Disney Flop Treasure Planet Was Way Ahead of Its Time
One of the fun things about Disney+ is being able to explore older films that don’t always get a lot of attention from the “Disney Vault.” One of the ones I decided to look at recently was the 2002 box office failure Treasure Planet.
The film was co-written, co-produced, and directed by Ron Clements and John Musker. This was their passion project and something they had pitched the concept for back when they pitched The Little Mermaid over a decade earlier.
An adaptation of the novel Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson—in space. The story stays as close to the book as possible while also being a steampunk-y space adventure story. Jim Hawkins (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a young man with a thirst for adventure, who, after meeting the close-to-death Billy Bones, gains possession of a treasure map. The map plots the course to the treasure of the infamous Captain Flint, who was said to have hidden the legendary “loot of a thousand worlds” in One P—I mean, Treasure Planet. Bones, before dying, warns Jim to beware of the cyborg.
Jim, along with Dr. Delbert Doppler (David Hyde Pierce), hires a space crew led by Captain Amelia Smollet (Emma Thompson) to go on a quest to find the treasure. The trouble is that the cook just happens to be a cyborg named John Silver (Brian Murray), and the rest of the crew, save for Smollet and her first mate, are very shady characters. Jim ends up forming a paternal bond with Silver, which causes issues when the latter needs to lead a mutiny in order to fulfill his lifelong goal of getting the treasure.
Much like Atlantis: The Lost Empire the year before, one of the things that are blatantly apparent is how creative the project is. They were really shooting for something different with the music (Goo Goo Dolls lead singer John Rzeznik sings some of the sad boy ballads, and it’s dope), the imagery, and overall bigness of the story. It is an adventure story that delivers big, but there are also lots of quiet moments where it really is about a teenage boy looking for a father figure to believe in him.
When I think about what went wrong with Treasure Planet, a lot of it really comes down to it maybe looking (on a highly superficial level) too much like Titan A.E., which came out two years earlier and flopped. As someone who saw (and loved) Atlantis in theaters, I remember it coming and leaving theaters very quickly. By the time it came out, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was still going strong, and so was The Santa Clause 2, and it was hard to tell what Treasure Planet was or why it was worth seeing. It looked like a dad movie—Disney-style.
And it is, but that’s not a bad thing.
It’s different. It’s trying to tell a Disney story in a slightly different way, and that creativity is so beautiful to watch as an adult—especially in a double feature with Atlantis. For all the flaws in those films’ third acts, both were ahead of the curve in telling creative stories for Disney.
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