One Disney film I always regretted not seeing at the cinema back when it was released in 2002 was Treasure Planet, a steampunk animated take on Robert Louis Stevenson's classic Treasure Island story with added rocket-powered surf boards, robots and aliens.
The whole thing sounded like a fun, creative take on a familiar pirate story but that was apparently not good enough to drag audiences, including me, into theatres: the film was a box-office bomb losing almost $40M altogether. Perhaps it simply came out at the wrong time, only months after Studio Ghibli delivered their latest masterpiece Spirited Away and so soon after Disney's recent hit Lilo & Stitch, released that same year. Looking back, the film certainly has a lot going for it so it's a shame that it did as poorly as it did, especially since the company would then steer clear of sci-fi for a while and focus on safer, lesser material while Pixar thrived with hit after hit.
Animation-wise, Treasure Planet sees Disney once again try something different by going all out with the alien designs, presenting some truly bizarre-looking creatures throughout, and using CGI to create an appealing three-dimensional space setting. A lot of the film's ideas do pay off, like having Martin Short voice a loud, brainless robot, making John Silver a cyborg and focusing on an unlikely friendship you're never sure if it's genuine or not. Having the main character Jim Hawkins (voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) befriend John Silver (Brian Murray) and looking to him as a father figure while having to deal with the fact he's also basically a villain makes for some interesting character dynamics. Ultimately, that relationship is the real heart of the film and that arc is brilliantly executed.
Unfortunately, as much as I love steampunk, I must admit that the sci-fi setting feels completely arbitrary and really doesn't add anything besides a visual spectacle. It's really more of an excuse to throw in weird, gimmicky characters at the screen like Morph, a chewing-gum like creature that can turn into anything, and as entertaining as those can be they only serve to distract us from the main story than anything else. One character looks like a dog, another like a cat for some reason, there's portals and cyborgs and insect pirates... it's all creative, granted, but also completely pointless. You can tell there's an excellent, heartfelt story in there but all the bells and whistles make it hard to hook onto and, after a rushed third act, you'll leave the film feeling a bit underwhelmed.
Treasure Planet may have seemed like a cool idea on paper but actually watching it proves otherwise. The heart of the novel prevails and the Hawkins/Silver friendship works, as does the terrific voice cast and the animation, but the film is not paced appropriately, the story feels underwritten and it all seems too distracted to truly make us care about what's going on.
An uneven experiment.