THE HOUSE OF MOUSE PROJECT – ‘Treasure Planet’

The one that flopped spectacularly.

For over a decade, directors Ron Clements and John Musker had been desperately seeking approval from Disney’s executives to produce their dream project, Treasure Island in Space. While no one at the studio shared Clements and Musker’s unbridled enthusiasm for the pitch, the duo relentlessly pushed the idea for the better part of 15 years before they were finally given the green light. As fate would have it, Disney was entirely right to be cautious and a box office bomb like few others was about to fall flat on its face.

Clements and Musker first suggested the idea of “pirates in space” at the studio’s first “Gong Show” pitch meeting in 1985. At the time, Paramount Pictures was developing a Star Trek sequel inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, leading to then-CEO Michael Eisner rejecting the pair’s proposal. Instead, the dejected co-directors were assigned the task of bringing The Little Mermaid to life.

After the rousing critical and commercial success of Ariel’s adventures under the sea kicked off the Disney Renaissance, Clements and Musker thought they’d try their luck again and pitched Treasure Island in Space to then-chairman and head of feature animation Jeffrey Katzenberg in 1989. But Katzenberg had no interest in the project at all and instead offered the pair their choice of three projects; Aladdin, King of the Jungle (which would later become The Lion King), or an adaptation of Swan Lake.

When Clements and Musker turned Aladdin into an even greater box office success than their previous film, the duo assumed the studio couldn’t possibly reject Treasure Island in Space for a third time. They were wrong. Katzenberg still had no faith in the project and turned the duo down once more, leaving an angry Clements and Musker with no choice but to turn to then-chairman Roy E. Disney for assistance.

Disney had been a supporter of the project from the very beginning and approached Eisner to give his blessing to the pitch. But Eisner was still highly anxious to greenlight a risky venture, especially given the dream run the studio was experiencing. Much to the directors’ dismay, Eisner backed Katzenberg’s decision and the pair were instead tasked with crafting the lively comedy Hercules, with Eisner promising they could revisit the Treasure Island project if Hercules proved to be a hit.

By 1995, Clements and Musker’s contract was up for re-negotiation, with the pair genuinely considering walking away from the studio and taking their Treasure Island pitch somewhere else. With Katzenberg now gone after his dramatic exit the previous year, the directors requested a resolution to keep them at the studio; they would agree to a stay at Disney if their contract included a stipulation they could direct Treasure Island in Space upon the completion of Hercules. Eisner agreed and the duo signed a new seven-year contract.

Despite Katzenberg’s departure, there was still conjecture over the project when it came time for official approval in 1997, particularly from then-president of Walt Disney Animation Peter Schneider. By this point, Clements and Musker were tired of being rejected and bluntly reminded the executives they had now delivered not one, not two, not three, but four successful animated films and deserved to receive what they were promised. Eisner relented and the project, now titled Treasure Planet, was officially greenlit.

The pair teamed up with their Aladdin screenwriters Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott to flesh out a story outline, taking elements of Stevenson’s original novel and modernising their adaptation to be appealing to a teenage audience. In Stevenson’s book, the protagonist Jim Hawkins was written as a young boy of around 12, but Clements and Musker felt the film would work better from the perspective of a troubled adolescent trying to find his place in the world.

As such, their adaptation placed greater emphasis on Jim’s search for a father-like mentor, with his backstory revealing Jim’s father abandoned his son at a young age. They combined the characters of Squire Trelawney and Dr. Livesey into a new character Dr. Delbert Doppler, who would serve as Jim’s closest ally and moral compass. To strengthen Jim’s quest for a mentor, the relationship between the teenager and John Silver was emphasised further, with the pirate standing as another father figure for the troubled teen.

To further modernise the adaptation, the story team rewrote Jim’s trusty skipper Captain Alexander Smollett as a female protagonist named Captain Amelia, who was the commander of the hybrid spaceship/water ship RLS Legacy, with those three letters obviously standing as a tribute to the novel’s author. While Jim would remain a human character, practically every supporting character was rewritten as various species of anthropomorphic animals or futuristic robotic creations.

