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Treasure Planet was the rebellious, visionary Disney movie that didn’t pay off

A pair of animation veterans fought to make what became one of Hollywood’s most notorious disasters

Graphic grid with six images from Disney’s animated film, Treasure Planet Graphic: James Bareham/Polygon | Source images: Disney

Your favorite childhood movie might’ve been a total box-office dud. The animated movies that defined the late ’90s and early 2000s are beloved by a generation that grew up watching them on VHS, but many of these nostalgic favorites were critical failures, box-office disappointments, or both. What went wrong along the way? And why did they gain such love after the fact? The Beloved Animated Failures series is out to dust off those old VHS tapes (or, more accurately, find the movies on streaming) and examine some of these films.

In the early 2000s, Disney struggled to find its footing. The studio wanted to shed the formula that had brought it glory in the ’90s: the sweeping Disney Renaissance musical that was no longer getting the expected big response at the box office. As early as 1999’s Tarzan, Disney was trying something different, though figuring out just what sort of different would appeal to audiences proved to be a challenge — not just for Disney, but across the industry.

Disney directors Ron Clements and John Musker had pitched the idea for 2002’s Treasure Planet as far back as 1985, but they weren’t able to get it greenlit until this period of Disney experimentation. While they had to fight for their vision, they’d earned some clout as the filmmakers behind The Little Mermaid, which catapulted Disney out of its previous slump and into its Renaissance years. Treasure Planet, unfortunately, failed to make a splash at the box office. But nearly 20 years later, it captures a level of visual wonder and early 2000s culture that endears it to the fans who grew up with it.

jim on the rigging of the ship Image: Disney

What it’s about

Treasure Planet is basically an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic pirate tale … but in space! Jim Hawkins (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a little older and a little more rebellious than his book counterpart when he discovers a treasure map in a mechanical orb, leading to the mysterious Treasure Planet, where notorious pirate Nathaniel Flint stashed his loot of a thousand worlds. Working as a cabin boy aboard a ship, Jim bonds with gruff cook Long John Silver, who has his own treasure-hunting scheme.

captain amelia smollet staring at the treasure map Image: Disney

A little backstory…

Treasure Planet was a passion project from the start. Clements came up with the idea, pulling Musker on board after their work together on 1986’s The Great Mouse Detective, and he pitched it as Treasure Island in Space in the same meeting where he and Clements pitched The Little Mermaid. Disney CEO Michael Eisner said no to the Treasure Island in Space idea, because there was allegedly a Star Trek sequel with a Treasure Island angle in the works. He also said no to Mermaid because of Splash, but studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg called Clements up the next day and told him to expand that pitch a little more. Lo and behold, The Little Mermaid was born, and it ushered in a solid 10 years of Disney box-office gold.

After The Little Mermaid’s success, Clements and Musker re-pitched Treasure Planet a second time, and Katzenberg told them no. After Aladdin, they tried a third time, and again, Katzenberg refused. Upset, they decided to go directly to Roy E. Disney, then chairman of the Walt Disney Company, who had previously ousted Ron Miller as CEO, and would later organize the ousting of Michael Eisner.

Roy E. Disney had two very important traits that would lend factor into his approval of Treasure Planet: an eye for innovative yet risky projects (Fantasia 2000, another box-office flop, was his passion project) and a strong dislike of Jeffrey Katzenberg. He backed Musker and Clements, appealing to Eisner.

And when it came time to renew their contract in 1995, Musker and Clements — who were being headhunted by the growing animation studios at DreamWorks and Warner Bros. — agreed to stay with Disney Animation on the promise that it would finally take up the film they’d been pushing for a decade. (One thing that helped their negotiation: Katzenberg, who’d never been a big fan of the concept, had left to start DreamWorks.)

jim and long john silver looking shocked Image: Disney

What went wrong

Treasure Planet bombed at the box office, grossing just over $109 million worldwide against its reported $140 million budget. The Los Angeles Times listed it as one of the most expensive box-office flops of all time. When Disney realized just how badly the movie was doing, the studio adjusted its annual earnings projection and scrapped the movie’s planned sequel.

