The Strange Voyage to Treasure Planet - Part Oneby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
Was the animated feature film Treasure Planet (2002) one of Disney's biggest failures since it was the worst performing Disney animated film of all time, or is it a lost cinematic gem waiting to be rediscovered? The science fantasy was a long time dream project of co-writers and directors Ron Clements and John Musker, who had previously shepherded several hit animated feature films for Disney.
Some claim that this film is a strong warning that sometimes people should not follow their dreams. Others point out that the film has become a cult favorite, inspiring role playing fans and fan fiction, as well as being nominated for an Oscar as best animated feature. It lost out to Miyazaki's Spirited Away, a hand-drawn Japanese film that Disney released in an English dubbed version.
The film is indeed imaginative and beautiful to look at, but general audiences did not seem to emotionally connect with the characters and the plot as they did with another Disney animated feature film entitled Lilo and Stitch released earlier that same year in June 2002 that also included strong science fantasy elements.
Musker met Clements during the production of The Fox and the Hound (1981) where he worked as a character animator under Clements and Cliff Nordberg. Musker was later teamed up with Clements as story artists on the initial pre-production work for The Black Cauldron (1985), but were both removed from the project along with others.
Clements, a long time fan of Sherlock Holmes, pitched the idea to Ron Miller of developing the children's book Basil of Baker Street as an alternative project to The Black Cauldron. It later became the animated feature The Great Mouse Detective (1986).
Musker was teamed with Burny Mattinson and Dave Michener as the directors for the animated feature, but when Mattinson was promoted to producer, Clements was brought in as a co-director with Musker, which created a directing team that went on to many animated feature film successes.
In 1985, CEO Michael Eisner and Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg initiated the first Disney animation "Gong Show," that took place in a medium-sized room in the Disney commissary where Eisner and Katzenberg sat at the head of a table.
Later "Gong Shows" would include Roy E. Disney, Peter Schneider, and Tom Schumacher and would be held two or three times during the year and open to any employees of the company. Sometimes as many as 30 people showed up to present an idea for a Disney animated feature. Each person had three to five minutes to pitch their idea and got immediate verbal feedback whether Disney was interested in developing the idea further or not.
At that first "Gong Show," Pete Young pitched the idea of re-doing the story of Oliver Twist with dogs; Joe Hale was excited about some World War II themed projects, like the never-made Gremlins; Steve Hulett proposed a Mickey-Donald-Goofy version of Rudyard Kipling's The Man Who Would Be King and adaptations of some Bill Peet books; and Musker had the idea for a hip, edgy retelling of Little Red Riding Hood in the style of the later Shrek films. Clements strongly championed both The Little Mermaid and Treasure Island in Space.
Clements remembered "They had asked everyone two weeks before the meeting—this group of directors and story people—to come up with five new ideas for animated features. I had recently read The Little Mermaid in a bookstore and got excited, so I wrote a two-page treatment for it. I'd written up a two-page treatment for Treasure Island in Space, as well."
Katzenberg hated both of Clements' proposals. The Disney Studio had just produced the live-action film Splash and that seemed too similar to The Little Mermaid and Katzenberg also wanted to steer away from doing another fairy tale. In regards to Treasure Island in Space, Katzenberg did not like the idea of doing a science-fiction film, a film about pirates, or a film with a young boy with no love interest, among other objections.
Eisner commented that a Treasure Island plotline for a Star Trek movie had been pushed while he was at Paramount and might still be under consideration there but didn't think it would work in animation. Katzenberg later relented on the idea of The Little Mermaid and Musker and Clements were assigned as directors.
The final 1989 animated film was a critical and financial success and is often considered the beginning of the Disney animated feature film renaissance. Clements brought in Musker and redeveloped the idea for Treasure Island in Space now called Treasure Planet and pitched it, but it was again rejected and they were assigned to Aladdin (1992) which was another huge hit, becoming the first animated feature to gross over $200 million domestically.
In 1993, Clements and Musker once again pitched a revised version of Treasure Planet and Katzenberg again rejected it. However, Roy E. Disney liked the idea of the film and became a supporter, even promoting it to Eisner who wanted to keep Roy happy, which upset Katzenberg, who felt his decision was being undermined.
Because of their proven successes and wanting to keep Clements and Musker happy and remain at Disney, Katzenberg finally agreed that if they did one more film that he would green light the production of their dream project that he had made clear that he absolutely hated. They started work on Hercules (1997).
Katzenberg left Disney in October 1994 and co-founded Dreamworks SKG. In 1995, during the production of Hercules, Clements and Musker signed a seven-year contract deal with Disney that stipulated following Hercules, the studio would produce Treasure Planet or another project of their choosing.
"Were we frustrated? We had other things that we were doing," said Clements diplomatically, "but there was one point where there was some question whether or not it would ever be made, after we'd done some work on it. Had we not had some clout [because of their previous successes]), I don't know that it would have ever been made. We love this story, so it's very gratifying that it was finally made."
After the release of Hercules, work began on Treasure Planet. Having the story set in outer space was a conscious effort of Clements and Musker and the other writer Rob Edwards, who had a background in television comedy. They wanted the film to be seen as fun, exciting and new to young people just like the original story had been back when it first came out.
