Still crying over a fictional character’s death from a movie you saw years ago? Having trouble letting go of that one episode of your favorite series? Grieving a gone-too-soon show? We are, too — so with this column, EW staffers pay tribute to something in the pop culture world they’re still not over. This time, Dana Schwartz celebrates Disney’s Treasure Planet, which debuted in theaters 15 years ago this month.
In 2002, when I was 9 years old, I saw the movie Treasure Planet twice in theaters. Twice. Which means, statistically, I was responsible for about 50 percent of its box office revenue. Disney’s Treasure Planet was a bomb, emblematic of the era of non-Pixar-animated dark ages sandwiched between late ’90s films Hercules and Mulan and 2009’s Princess and the Frog.
I understand why it flopped. I really do: Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Treasure Island isn’t exactly the media property most kids are clamoring to see on the big screen. Most of the characters are either robots or human-shaped aliens, none of which make good toys. There are no musical numbers. There is no love story or castle, and no big bad villain to defeat. It is, by all accounts, a forgettable experiment by Disney. But damn all that to hell, because I am still not over Treasure Planet.
In case it’s been a while (or you were one of the majority who decided just to sit this one out), Treasure Planet follows the young Jim Hawkins, voiced by a pre-fame Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who’s sporting an undercut way before it became trendy. Jim Hawkins is a B-A-B-E, with floppy hair and a bad-boy-with-a-heart-of-gold attitude that brings most Disney princes to shame.
On one of the days where Jim is out causing trouble, a mysterious one-man spaceship crash-lands near the inn owned by Jim’s mom, but before the pilot dies, he gives Jim a mysterious sphere and tells him to “beware the cyborg.” The sphere turns out to be a holographic projector that shows the map that leads to “Treasure Planet,” where a famous pirate hid all of his loot. And so with the help of a family friend — a dog-like creature voiced by Niles Crane — Jim is able to board a ship bound for Treasure Planet. If you’ve been skimming up until this point, please be advised that I just typed the words, “a dog-like creature voiced by Niles Crane.” That’s how great this movie is, and we haven’t even gotten to the fact that the ship’s captain is a cool cat voiced by Emma Thompson.
It sticks fairly close to the plot of the original novel Treasure Island (or, if you prefer, Muppet’s Treasure Island), which means the themes get fairly complex for a movie aimed at children. The “cyborg” the pilot warned Jim about turns out to be the ship’s cook, John Silver, who Jim comes to see as a surrogate father. Because, yup, Jim’s father left him and his mother when he was a child, and we get to see that entire emotional sequence play out in montage form while John Silver is acting like the father Jim never got.
Silver is also as close to a villain as the movie gets; he’s the leader of the mutinous crew that intends to take the treasure for themselves. But he also genuinely cares for Jim, which makes him one of the most complex Disney villains we’ve gotten up until this point. He even ends up sacrificing his treasure to save Jim’s life, and unlike other Disney movies where the villain gets swift justice, usually in the form of a fall to his death, Silver gets to sail off into the sunset. And if we’re talking dark moral issues, there’s a scene where young Jim is made to believe that his lack of due diligence caused a crew member’s death. That is the type of moral reckoning usually reserved for episodes of Black Mirror.
This movie is also notable because the protagonist doesn’t get a love story. There is no young pirate girl for Jim to flirt with or maiden back home that he’s trying to impress with treasure. This is an entirely internal journey: He wants an adventure because he’s always dreamed of one, and also because he wants to make his mother proud of him.
Where most futuristic sci-fi adopts a cool-hued blue-and-gray aesthetic, Treasure Planet is awash in brilliant, sunny golds. It’s a warm-colored universe, far closer to the aesthetic of being onboard a 17th century ship than a spacecraft. Its panning camera angles — and the music from Goo Goo Dolls’ John Rzeznik — make this feel like a sweeping epic. It’s the universal hero’s journey portrayed with gorgeous visuals. It’s like a good Avatar.
Of course it’s not a perfect movie. The comic relief is a farting slug monster and Martin Short playing a zany robot — and when you consider Pixar’s bevy of offerings, it seems almost quaint to point out how much a morally ambiguous villain or stirring montage resonated with me. But just tell me that “I’m Still Here” doesn’t fill you with the teenage longing that made you want to write lyrics in pen on your Converse and try a cigarette for the first time when you were 13 and finally allowed to hang out at the mall without your mom.
In almost every sense, Treasure Planet represents Disney Animation’s awkward teen phase. But hey, guess what? I listened to The Black Parade on my commute to work this morning. Disney may be keeping its metaphorical eleventh grade photos hidden away in a cabinet somewhere and pretending like those years never happened, but Treasure Planet is sweet and ambitious and earnest, and I am here for it.