During the 2000s, Disney not only abandoned the formula that had granted them unparalleled success in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but the company was also churning out animated features at lightning speed. Quality was bound to suffer, and 2002’s Treasure Planet probably got more flak because of that downturn than it really deserved.
The idea sounds a bit hokey: an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel set in space. But it actually worked. Personally, I could have done with a more traditional retelling of the story, but the space-age setting didn’t detract from the story of young Jim Hawkins (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Jim longs for adventure, longs to prove himself and feel that his existence has meaning. In a sea of galaxies, his inner struggle shouldn’t come as a surprise. He’s also coming to terms with an absentee father and a few of his own run-ins with the law. He’s a quintessential troubled teen who embarks on a grand journey that ends up drastically changing his life.
What is distracting, though, is the film’s steampunk style. The look and feel of the character design is drawn from Victorian England with inspiration from the Industrial Revolution, but the settings are futuristic. I mostly just wished the animators had picked one era and stuck with it. And while recognize the style’s place in the world of art, even though Treasure Planet wasn’t the first Disney film to make use of it, as pointed out by Steampunk Scholar, the style wasn’t fitting of the story Disney was trying to tell in this film. Critics also bemoaned the “mainstreaming” of steampunk — because, of course, there’s no way it could ever be cool again now that Disney had jumped on the bandwagon.
The story was a fair adaption, the animation was fluid and the action tense, but the characters had trouble making a real connection with the audience. Even as self-sacrifice and personal connections drive the movie forward, it’s hard for audiences to feel much for them. It all amounts to a less-than-satisfying, if adventurous, finish.
The lack of an animated hit was starting to put financial strain on the studio. It was particularly painful that their most successful film during this time was the low-budget Winnie the Pooh sequel The Tigger Movie. The big-budget, high-concept “official” releases just weren’t performing. And the rising success of rival studios Pixar and Dreamworks (who released Shrek in 2001) certainly wasn’t helping. According to the LA Times, the $140-million Treasure Planet was a dream directors John Musker and Ron Clements had been trying to get off the ground for almost two decades. The film’s dismal $12-million opening weekend gross was one of the weakest ever for Disney and lead the company to revise its already-reported fourth-quarter earnings, providing further fuel for the skepticism beginning to develop around the studio that it wasn’t up to producing the big blockbusters of the past. The studio blamed a lacklustre marketing effort, but it was clear more was amiss. The ordeal ended up leading to a shrinking of the animation department, several layoffs across the division and a slowdown in the number, and size, of the animated features that would come.
In the context of what else the studio was releasing in the 2000s, Treasure Planet is certainly not even close to being at the bottom of the barrel (and even ended up with an Academy Award nomination for best animated film). But it remains further proof that Disney had lost its Midas touch.