Why ‘Treasure Planet’ Didn’t Deserve to Flop

Still from Treasure Planet. Jim Hawkins looks skeptically at the robot BEN, who is acting dramatically. Morph floats above Jim's head, equally dubious.
Images: Walt Disney Pictures.

Treasure Planet (2002) is unfortunately famous for being a box-office bomb for Disney. It was a massive production and the most expensive animated film ever at the time. Helmed by Disney veterans, Ron Clements and John Musker (Moana), the picture cost $140 million or more to produce. Worldwide, Treasure Planet made just a hair short of $110 million. Still, the money remains on screen in a beautiful blend of hand-drawn and computer animation. When Treasure Planet was released Disney went all-out, making it the first major studio feature to be released in IMAX theatres at the same time as regular theatres.

Disney’s Treasure Planet follows a young Jim Hawkings (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who was way ahead of the curve in realizing that having an undercut was cool. Unlike most male protagonists of the classic Disney years, Jim is more like Han Solo by way of James Dean. Jim is a teenage delinquent, always getting in trouble with the space cops for flying his homemade glider in restricted areas and being scolded by his exhausted mother, who runs an inn on their home planet. Unlike many of the Disney films that preceded Treasure Planet, Jim’s story is not defined by a romantic interest. In this regard, the movie has the same motif of self-discovery as other Disney masterpieces like Meet the Robinsons, Inside Out and Coco, but it was released years before any of those films. Jim is motivated only by the desire to make his mother proud and to find his place in the universe after feeling like he has disappointed both his mother and himself. Many times in the film, the two reminisce about Jim’s childhood, remembering a simpler time when Jim’s father was around and Jim didn’t yet feel the pressure to be a perfect son — something he now constantly fails at.

Still from Treasure Planet. Jim Hawkins rides a rocket powered windsurf board through the sky.

But what really sets the film apart is its production design. The filmmakers followed a “70/30 Law” when designing Treasure Planet, meaning 70% of the film had to look traditional, and 30% could be sci-fi. This means that the characters talk, act and dress like they’re from the 19th century, but the ships (despite having sails and everything) soar through outer space and fire plasma cannons. And of course, there are plenty of aliens. It results in an unique visual style that’s as close to steampunk as Disney ever got during this period, with a mixing of old and new that always has a surprising new design in store. The galaxies are rendered so beautifully that you feel like you’re floating. You feel the wind in your hair. You feel the smallness of looking up into space and the joy of being alive. Between the ecstatic colours painting the skies and the light shimmering off the sails of the ship, every scene is vibrant and exhilarated by the thrill of adventure. What I wouldn’t give to stand on the deck of a ship and see the whole universe beneath my feet.

Treasure Planet is a showcase of the amazing things that can be done by mixing mediums and experimenting with new technology. Traditional animation lives on today on the internet and anime, but most of its practitioners are preservers of an old art, and traditional animation studios make most of their content in the form of promotional trailers for video games. Traditional animation doesn’t get big budgets to play with new technology and push the boundaries anymore, and that’s kind of sad. Disney was the last studio with both the financial capital and the motive to keep doing this kind of work.

Still from Treasure Planet. Jim Hawkins inspects an ornate golden sphere.

Treasure Planet is the perfect movie for the overwhelmed student with imposter syndrome, the teenager who wants to make their family proud, the person teetering on the crumbling edge of childhood and adulthood. Find comfort in the words Silver (Brian Murray) says to Jim after his world falls apart. Feel the hug Jim’s mother gives him when he returns from his journey, the hug that says “I missed you,” “I’m glad you’re safe,” and “I’m proud of you” all in one.

Despite the box office failure, the film was nominated for the Best Animated Feature Academy Award, though it lost to Spirited Away. The box office disappointment made Disney cancel a planned sequel that would star Willem Dafoe as Ironbeard. Ron Clements and John Musker would not direct another feature until 2009’s The Princess and the Frog which would be a return to the golden age of Disney animation, and far different from their bold take on Treasure Island. Nevertheless, it will remain bold, ambitious and earnest. Though the plot of the film is centred on the search for Treasure Planet, the greatest treasure of all is the lesson that Silver gives to Jim: “You’ve got to take the helm and chart your own course. Stick to it, no matter the squalls!” To believe in yourself and your dreams—and to stick with them even when people tell you to give up, or your dream seems too hard to reach—is a lesson far more valuable than “the loot of a thousand worlds.”

by Kyrah Williams

Kyrah Williams is a Journalism undergraduate and film critic. Her favourite genres are animation, romance and anything with Mark Ruffalo. You can find her on Twitter @kyrahmwilliams. 

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