Ahoy, Oh Boy

Treasure Planet reveals an embarrassment of riches.

Treasure Planet
Jim gets the "I am your father" spiel from John Silver.
Jim gets the "I am your father" spiel from John Silver.

It's doubtful Robert Louis Stevenson imagined his Treasure Planet populated by cyborgs and scored to Goo Goo Dolls outtakes; and one has to wonder what the author would have made of his characters being turned into talking and walking dogs and cats who, gulp, copulate and reproduce mangy hybrids. Far as I recall, there were no galaxy-galloping black holes in the original tale, no crescent-moon space stations, no ships sailing on cosmic winds, no room-sized hologram maps of buried treasure, no shape-shifting green blobs with impish personalities. But why squabble over semantics and Martin Short, who grows more irritating with each passing second, when there's great fun to be had aboard Disney's latest bit of giddy revisionist animation?

Treasure Planet may be no classic, yet it's one more bit of Classics Illustrated to be plundered by Michael Eisner's pirates, joining the likes of last year's Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Tarzan, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Pocahontas, among other famous tales and myths wrought big, bold, bright, and deafening just in time for the holidays. From the press kit: "Treasure Planet games for PlayStation 2, GameBoy Advance, and PC available from Disney Interactive." The movie, apparently, comes from Disney Hyperactive. The press notes, sent to reviewing media, read like a technical manual; Disney's eager to impress with its advances in animation, tossing out references to such things as the "Deep Canvas," "the CAPS system," and "virtual sets." This is in case a critic mistakes animation for live action -- like, say, George Lucas.

Without question, Treasure Planet dazzles and delights, like a billion bits of gold bullion strewn about the caves of a rampaging buccaneer. The movie makes tangible the imagination, even if it also serves to do all our thinking and dreaming and oohing and aahing for us. (It's very impressed with itself and has every right to be.) This is why kids will never again read anything, save for Harry Potter doorstops; how can black words on a white page ever live up to their wide-screen expectations (or larger -- the movie's simultaneously being released on IMAX screens)? Even Disney's aware of this, though we're not sure what to make of the opening scenes, in which young Jim Hawkins (voiced by Austin Majors, then 3rd Rock From the Sun's Joseph Gordon-Levitt when he turns 15) is seen "reading" a three-dimensional pop-up book that looks just like the film we're about to see. It's doesn't feel like a knowing joke, at least; neither does most of the movie, which takes its broad comic cues from Frasier's David Hyde Pierce, as the clumsy canine-featured Doctor Doppler, and Short's obnoxious B.E.N., a robot who appears to be the distant cousin to Futurama's wisecracking Bender. In an almost-great film, they merely grate.

Once more, in Disneyland, ours is a protagonist from a broken home: Jim's dad has disappeared, and his put-upon mother, Sarah (Laurie Metcalf), is stuck running a pitiful inn -- running it straight into the ground. (Apparently, someone at Disney is working out some abandonment issues; rare is a film from the studio in which a child comes from a stable, two-parent home.) Jim is as reckless as he is restless, piloting his airborne surfboard into endless trouble with robocops; he's not a little bit reminiscent of Luke Skywalker, hoping to pilot his bored behind off the miserable rock he calls home.

He gets his chance when a monstrous stranger deposits an orb that casts a magnificent treasure map, his golden ticket to endless riches. It also comes with a warning to beware the cyborg, who turns out to be one John Silver (Brian Murray): not merely a villain, but also Jim's would-be surrogate father -- the Darth to his Luke, a not entirely inappropriate comparison in a film that gleams and glistens like the Star Wars prequels and comes with its own starport, populated by intergalactic freakies. There's also a would-be mother, Captain Amelia (Emma Thompson), who's dolled up in thigh-high boots and an imperious wardrobe. You get the feeling, when underground cartoonist Robert Crumb goes to sleep, this is what he dreams about.

Unlike, say, Atlantis, with its cobbled-together mythology, Treasure Planet offers no narrative surprise; it's a boy-seeks-treasure tale even older than Harrison Ford. But co-directors and writers John Musker and Ron Clements (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Hercules) doll it up so marvelously, you're sucked into the screen and forced to confront the fact that, at their best, these filmmakers can make the two-dimensional astonishingly warm and full-bodied (rare is the cartoon populated by characters you actually care about). It's Captain Blood by way of N.C. Wyeth (who illustrated one of the myriad versions of Treasure Island) by way of Nintendo -- a ride at a theme park, wrought grand and glorious by men who know how to dust off musty epics and render them spectacular. If only someone had pushed John Rzeznik, provider of bad alterna-ballads, and Martin Short off a very short plank; then, you'd really have something.

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