Thursday, March 28, 2013

2002 - Treasure Planet

One thing I notice about Disney in the modern age as opposed to the classic Disney is that they’re a lot more willing to take risks and move in an unexpected direction, even if that direction hasn‘t been working for them. As I’ve mentioned before, I think a lot of that is due to the fact that while the production time on the films has gotten a bit smaller, the development time has remained the same or gotten longer, and several movies overlap in production now. In the old days, I’m pretty certain the relative failure of Atlantis would have nipped this one in the bud. It’s another big action movie with a unique visual hook and a subverted seafaring theme. But hey, they went for it and here we are. Got scurvy? Me too, ye lubber. So get some plurps or woozlewozzle or whatever stupid alien food they made up for this, and let’s talk about Treasure Planet.

So as the title seems to imply, this is based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic adventure novel Treasure Island. That wasn’t necessarily a given; after all, The Emperor’s New Groove had nothing to do with the Emperor’s New Clothes. So they could have been justified in taking nothing but the basic idea of pirates and treasure and pinching the title for their space adventure. But they really go the whole shebang. Well, a lot of the shebang. While the plot is largely the same -

WE INTERRUPT THIS REVIEW FOR A LAST MINUTE EDIT: I realized as I made ready to post this that I was presuming the reader knew the basic plot of Treasure Island, and I really shouldn’t, because not everyone has read the same books as me. So, short version: Jim Hawkins lives with his mom, who runs an inn. One of their tenants, an old sailor, dies of a stroke and leaves Jim a treasure map. A local wealthy moron pays for a voyage to find said treasure. Since he knows squat about boats, he lets a local tavern keeper hire most of the crew and serve as cook, with young Jim as his cabin boy. This man, “Long” John Silver, turns out to be one of the pirates who put the treasure there in the first place, and the rest of the crew are his old buddies. They mutiny, and it’s a race to the treasure with much shooting and sneaking about and jolly good adventure. Okay, on with the review:

While the plot is largely the same, there is, as you might expect, a lot changed. So much in fact, that I think I have to do one of my “let’s get the changes out of the way” lists.

Point 1: This is objectively the coolest flag ever.

*The dour taskmaster Captain Smollett is now the sharp, lithe, Captain Amelia, a catlike alien. Still a total badass. Not sure why they had to change her name, though.

* Mr. Arrow is now a polished, stern authoritarian, whereas in the book he was a drunken, angry slob who fell off the boat and drowned after the pirates got him hammered.

* Friend of the family Dr. Livesey and expedition financier Squire Trelawney have been combined into the nebbish dog person Dr. Doppler.

* Jim’s father is not dead, but has in fact left the family, causing Jim to become Jim Hawkins, Troubled Youth, as opposed to the bland upstanding lad he was in the book.


* Billy Bones dies as soon as he sets foot in the inn, instead of lingering for several months and a couple of strokes.

* John Silver is still missing a leg, and now an arm, an ear, and an eye to boot. But he’s got cybernetic replacements, so it’s hard to argue that he’s much worse off than he was in the book.

* Mr. Hands has been renamed “Scrope” for some insane reason. And there’s still a pirate named Hands. He just doesn’t do anything.

And that’s really it, apart from some minor things. And unlike The Jungle Book, where the changes didn’t make the story better or worse; or Pocahontas, where they were an affront to history; or Hunchback, where they simplified and occasionally hurt the story; here, the changes make the story much stronger. Jim is so much more interesting as a troubled teenager, and it makes his bonding with Silver (and Doppler) so much more meaningful. Combining the Doctor and the Squire is fantastic for plot economy, as they were sort of mutually useless before. Making the captain a bit more of an adventurer-type works for the story as well, and passing on his more serious qualities to Arrow gives the pirates a much clearer motivation to kill him. As for Silver…

"Arr, it's a pirate's life, Jimbo. Freedom, adventure, and all the striped pants ye could want."
Movies of Treasure Island - of which I’ve seen at least six - tend to have a bit of trouble with one aspect of Silver. In the book, he’s quite the anti-villain, and becomes a mentor/father figure to Jim. This makes for great drama, but the balance is tough. Lean on it too hard and you make him a hero. Go too easy on it, and you lost the most interesting part of his character. Make him too friendly, and you lose the authority figure aspect. Too stern, and he loses the inherent friendliness that lets him connect on that personal level.