Unlike in the case of another beloved sci-fi failure, The Iron Giant, there isn’t a clear cause-and-effect for Treasure Planet’s downward trajectory. It garnered solid reviews, rounding out at 69% on Rotten Tomatoes. Treasure Planet was nominated for the second ever Best Animated Feature Academy Award, alongside 2002’s other Disney flick, Lilo & Stitch. (Both lost out to Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away, which, like, fair.)

Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Treasure Planet opened up alongside Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Pottermania was in full-force swing, and a sequel to a well-established property was a safer bet than a wacky steampunk space adventure. Arguably at the time, audiences were looking for swanky CG films, after the success of Pixar films like Toy Story and Monsters, Inc. and DreamWorks’ Shrek, but that discounts that Disney’s cel-animated movie Lilo & Stitch had made bank earlier that year. But these are just small factors in the overall situation, which has more to do with a battle of shifting audience tastes.

After the diminishing returns of Disney’s own movies like Pocahontas and Hercules — along with the failures of copycats like A Quest for Camelot — it was clear that audiences were growing tired of Disney’s sweeping coming-of-age musicals tinged with fantasy overtones. But what did they want? Previous entries in this series examined The Emperor’s New Groove and The Iron Giant, which represented two different paths branching out from the Disney Renaissance formula: comedies like The Emperor’s New Groove and The Road to El Dorado played up physical humor and one-line zingers, or slid adult humor under the radar. And action-adventure movies like The Iron Giant, Treasure Planet, and Titan A.E. shed the musical elements of the Disney formula, but kept the speculative genre.

Lilo & Stitch, Disney’s other 2002 movie, is just as weird and out-there as Treasure Planet. Aliens crash-landing in Hawaii highlight a story about a lonely 6-year-old raised by her teenage sister. It’s just as far from the Disney musical formula as Treasure Island in Space. But Lilo & Stitch’s marketing focused on its humor, and the idea of this very cute alien dismantling Disney expectations — even though the actual film doesn’t interrogate that. But after the success of Shrek, which oozes cynical Disney metacommentary in every second of the movie, that sort of self-aware side-eye became the norm. Modern Disney movies also adopt this tone, whether it’s Maui rolling his eyes and calling Moana a princess, or the Disney-website schtick in Ralph Breaks the Internet.

While this era’s science-fiction action-adventure movies shifted the visuals of the Disney Renaissance formula, they were still earnest heroic adventures, following heroes who rose up to the occasion and saved the day. Treasure Planet fits this to a T. Its trailers and marketing focused on the cool world to explore, and Jim Hawkins coming into his own as a hero. Apparently, that’s precisely what audiences were tiring of.

jim on his solar surfer
Image: Disney

Why we love it today

Like Tarzan and An Extremely Goofy Movie before it, Treasure Planet played off late-’90s and early-2000s skater culture. But Treasure Planet turned the skateboard into a mechanical contraption that soared through the air. Jim himself was changed from a poor kid to a rebellious teenager, something writer Terry Rossio argued alienated audiences. While seeing a teenage Jim in the same precarious situations as a child Jim doesn’t necessarily elicit the same alarm, Jim’s moody adolescence and his perfect veneer of teenage angst made him appealing when the kids who may have missed the movie in theaters brushed off the old DVDs as angsty tweens.

Here, Jim is a rebel with Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s voice, a heart of gold, an oversized jacket he can’t quite grow into, one single dangling earring, and a little ponytail that would make Attack of the Clones-era Anakin Skywalker jealous — all elements that make him perfectly crushable. There aren’t many Disney teenage bad boys with secret soft sides, so the closest comparison is probably Kovu from The Lion King 2, who’s amassed his own passionate internet fanbase. But childhood crushes aside, teenage Jim Hawkins’ abandonment issues strengthen the bond between him and Long John Silver, and gives Treasure Planet one of the most early-2000s montage scenes of all time: the “I’m Still Here” sequence, which has some of the movie’s most epic visuals, combined with a rocking Goo Goo Dolls song.

