Although it may sound gimmicky, the notion of setting the popular story of young Jim and the pirate John Silver in a fantasy world based on the planet Montressor (French for "my treasure") turns out to be an excellent, much more appealing one than might be imagined.
So while the story's central space vehicle, the RLS (for Robert Louis Stevenson) Legacy, looks like an elegant tall ship loaded down with sails, it turns out to be rocket-powered. And though the plot features encounters with recently discovered phenomena like exploding supernovas and black holes, the filmmakers acknowledge a debt to the famous Brandywine School of illustrators and vintage pictorial giants like N.C. Wyeth and Howard Pyle.
"Treasure Planet" is also a hybrid on the animation level. It marries traditional hand-drawn sequences with extensive use of computer-generated backgrounds, giving its people the run of what the studio calls "virtual sets," wonderfully detailed and teeming places like the spaceport of Crescentia.
One of the film's first sequences, with teenage hero Jim Hawkins (voiced by "3rd Rock From the Sun's" Joseph Gordon-Levitt) putting a powerful solar surfer through an exhilarating series of moves, showcases the kind of visuals that simply wouldn't be possible without computer-generated imagery.
In broad outline, Jim's adventures follow the path laid out by the much-filmed original, which has survived a 1934 version starring the dream team of Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper as well as a 1950 Disney version that remains a fond memory for once-young television watchers.
Addicted to pirate lore since boyhood, teenage Jim comes into possession of a map of the legendary Treasure Planet, where the feared pirate Nathaniel Flint hid "the loot of a thousand worlds." Helped by dog-like family friend and astrophysics expert Dr. Delbert Doppler (David Hyde Pierce) and cat-like ship's commander Captain Amelia (Emma Thompson), Jim sets off across the universe to make the treasure his own.
If this sounds familiar, Jim is not. Apparently fearful of being saddled with some namby-pamby hero no self-respecting young person would go near, the Disney folks have given Jim a decided edge, making him a sullen rebel raised by a single mom after his father's desertion, someone who's continually in trouble, failing at school and always letting his poor mother down.
Other parts of "Treasure Planet" share this darker nature, resulting in a film loaded with strange alien pirates like the super-sinister, spider-like Scroop, voiced by the especially menacing Michael Wincott. But if the hybrid model works for the visual aspects of "Treasure Planet," it is less successful in terms of character. Every person in the film seems to be in his or her own movie, and their personas don't mix well in practice.
In addition to the tedious Dr. Doppler and the glib Amelia, there's an engaging, shape-shifting blob named Morph and a tiresome creature that speaks Flatula (you figure it out). There's also the far too frantic robot B.E.N. (Martin Short), who underline's "Treasure Planet's" tendency to try too hard for comedy and to be all over the map, so to speak, where personality is concerned.
Also unconvincing is the individual who needs to be the film's heart, the cook and pirate captain John Silver who, as if things weren't complicated enough, also serves as a kind of surrogate dad for father-deprived Jim. Voiced by veteran stage actor Brian Murray, this slippery cyborg is neither visually involving (slice-and-dice Cuisinart-type artificial arm notwithstanding) nor a person who grabs our imagination the way the character simply must.
It's not that any of this is inept, it's just that filmmakers Musker and Clements, with "The Little Mermaid," "Aladdin" and "Hercules" in their past, can clearly do better. What their effort here points out is how difficult it is to get things like this completely right. The genre's recent past has set the bar quite high, and "Treasure Planet" doesn't quite make it over.
MPAA rating: PG for adventure action and peril.
Times guidelines: The alien villains are scarier than might be anticipated.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt ... Jim Hawkins
Brian Murray ... John Silver
Emma Thompson ... Captain Amelia
David Hyde Pierce ... Dr. Doppler
Martin Short ... B.E.N.
Dane A. Davis ... Morph
Michael Wincott ... Scroop
A Walt Disney Pictures presentation, released by Buena Vista Pictures. Directors John Musker and Ron Clements. Producers Roy Conli, John Musker, Ron Clements. Screenplay Ron Clements & John Musker and Rob Edwards, adapted from "Treasure Island" by Robert Louis Stevenson. Editor Michael Kelly. Music James Newton Howard. Art director Andy Gaskill. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes.
In general release.