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Last weekend I decided to watch the film Treasure Planet. I hadn’t seen it before being, well, outside the target audience when it was released back in 2002. I started on Saturday evening and, well, had to give up after just under an hour. I made sure to finish it the following morning, but I couldn’t help but notice that the film proves what can happen when you rest on your creative laurels.
The Film’s Faults
As far as I was concerned, Treasure Planet is caught between a rock and a hard place. It came well after the storied Disney Renaissance of the late 80s and early 90s and was also made 7 years after Toy Story brought the storytelling bar to a whole new level of sophistication.
The visuals are stunning, but it was far too obvious that CG was in use everywhere, even where it wasn’t necessary. OK, I get it, you can use CG in a traditionally animated film, but the use was gratuitous in far too many circumstances and does nothing to advance the plot or improve the viewing experience. This is the film’s more egregious error; eye candy for the sake of eye candy. Yes, Beauty and the Beast did the same with the ballroom scene, but at least that had never been done before. By 2002, Disney films had a legacy of being visually stunning but always within the reason that it added to the viewing experience. In the case of Treasure Planet, having a CG prop fall of the table does not add to the viewing experience. In other words, CG was nothing new and couldn’t be relied upon to sustain an audience’s attention on its own. Miyazaki does it right; CG so subtle, you never notice it.
The plot of the film is nothing remarkable save for the fact that it places
Jules Verne’s Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island in space. As mentioned above though, Pixar had already exhibited a knack for creating superb stories from elemental parts and proved that a complicated and outwardly sophisticated story isn’t necessary to make a great film. Treasure Planet follows in the footsteps of previous Disney films, but by 2002, audiences were being wowed by a different style of story emanating from Emeryville that has persisted ever since.
Let’s just say that Disney’s hit songs were missing from their films long before Treasure Planet was released.
This, at least for me, was the most disappointing aspect to Treasure Planet. TV Tropes identifies Treasure Planet as the film where Disney reacted to shifting market forces. Giving the characters a darker subtext (read: a dysfunctional family) was their way of becoming more identifiable with audiences. In addition to that, the remainder of the cast while complex in their own way, are never given a chance to shine; instead being slaves to a plot that dictates their roles. Case in point is Captain Amelia, who undoubtedly a strong female character (albeit with a very stiff upper lip), is nonetheless rendered useless in the latter part of the film. In a similar vein are Morph and B.E.N. who serve no purpose except as catalysts for the plot. All in all, the characters in Treasure Planet offer nothing exceptional outside of the film.
First and foremost, it has to be noted that by 2002, the feature animation landscape had changed, and by changed, I mean moved on. Pixar hadn’t so much shifted the goalposts as they had moved to another field entirely. Their storytelling combined with the CGI animation had won over audiences before Treasure Planet’s debut.
In a similar manner, DreamWorks’ Shrek gave audiences the send-up of Disney films that they never knew they needed. Suddenly animated films could be full-blown comedies rather than serious dramas.
Both these shifts leave Treasure Planet looking somewhat dated and belonging to another time, which undoubtedly it does.
Treasure Planet is far from a terrible film. Plenty of talented individuals worked on it for a long time and it is always disheartening to see an animated film fail to find success. However, the film proves in more ways than one that if you fail to progress creatively, someone else will rise up and overtake you.
Pixar has been quite successful are constantly upping their game, but even they are in danger of falling into tried and trusted routines (read: sequels) and stand to lose should someone else catch them unawares.
Treasure Planet should serve as a warning that even with everything going for it, a film that presumes success can, and most likely will, fail.