other versions of the story, while Jim himself isn’t a naive child but a somewhat troubled teenager (this is Disney, though, so drugs and alcohol aren’t involved). This makes their scenes together early on far more sentimental than one might expect, and raises the stakes when Silver inevitably commits mutiny to keep the legendary treasure (or the “loot of a thousand worlds” as its referred to here) for himself. Jim, whose own father jumped ship years ago, sees Silver as a parental figure rather than as someone he merely comes to admire and respect. When Jim believes he’s responsible for the death of the rock-steady Mr. Arrow, Silver, perhaps going against what he sees as his better judgment, offers words of comfort: “When the time comes when you really get to test the cut of yer sails and show them what yer made of…well, I hope I’m there catching some of the light coming off ya that day.” Unable to come up with a response, Jim rests his head on the pirate’s pudgy belly and silently weeps. It’s a sweet and gently funny moment.
This might make Treasure Planet something many Disney movies arguably aren’t: a film that’s best viewed for the first time when one is a teenager. As teens, we are often so confused about ourselves, still trying to find ourselves and who we want to be. In this regard, Jim’s story can be seen as reflective of the viewer, his journey of self-discovery on some level becoming our own. I’m not by any means saying the film can’t be enjoyed thoroughly by adults and children, because of course it can, and I guess I should add that I’m speaking as someone who saw the film in theaters as a 15 year-old boy. Yet Jim’s plights are almost universal with teenage angst, and the song “I’m Still Here” might be the ultimate Disney ballad on the subject.
When all is said and done, Treasure Planet wasn’t deserving of the negative backlash it received, but was fortunately strong enough that it was able to overcome that and find a loyal following. Though John Musker and Ron Clements would momentarily leave the studio following the film’s receipts, they would return to helm The Princess and the Frog and the more recent Moana. As for Planet, it would enjoy a surprise nomination in the Best Animated Feature category at the Oscars, and Disney even gave it a 10th Anniversary Blu-ray release a few years back (I’m still waiting for them to put out The Black Cauldron). Treasure Planet may not have made money, but it had the makings of greatness in it. Thankfully, a lot of people have seen that.
Also, this shipping is all kinds of wrong. Sorry.