Thankfully, Silver is done marvelously. South African character actor Brian Murray brings a tremendous deal of warmth and charm to the cyborg, and Glen Keane animates him as only he can, an enormous, hulking brute who nonetheless possesses a graceful air. I didn’t notice how smoothly the character moved until a point in the movie when his mechanical leg gets disabled. He extends his artificial arm long enough to touch the ground and uses it as a crutch, stumping along like the Silver of the book. His fondness for Jim grows organically, and never seems artificial or forced, and you can really feel his conflict when he has to either kill Jim or lose the map. His cybernetic parts also provide clear looks at two of the movie’s unique visual aspects.

First of all, it’s a sci-fi future that looks like people have been living in it. This is tricky, as the default is to make everything shiny and new in the future. This isn’t bad (see the 2009 Star Trek, for instance), but when done really well (see Alien, for instance), creating a scummy, lived-in future can make a huge difference in how the audience buys into the world of the film. Silver’s prosthetics work well, but are bulky and fairly artless (in-universe. Film-wise, they look great). His arm is held on by a bulky shoulder harness we never properly see, and he has several cables plugging directly into his skull. The final effect is undeniably futuristic, but also reassuringly grounded. You can also see in his robot bit’s the skillful use of CGI elements for technology, which is seamlessly integrated with the traditional animation that makes up his body. This extends to everything. The ship is all CGI, the planet is painted backgrounds. It’s a neat way of blending the old with the new. Speaking of which, the third and most prominent visual aspect…

"Someone call Fantasia 2000, we found their gimmick."
The film is not merely set in the future. It’s set in a future that’s explicitly and clearly based on the 1740s setting of the original book. The clothing is 18th century-based, ships have sails that collect solar energy, and laser guns have little flintlock shaped energy cells. This has divided critics pretty sharply, with some thinking it doesn’t make any sense. Why would the future wind up looking so much like the past? Well, these people are WRONG.

Remember the scene in To Sir With Love when Sydney Poitier takes the kids to the museum and shows them the historical antecedents to their own fashion and hair? It’s like that. Why can’t the future wind up looking like the past? Heck, they’re not even on Earth, maybe Montressor didn’t look like this at all during their equivalent of the 1700s. And most importantly, it just plain looks cool. There’s something about the pirate aesthetic with laser guns and such that really works. And while it’s amped up considerably, it’s not new to this. Where do you think Lando Calrissian’s cape came from?

WE INTERRUPT THIS REVIEW FOR ANOTHER EDIT: I realize now that I am presuming a lot of familiarity with the 1967 film To Sir With Love, starring Sidney Poitier and Lulu. In this film, Sidney Poitier finds a burning tampon and calls a bunch of girls sluts. And probably some other stuff happens. Lando Calrissian is not in it. Sadly.

This is also another one with a GREAT voice cast. Joseph Gordon Levitt played Jim, right at the beginning of his transition from child actor to adult actor. David Hyde Pierce is Dr. Doppler, and does his usual consummate job. Captain Amelia is Emma Thompson, who seems like a really delightful person in all ways, and voice acting turns out to be no exception. Mr. Arrow is Roscoe Lee Browne, whose name you may not know, but has a voice that I would unhesitatingly rank alongside Christopher Lee and James Earl Jones. Martin Short… was really good in some other stuff?

That's what this movie needed. Jar Jar Binks.

