Sunday, July 15, 2012

Disney's Treasure Planet

I didn't pay attention to Treasure Planet for a very long time. I think I was in college by the time I actually watched it for the first time, and wasn't that impressed with it. I'm not sure why, but I just didn't get it. Something changed though, maybe it was reading the actual novel itself, or maybe I just admitted to myself that nothing would ever be better than Muppet Treasure Island, but I started to really like this movie. In fact, it's probably my favorite of the decade besides The Emperor's New Groove. The story, though in space, was pretty close to the original novel, and on top of that, it had an amazing combination of traditional and computer generated animation. I just really like the story of Treasure Island. I find Long John Silver to be an incredibly interesting character. You are led to like the man during most of the book, then he turns out to be the main villain, though he still serves as sort of a mentor and father figure to protagonist Jim Hawkins. I've seen a few different versions of Treasure Island now: Treasure Planet, the before mentioned Muppet Treasure Island, and the 1950 Disney version of Treasure Island. All were fine and good, but I honestly prefer the book, which I usually do in the case of books made into movies. All the movie versions are unique and their own way, and Treasure Planet can probably be called the most unique just for the space setting.

"Treasure Island in Space," as it was pitched in 1985 by Ron Clements and John Musker at a meeting wasn't picked up right away. Jeffrey Katzenberg, who was chief at Walt Disney Studios at the time just wasn't that interested in the idea and instead they went with some movie about a mermaid. It's probably better that the movie was put off, as they wanted to move the camera around a lot like Spielberg and James Cameron, but the technology just wasn't there in terms of animation. Musker and Clements finally got to do their "Treasure Island in Space" in 1997, and production started soon after. It took them four and a half years to complete the movie, with the brunt of the work starting in 2000. The movie started with 350 crew member, and by 2002 it had over 1,000 crew members credited for the movie. You can already tell that Disney had a lot of money invested in this movie judging by the amount of time and effort spent.

The crew attempted to make the movie as warm and inviting as possible, not cold, blue, and dark as most outer space movies looked. Outer space is almost always portrayed as a dark place where you can die at any minute due to all manner of things, but Disney tried to make it appear much more beautiful and hospitable. Fearing that it would look too hokey if the characters all wore space suits, Disney concocted a breathable space called Etherium, a sort of atmosphere around all planets. Disney did away with any big metal ships usually seen in sci-fi and stuck with old fashioned looking wood ships. You may be asking yourself by now: Why the heck did they put Treasure Island in space?! Well, to make it more accessible to the younger crowd. Musker and Clements figured that no kid would actually want to watch Treasure Island. They had to make it more modern. Along with the obvious changes that come with putting a classic novel in space, the crew also had to do a little re-tooling on the characters themselves. Jim Hawkins is a smart and capable kid in the novel, but the crew wanted to make him more relate-able, so they turned him into a bad-boy of sorts. Someone who is not quite sure who they really are, or how they fit into things. You know, teenagers. Dr. Doppler is a composite of Dr. Livesey and Squire Trelawney from the book, one more serious, the other kind of a goof, respectively. The crew also found that the father-son dynamic between Hawkins and Silver was somewhat present in the book, but they wanted to emphasis it more in the movie.

The overall look of the film was under the "70/30 law" as the crew put it. 70 percent traditional look, and 30 percent sci-fi. The crew wanted to go with a classic storybook illustration look for the film, and based much of it off of the picture "One more step, Mr. Hands," which can be seen on the left. To get the unique look of the film, they used an animation concept that they were going to use for Tarzan, but apparently never got around to doing. Called Virtual Sets, the animators would create a 360 degree set before they began staging the scenes. They combined this process with traditionally-drawn characters in order to achieve a "painted image with depth perception" and enabled the crew to place the camera anywhere in the set and maneuver it as they would maneuver a camera for a live-action film. The animators weren't sure how it would look for the traditionally animated Silver to have a computer animated cyborg arm so they tested it out on Captain Hook, giving him a cyborg arm instead. The crew also attempted to purge their minds of stereotypes when coming up with the character designs by not looking at previous incarnations of the book Treasure Island. One of the supervising animators, Glen Keane, did admit to getting some inspiration for how Silver talked from actor Wallace Beery, who had played Silver himself. Keane liked how Beery talked out of the side of his mouth for the Silver role and used it for Treasure Planet. For the characterization and design of Hawkins, they went with the ultimate in troubled bad-boy: James Dean. Animator John Ripa decided to use Dean as a model because "there was this whole attitude, a posture" wherein "you felt his pain and the youthful innocence." To help keep the design of the characters from straying, the crew used maquettes, or small statues of the characters from the film. The first film to use maquettes was Pinocchio, and since then there has been a whole department created to make the small figures.

The "70/30 law" was used also for sound effects and music. The crew didn't want Silver to be "too slick or sci-fi," so they went to junk yards and dug up old antique wind up toys and mechanisms to create the sound effects for Silver's movements. The crew even attempted to use a more mechanical sound for the voices of some characters, especially the character of B.E.N. voiced by Martin Short. They found that by adding the extra effects, it took away from the comedy of Short's delivery, so they vouched to scrap the idea. The music for the film was mainly orchestral, but it did feature some pop songs, namely "I'm Still Here" by John Rzeznik, the front man of The Goo Goo Dolls, and "Always Know You Are There" by British pop-rock group BBMak. The score has been described as a mixture of modern music in the spirit of Star Wars and Celtic music. Never thought I'd hear those words in the same sentence.

The film has an all-star cast, starting with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Hawkins. Gordon-Levitt has been in a lot of things recently, like Inception, 500 days of Summer, and will be in the new Batman movie, but was only in some indie films for awhile after his well known role in Third Rock from the Sun. Brian Murray, the voice of Long John Silver, is perhaps the only non-star of the group, being known more for directing than anything else. Dr. Doppler was written with David Hyde Pierce in mind, and the crew sent him the script along with some preliminary drawings of the characters and landscapes. He apparently liked it enough and signed on. Pierce is best known for his role as Niles Crane in Frasier. Captain Amelia was also written with someone in mind, namely Emma Thompson. Thompson jumped at the opportunity, since it would be her first action film. Last in the main cast is Martin Short, who voiced the robot B.E.N. This is honestly the last thing I remember Short being in. Short, for all you younger folk reading this, was big in the 80's and 90's. His best films are The Three Amigos, Innerspace, and the Father of the Bride movies. It's really too bad he's not in more things these days, as he is really funny.

Treasure Planet had a lot of promotional tie-ins before the movie was released: Kellogg's, Dreyer's, McDonald's, Hasbro, and Pepsi. That didn't stop the movie from completely tanking. It's seriously an official box office bomb. It cost $140 million to make, and it made $38 million domestically. It made some of it up by making a little over $70 million overseas, but the domestic gross was extremely bad for a Disney movie in the 2000's. Treasure Planet is the biggest loser for Disney, by far. Even with it opening also in IMAX, it didn't make that much. A good side of the story is that when it came out, it remained on the top of the DVD sales list for two weeks, earning Disney $64 million in a three month span. If this is factored into the gross, the movie really didn't do that bad. Critics liked the film for the most part, giving the film a 70% on Rotten Tomatoes. Roger Ebert gave it 2.5 out of 5, saying he liked it, but felt it would have been better if it was "less gimmicky." Other critics also felt the same way about the space aspect of the classic swashbuckling story, finding it unnecessary or annoying. But, for the most part, critics praised the characters, story, and the spectacular animation.

I'm not going into the original text that inspired the movie, because most everyone has seen a Treasure Island movie, or had to read the book at some point. If you haven't, well that's your loss. It's one of those books I took for granted, and picked up much later in life only to find that I really liked it. Besides, it's basically the same story. Except the space thing.

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