Aside from aging Jim up, Treasure Planet doesn’t do anything drastically different with the overall plot of its source material, and that’s okay. Treasure Island is a timeless adventure tale, and the rhythm of its plot works well. Treasure Island’s big beats — the pirates, Long John Silver, the treasure — remain the same in Treasure Planet. The changes come in smaller, superficial ways, altering some of the minor characters to make them more interesting, then tossing the entire story into a fantastical space world.

It’s the latter that makes Treasure Planet so dang memorable. To be clear, Treasure Planet isn’t the first Treasure Island But In Space retelling out there. (That’s the 1987 Italian and German miniseries Treasure Island in Outer Space.) But instead of approaching the outer-space setting in the stark, metallic way of classic science-fiction like Star Trek or even giving it a Space Western veneer, Treasure Planet blends the aesthetic of 19th-century pirate-adventure stories with the wonders of space, for a visually stunning steampunk fusion. The spaceships in Treasure Planet are actual sailing ships that soar via solar wind in an atmosphere-filled outer space full of comets, nebulas, and ginormous space whales.

jim looking at some of the space whales Image: Disney

Treasure Planet’s production team adopted a 70% traditional, 30% science-fiction approach to both the movie’s visual atmosphere and its soundtrack. The result is sweeping spacescapes infused with the warm elements of early-20th-century storybook illustrations, a soaring nautical orchestral score juxtaposed with electric guitar riffs, and eclectic aliens wearing Victorian-inspired buckles and belts — a hodgepodge of eclectic choices fused in a stunning way.

Treasure Planet’s visual finesse is due in part to the fact it took nearly two decades to get into production. The movie blends CG animation with traditional cel animation, something many animation directors of the era tried their hand at doing. While it’s not always perfect, the result looks more cohesive with the overall look of the movie because of the setting and genre. A CG-looking ship in the middle of 15th-century-set The Road to El Dorado, for instance, looks more glaringly out-of-place than it does in the middle of a science-fiction adventure.

“Had we made the film 17 years ago, we couldn’t have made the film that we actually did,” Musker said in a 2002 interview with SciFi. “We would have simplified [Silver’s computer-animated] arm and we wouldn’t have shots where you could fly in. So we’re actually sort of happy that we did wait for technology to sort of catch up with us.”

jim and silver chasing a comet Image: Disney

This blend of traditional and science-fiction design elements, traditional and computer animation, puts Treasure Planet in a visual category like no other Disney movie. It’s one of the studio’s most visually gorgeous films, and certainly one that effectively uses its medium to push genre boundaries. Even the most gorgeous previous Disney movies — the meticulously rendered cathedral in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the sweeping savannah of The Lion King, the ballroom in Beauty and the Beast — were rooted in some reality, some genre expectations. Treasure Planet, meanwhile, took to the stars and created a world never seen in an animated film before.

Writer Rob Edwards said that the goal was to make the story as exciting to kids as the original book was back in 1883. Maybe hesitant adults buying tickets didn’t get it, but the kids who later caught up with it at home knew that a pirate ship soaring in a lush, alive outer space, or Jim Hawkins solar-surfing to save the day, were exciting and cool.

Treasure Planet was a misfire, one of the last entries in the short-lived action-adventure and science-fiction pivot of animation in the early 2000s, which never quite found a footing. Had it succeeded, perhaps the next 10 years of animation would’ve shifted to a different tone. But as it stands, Treasure Planet is a visual delight, a time capsule of the early 2000s in a way that perhaps no other animated movie of the era is. It boldly, unapologetically pushes the visual limits of genre expectation in a way no Disney movie has since.

Treasure Planet is currently streaming on Disney Plus.