Yeah, I’m praising this movie pretty fulsomely, but I will freely admit, it’s not all peaches and gravy. There is a LOT of reliance on terrible jokes, which are frequently plopped down in relatively serious moments. And I mean it, these jokes are bad in their own right. There’s an alien that communicates by farting. Yyyyeah. The only character that gets away with it is Dr. Doppler, because Pierce can heal a lot of bad writing with good delivery. There’s a few small plot holes, some flubbed moments, and the movie’s version of Ben Gunn is B.E.N., a screaming comedy relief robot voiced by Martin Short. Not to mention Jim's hair, which is... well, just look at the pictures. But while it’s far from perfect, it’s not bad by any measure.

Sadly, it BOMBED. And that’s not in the “Oh, it only made 250 million at the box office” way that Disney’s been defining bombs lately. This was the first Disney film since The Black Cauldron to not even make its budget back. Why on earth is that? There are a lot of reasons. For example, timing. The market was pretty full when this came out, Harry Potter 2 was taking the family audiences, and James Bond 22 had opened the week before, taking the action audiences. There’s also the marketing, which Disney directed heavily toward young children despite the material being more suited for older kids and teens. Whatever the reasons, Disney blamed the failure on what else but the animation. After seeing the response to their next two films, they decided that it their bad receipts were because people wanted computer animation and only computer animation, and shut down the 2D animation studios. Of course, it somehow escaped their notice that the movies Pixar was putting out had really good plot and character elements, whereas the movies that followed Treasure Planet… You’ll just have to wait and see. Hey, next they’re doing Native Americans again. That always goes well.

See, this is the kind of crap jokes I'm talking about. 


* The ship is the RLS Legacy. RLS =  Robert Louis Stevenson. Clever enough to mention, I figured.

* Okay, I can’t lie about To Sir With Love, it’s really really good and you should all see it, you just really have to remember it was made in 1967, and while it was remarkably progressive for the time, a lot of it hasn’t aged that well.

* Due to the nature of the story, Jim’s mom gets the short end of the characterization stick, but what she has is strong, and its clearly demonstrated she‘s the source of a lot of his good qualities. Her being voiced by Laurie Metcalf helps a lot, because she’s really good at playing moms in animated movies that don’t get to do much else.

* In addition to a crutch, Silver’s prosthetic holds a sword, a gun, several knives, a rotary saw, a vegetable peeler, a whisk, a flamethrower, smaller hands for precision work, and some sort of dedicated shrimp peeler. He must have visited the same doctor as Inspector Gadget.

And... Captain Hook?

* Dr. Doppler and Captain Amelia get together at the end. It’s one of those “They fight but then turn out to be attracted to each other deals”, which is a bit of a cliché, and their bonding is after she is injured and he cared for her, which is a bit of a sexist cliché. I can overlook that last one, though as she’s an action hero and he’s a doctor, so it comes naturally for once. Also, he gets emotional and she remains stoic, which is a decent enough subversion. We see their babies at the end, which are three girls that look like her and one boy that looks like him. This is the same thing that happened in Lady and the Tramp, but at least they were the same species. I guess these guys are, too? And their species just has fairly extreme sexual dimorphism?

* There’s a wacky animal sidekick in this movie, a floating pink blob called Morph. Morph can change shape, and uses that talent to cause wacky trouble for the characters. You’d think that would annoy me, but like Djali, he’s actually from the book. He’s the sci-fi equivalent of Silver’s parrot, Captain Flint, who would cause wacky trouble for people by mimicking them.

* Not featured from the book, as I mentioned before, is Blind Pew, the messenger who first delivers Silver's death threat to Billy Bones. I feel like something really cool could have been done with him, alien-wise, but I understand the drive to get the plot moving. This story's always had somewhat off pacing at the beginning.

* Jim’s middle name is Pleiades. What?

* Two things I meant to mention about Lilo and Stitch that I forgot. First, that Lilo was animated by Andreas Deja, who remains awesome. Second, David is the first guy in a Disney movie who seems to actually like his romantic interest as a person, have an existing history with her, and respect her feelings toward him. That’s pretty big, and I can’t believe I didn’t mention it. Dude doesn’t swoop in and save her at the end, he helps her get a job interview. Class.


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  2. Someone managed to make that dumb "Go Delbert! Go Delbert!" joke funny. Observe: