Treasure Planet
Credit: Treasure Planet: Walt Disney

They helped make ”The Little Mermaid” and ”Aladdin” hits for Disney. But in 1996, as they were completing ”Hercules,” Clements and Musker were up for contract renewal. While rivals Warner Bros. and DreamWorks reportedly courted them, the bait that lured the team into a new seven-year agreement with the Mouse House was the chance to make an updated, sci-fi-fantasy version of the swashbuckling Robert Louis Stevenson novel (adapted once before by Disney in 1950 as a live-action adventure).

Clements first pitched a futuristic redo in 1985, but Jeffrey Katzenberg, then chief of Disney animation, ”just wasn’t interested,” says the director. After Katzenberg left, Disney finally put ”Planet” into active development. The delay proved technologically serendipitous. Says Musker, ”We always envisioned moving the camera around a lot like Steven Spielberg or James Cameron…. Now we could.”

Indeed, as the trailer demonstrates, the picture bustles with dynamic CG backgrounds as it follows Jim Hawkins (Gordon-Levitt, of TV’s ”3rd Rock From the Sun”) on a quest for hidden plunder. Along the way he meets interstellar pirate Long John Silver (voiced by New York stage veteran Murray, though there was early talk of getting Sean Connery). In this telling, Silver cuts a half-human, half-cyborg figure: In every frame, he’s depicted half with conventional animation and half in CG (for a robotic arm, eye, and leg).

Audiences will have a chance to aim an extra-powerful spyglass at the shotgun marriage of techniques, since Disney will release ”Planet” both in regular theaters and on 40 or so IMAX screens. When distribution hatched that move a year ago, ”I think Ron and John were taken aback,” says Disney’s new studio chief, Dick Cook. ”We threw a monkey wrench at them…. But the holiday season is so competitive, this is a great way to distinguish ourselves.”

THE LOWDOWN With a budget estimated in the $100 million range, ”Planet” needs to outperform recent hand-drawn ‘toons — or it could mean even more cutbacks for Disney’s traditional animators.

Treasure Planet
  • Movie
  • 96 minutes