Dr. Doppler was written as a dog, while Captain Amelia was cast as a cat, with the pair forming an unexpected connection despite their differing species. John Silver became a cybernetic human with a mechanical arm, leg, and eye, which were the result of an unknown accident many years earlier. Silver’s arm served numerous purposes, including morphing into cooking implements, a sword, and a pistol, while his eye allowed the pirate to improve his aim during combat. The original Stevenson character of Ben Gunn was rewritten as an eccentric robot named B.E.N., who literally lost his mind after being marooned on the titular island.

For the casting of Jim, the filmmakers conducted an exhaustive audition process in New York, Los Angeles, and London. After months of auditions, the role was offered to Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who was coming to the end of his run on the hugely popular television show 3rd Rock from the Sun. Musker felt Gordon-Levitt brought the right balance of determination and vulnerability to the character, which were exactly the qualities found within Jim characterisation.

For the roles of Dr. Doppler and Captain Amelia, Clements and Musker had specifically written the characters with David Hyde Pierce and Emma Thompson respectively in mind. As Pierce was currently in the Disney studio recording his dialogue for Pixar’s A Bug’s Life, the directors met with the actor to show him the script and their preliminary drawings. He immediately accepted the role. Thompson also leapt at the opportunity, namely due to being pregnant at the time and knew the role would allow her to play an action heroine without the need to physically exert herself.

After their success with the now-obligatory Disney comedic sidekick character voiced by a famous comedian in both Aladdin and Hercules, Clements and Musker knew the role of B.E.N. needed to echo this tradition. As such, the filmmakers offered the part to comedian Martin Short, who, coincidentally, had just finished voiceover work for Disney’s rival DreamWorks on their production The Prince of Egypt. In a similar fashion to Robin Williams’ Genie, Short adlibbed numerous recording sessions, with the actor’s manic performance style mirrored in the animation of his character.

For the film’s futuristic visual designs, the animation team employed the use of the Deep Canvas software, which had been initially developed for Tarzan. While Tarzan had only utilised the technology for selected sequences, Treasure Planet would ultimately use the software to create practically the entire film. The animators crafted detailed virtual 360-degree sets for each scene, with traditionally-drawn characters placed within these three-dimensional worlds.

This created a perception of depth and allowed the camera to be placed and maneuvered anywhere within each set, as it would be in a live-action film. Clements and Musker were inspired by the work of directors James Cameron and Steven Spielberg, seeking to recreate the dazzling cinematography of these filmmakers’ spectacular action epics like Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Raiders of the Lost Ark. With the ability to move the camera digitally through the 360-degree sets, Clements and Musker were able to craft sweeping movements rarely seen in animated films.

The filmmakers operated under a rule they deemed the “70/30 Law,” whereby the overall design of the film’s animated elements should be 70% traditional and 30% sci-fi. An example of this can be found in the design of the RLS Legacy, which was created to resemble a classic vintage galleon but updated with futuristic elements, namely the ability to travel through space through the use of rocket engines.

This rule can also be found in the design of cyborg John Silver, whose computer-generated body parts were fused with that of a traditionally animated character. In order to test the computer animation of Silver’s mechanical parts, the animation team took an animated sequence of Captain Hook from Peter Pan and replaced his arm with a cybernetic appendage.

The overall aesthetic of Treasure Planet was partly inspired by the art style of illustrators Howard Pyle and N.C. Wyeth, whose work typically featured classic storybook designs. Clements and Musker instructed their production team to craft imagery with a “painterly” feel and encouraged the use of a warm colour palette, mostly composed of deep golds, browns, and navy blues. This was a sharp departure for the Disney studio, with past animated features typically designed with bright, lively colours.

After a total production time of close to four-and-a-half years and the use of more computer-generation animation than any other Disney animated feature film, the final budget of Treasure Planet ballooned to $140 million, making it the most expensive traditional animated film of all time. This naturally made the Disney executives extremely nervous, with the film needing to elicit staggering box office numbers just to turn a profit.

