I’ve never understood why nobody seems to like Treasure Planet, Walt Disney Animation’s 43rd feature film and such a phenomenal box office flop that many consider it the final nail 2D animation’s coffin. Critics of the sci-fi adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic adventure novel Treasure Island tend to focus on the film’s somewhat arbitrary transposition of the pirate saga’s setting from the mid-18th century to the distant future, where Victorian era-production design somehow influences every aspect of the otherwise technologically-advanced civilization. The space ships look like old clipper ships and ride solar winds throughout the universe, and if that sort of thing distracts you from clever narratives and rollicking adventure, that’s too bad, because despite a few minor flaws Treasure Planet is one of Disney’s most overlooked gems. I wish I could say that this new Blu-ray release of Treasure Planet proves that it’s better than you remember, because it is, but a handful of technical issues keep it from being a “Must Buy.”
The story is familiar to those who have read the original novel, or who may remember any of the myriad other film adaptations. Joseph Gordon-Levitt voices young Jack Hawkins, who stumbles onto an ancient artifact when a mysterious visitor to his mother’s inn dies and warns him to “Beware the cyborg.” Before long, Jack and Dr. Doppler (David Hyde Pierce), a befuddled intellectual of canine origins, realize that it’s a map to the fabled “Treasure Planet,” where a famous space pirate is believed to have hidden his countless riches. They assemble a crew, led by the feline Captain Amelia (Emma Thompson), and set sail across the seven solar systems to find fortune and glory. Along the way, Jack finds a new father figure in the ship’s cook, John Silver (Brian Murray), who just so happens to be a cyborg. Hmm…
From a storytelling perspective, Treasure Planet is reasonably faithful to the source material but takes a few liberties, mostly centered around the objective to make a Disney animated adventure geared towards a male demographic. Jack is too 1990s for his own good, sporting a dated hairstyle, grungy demeanor and a propensity for extreme sports, but Treasure Planet makes up for that kind of overt pandering with a heartfelt and exceptionally dramatized relationship between the hero and the villain, who develop a close bond that is eventually tested when their competing ambitions place them at mortal odds. It’s a strong and unusually masculine narrative for a Disney motion picture. Treasure Planet doesn’t even provide its hero with a love interest, which is impressively refreshing.
As for the visual distractions that Treasure Planet critics usually complain about, they seem almost prophetic ten years later, when steampunk and retro-futurism have become readily accepted storytelling tropes (even though they remain relatively unsuccessful at the box office). When people complain about the lack of apparent functionality or even applied reason to the world of Treasure Planet, I wish they would remember that, strictly speaking, none of the supposedly “realistic” sci-fi vessels in modern fiction actually work either. If they did, we’d be in outer space by now. The romantic look and playful characterization of the world of Treasure Planet generates an air of Penny Dreadful simplicity: it looks this way because it’s cool. If you can’t get behind that sentiment, you probably shouldn’t be watching anything based on pulp storytelling in the first place.
Is it flawed? Certainly. Jack is a rather dated character, which bears repeating, and attempts at comic relief often fall flatter than a pancake on Jupiter, particularly in a moments when Dr. Doppler makes an ill-considered 1990s hip-hop reference. But when you set aside the awkward attempts to make the by-its-very-nature timeless quality of Treasure Planet appeal to a formerly contemporary audience, you’re left with a smart, exciting motion picture with an powerful core relationship between the hero and villain, and a few memorable side characters like Captain Amelia, whose erudite sense of humor, sharp line work and dashingly heroic persona makes her one of my favorite Disney heroines. The fact that she’s part of the supporting cast seems incidental.
Disney’s Blu-ray treatment, however, leaves a lot to be desired. The high-definition video transfer is impeccable: bright, colorful, detailed and immersive. But it’s let down by a mysteriously limp surround sound mix that claims to be 5.1 but – despite multiple attempts to troubleshoot – comes almost exclusively out of the front speakers (I only say "almost" out of diplomacy, since I never actually noticed anything coming out the rear channels whatsoever). The menu screen has more surround sound than the actual film does.
Treasure Planet comes with an array of extras, but some of the material shows up in multiple features, making the behind the scenes experience frustratingly redundant. The commentary track is spry and informative, but it seems to have been recorded shortly after the film’s theatrical release. At no point on the disc does the film’s dubious history or troubling legacy come up, even defensively. And for some reason the pop-up menu provides no access to any of the special features, instead only allowing the option to return to the menu screen, which is what the “Top Menu” button is for. It's not the biggest flaw imaginable, but still I have no idea how that little failure passed muster at a studio well known for its impressive home video releases.
If you don’t have a surround sound system and don’t plan on getting one any time soon, the Blu-ray release of Treasure Planet is a reasonably strong disc that shows off the film’s sumptuous animation with ecstatic flare. Either way, it’s worth at least a rental to give this egregiously underappreciated motion picture another chance to engross you. It’s the John Carter of 2002: a fine but slightly flawed adventure that turned off audiences with its retro aesthetic and old-fashioned charms. I think they’ll both be treasured in the future.