The quality of the story makes all the difference. There have been several recent attempts at animated adventure films featuring juvenile heroes, but none have really scored. Don Bluth’s “Titan A.E.,” for example, was set in space but never took flight, and Disney’s “Atlantis: The Lost Empire,” despite lots of effort and money, sank like a stone. This time around, however, Disney has done it right; “Treasure Planet” isn’t just beautifully crafted and colorful–it’s also exciting, engaging, sometimes very funny and occasionally even emotionally satisfying. The reason is simple: the picture is based on a great source, Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island.” When you’re working from a book that provides you with an intelligently constructed plot and classic characters, there’s a good chance you’ll wind up with a winner.
Stevenson’s book has been a cinematic staple, of course, with a couple dozen previous feature adaptations and sequels in various languages, going back as far as 1912 (Lon Chaney Sr. appeared in one 1920 version) and extending to a 1999 Jack Palance-Kevin Zegers effort; there have also been several television versions (as well as a few series based on it). This reworking stands with the best–the 1934 MGM film with Jackie Cooper and Wallace Beery, Byron Haskin’s 1950 Disney effort with Bobby Driscoll and Robert Newton, and the 1990 cable adaptation with Christian Bale and Charlton Heston. “Planet,” of course, goes further afield than most, transporting the tale to “a galaxy far, far away,” to use the phrase that’s de rigueur in the post-“Star Wars” world, and transforming the ships into space vessels that sail spectacularly against the star-studded sky and many of the characters into examples of non-human species. The character of young Jim Hawkins is modernized, too–here he’s a rebellious, danger-seeking adolescent who streaks about on his rocket-powered skateboard. A new figure that kids will love has also been added–a mischievous, giggling puff of goo called Morph, who can shift shapes at all–while old Ben Gunn, who shows up late in the plot to help Jim in his search for the treasure, has become B.E.N., a manic robot that’s a cross between C3PO and Jerry Lewis. But the emotional heart of the story–the growing attachment between Jim and the old rogue Long John Silver, here a cyborg with a mechanical arm that acts like a Swiss Army Knife–remains intact, providing a solid core to the narrative. Though many details have been imaginatively altered and many elements put into more contemporary terms, the picture comes across as amazingly faithful to the original, a winningly fresh take on a tale that has never gone out of style.
The film is well-made, too. The backgrounds are gorgeous, the settings nicely rendered, the many action sequences splendidly choreographed and the character animation inventive and smooth (some of the alien crew members are wonderfully strange, and a few quite scary). Even the score by James Newton Howard is a rousing, old-fashioned success (the tunes by John Rzeznik, on the other hand, are forgettable, and we could have done without the “music video” segments that have become unhappily obligatory in American movies nowadays–even in children’s films, it seems). The voice talent, however, is superb. Joseph Gordon-Levitt makes a likable Jim–a youngster one can really root for–and Brian Murray a rich, full-throated Silver. Fine support is provided by Emma Thompson as the no-nonsense, feline Captain Amelia; Roscoe Lee Brown as her stern lieutenant Arrow; David Hyde Pierce as the nebbishy Dr. Doppler, who finances the expedition; and Patrick McGoohan as Billy Bones, whose revelations begin it. Then there’s Martin Short. As B.E.N. he goes completely over-the-top, and some may think he goes too far. To this viewer, though, he re-energizes the picture just when it seems poised to go a bit slack, and together with the animators he makes the robot one of its greatest treats.
Not long ago Disney hit the bull’s-eye with “Lilo & Stitch,” which, with its female heroine, was aimed primarily at young girls. In “Treasure Planet” the studio has produced a picture that should be equally successful with boys–and with their parents, especially those familiar with the original. (Their sisters, on the other hand, may be less enchanted; Amelia is the sole female character of consequence here, and she’s literally catty. But that’s a matter of fidelity to the original–adding some treacly juvenile romance to the story would have been phony and pandering.) Disney has done Stevenson proud, and one can’t ask for much more than that.