Treasure Planet opened on November 27, 2002, to generally mixed reviews from critics. The New York Times called it “less an act of homage than a clumsy and cynical bit of piracy” and deemed the film a “brainless, mechanical picture,” Entertainment Weekly described the film as “all cutesy updated fripperies and zero momentum” and that audiences “could nap for an hour and not miss a thing,” and Roger Ebert praised the film’s visuals but wished it had been “more exciting” and “less gimmicky.”

Despite Disney spending over $40 million on an extensive marketing campaign and releasing the film in both regular and IMAX formats (a first for a major studio release), Treasure Planet was ultimately one of the most expensive box office flops in the history of cinema. At the U.S. box office, the film grossed a paltry $38.1 million, with a further $71.m million elicited internationally for a disastrous $109.5 million worldwide gross. As such, Treasure Planet took the dubious title of the worst-performing Disney animated film all time, managing to lose the studio more money than any other film in its history and forced Disney executives to genuinely question the future of traditional animation in the 21st century.

In this project, I have called many previous animated films highly ambitious productions, but nothing comes close to the level of ambition seen on Treasure Planet. Clements and Musker genuinely reached for the stars with the passion project they’d been dreaming of creating for over 15 years. Sadly, it all came crashing down to earth with those devastating box office numbers and tepid critics reviews. In the history of Disney animation, few films have failed as spectacularly as Treasure Planet.

Look, it’s not entirely the film’s fault. Treasure Planet arrived at a time when traditional animation was truly on its last legs. Audiences had all but moved on by 2002. Animation studios like Pixar and DreamWorks were changing the game with their 3D computer-animated adventures, and this style of animation was clearly what the general public desired. If this film had been released during Disney animation’s 90s revival, who knows if it would have been received more warmly.

In saying that, Treasure Planet is a difficult film to warm to, especially with a plot that’s so disastrously dull, it’s genuinely difficult not to find yourself nodding off about halfway through. For the umpteenth time during this era, Disney produced an animated film that’s all style and very, very, very little substance. It’s a spectacular style, with some of the most impressive visuals the studio has ever created, but it all means nothing when those visual elements are wrapped up in a generic narrative that leaves little impression.

With a genuinely bizarre cast of characters (including a shape-shifting, floating ball of goo named Morph and a nightmare-inducing half spider/half crab creature named Scroop), it’s the kind of film that would likely work perfectly fine in live-action but simply doesn’t lend itself particularly well to animation. Treasure Planet badly wants to be Star Wars, but seemingly forgets one of the best elements of George Lucas’ space saga was its thrilling screenplay and lovable characters. Neither exists here and it’s the film’s true failing.

Almost 20 years later, Treasure Planet has a very passionate fanbase who will defend this film until they’re blue in the face. Personally, I fail to see why, unless we’re purely defending the film on the basis of its outstanding visual achievements, which are practically unrivalled in the Disney canon. If nothing else, Treasure Planet stood as a sparkling display of the wonders of computer animation, with Clements and Musker truly pushing the envelope on the possibilities of the burgeoning technology. It’s a mighty shame more time wasn’t spent on creating a more rounded piece of cinema that understands the importance of a great script to complement dazzling visuals.

The cataclysmic box office failure of Treasure Planet put the final nail in the coffin of traditional animation. Disney had now been suffering through an almost decade-long box office decline of its animated features, which was clearly showing no sign of slowing down. Perhaps Katzenberg had been right to continually reject Clements and Musker’s dream project. It may have been a dream for the filmmakers but it proved to be an absolute nightmare for the studio. The winds of change were now blowing stronger and the days of traditional animation were numbered.

Is Treasure Planet a Disney Classic? For all its ambitious style and lavish special effects, Treasure Planet proved to be one of the biggest financial disasters in cinematic history. It was an admirable project with the greatest of intentions that sadly failed by failing to understand the changing climate. There’s still a lot of love for this film, but not nearly enough to consider Treasure Planet a true Disney Classic.

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