While based on the original classic pirate story by author Robert Louis Stevenson, the story was written by Clements and Musker along with the team of Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio (who were responsible for writing Aladdin, Shrek and the live action Pirates of the Caribbean movies) with the screenplay by Clements and Musker and Rob Edwards (who they would later work with on the animated feature The Princess and the Frog).
Clements explained, "It was always conceived as a fantasy—it takes place in its own universe. We always wanted wooden spaceships and that ability to breathe in outer space. We had a rule on the movie called the 70-30 rule, which signified the percentage of old and new, and we actually favored old."
The 70-30 rule basically meant that 70% of the film would sport a traditional look resembling the 18th century, while 30% was science fiction elements. The rule was also applied to everything, including the film's sound effects and music. So, while the ships and buildings look like 18th century images from the original story, they are equipped with some technologically advanced devices, as well.
There are solar sails, thrusters, flintlocks that shoot lasers, holographic books and maps, intelligent robots, aliens, roof antennae and more but it does not seem high-tech. There are no smart phones, microwave cooking, television, internet or the shiny metallic surfaces usually associated with a science-fictional future.
It is very much an alternative retro-futurism in the style of Jules Verne's vision of the world of tomorrow.
Clements said, "If you looked at an image of the movie for a few seconds or so, you'd say, 'Oh, that's a period piece,' but if you look closer, you'd see things that'd never been invented before. It had that feeling, that warmer kind of interesting atmosphere."
Musker added, "We wanted this to be romantic film, even though it's not a romance, but we wanted to have this feeling of a romantic adventure. From the earliest go-round there was this kind of romantic archetypal image that we wanted, and we had to create a universe that supported that. So that's why we didn't say 'It's the future of this universe,' because we wanted to have breathable atmospheres and no guys in bubble helmets. It had to be an alternate world – we were influenced by Terry Gilliam and his fantasy worlds."
The story is indeed less science fiction and more science fantasy, like Star Wars and Flash Gordon. It is set in an alternate future reality where a vast empire of 100 planets (filled with at least 50 different species many of whom speak a common language) are ruled by a queen and shipping is the major industry.
The outer space is filled with atmosphere known as "etherium," making it very similar to a space ocean with qualities of both air and water, including currents that ships can use to reach different destinations. Odd creatures inhabit the environment that resemble variations of traditional sea creatures including the whale-like Orcus Galacticus.
This concept was chosen so that the characters could move freely without bulky spacesuits or oxygen tanks. The name "etherium" derives from the word "ether," an element that ancient philosphers thought filled the heavens.
An advanced race of alien scientists, known as the Forefathers, invented an elaborate device the size of a planet that created portals that could be used to research and explore different worlds. As they evolved into a living force of energy, they abandoned their mechanical creation and it was discovered thousands of years later by band of space pirates, led by a ruthless alien named Captain Nathaniel Flint.
With the help of Flint's Bio-Electronic Navigator (B.E.N.) robot, he figured out how to operate the portals and used them to plunder different worlds. The vast treasure of loot was stored in the center of the mechanism.
Flint became paranoid and killed his crew so they could never reveal the location. With B.E.N.'s help he rigged a booby trap to blow up everything if anyone ever attempted to steal the fortune.
Then he ripped out B.E.N.'s memory circuit unit so that the robot could not reveal anything either. The confused robot wandered the tunnels for years and finally found a way to the surface.
However, Flint's young cabin boy, Billy Bones was able to escape with a map to the location in hopes of one day returning. Flint himself died with his treasure, but to the rest of the universe he seemed to have vanished without a trace.
One-hundred years later, the story of a planet of untold treasure has become a legend, but some believe it is real, including the pirate John Silver who has spent his life trying to find it, losing several body parts in the process.
Jim Hawkins also believes having been entranced since the age of 3 with the legends from stories in his holobook. Jim has lived on Montressor, a rocky mining planet near the man-made crescent moon shaped space trading port of Crescentia, his entire life.
When he was 7 years old, Jim's father abandoned him and his mother to return to sailing the etherium and never returned. Jim is now 15 and has spent his life helping his mother run their house that has been converted into the Benbow Inn. He is rebellious, angry and reckless spending his free time soaring on his homemade solar surfer. Solar surfing is much like parasailing on a board with the sail designed to convert solar energy to provide power to the small thruster keeping it airbone, with the physical skill of the person shifting his weight used to navigate.
The film begins with Jim getting in trouble with the authorities for sailing through a restricted area and the warning that the next time he will be put in prison.
One of the frequent customers at the inn is the dog-like Dr. Delbert Doppler, an astrophysicist and friend of the family. Just outside the inn, a spacecraft crashes and an old, snaky creature named Billy Bones gives Jim a golden sphere and tells him to "beware the cyborg," before he passes away.
Shortly afterward the inn is raided by pirates with Jim, Sarah and Doppler barely escaping before the scoundrels burn the entire building to the ground. In Doppler's home, the trio discovers the sphere is actually a holographic map with the key to finding Treasure Planet. Jim and Doppler decide to mount an expedition to find it, despite the concerns of Sarah.
Doppler commissions the R.L.S. Legacy (R.L.S. refers to author Robert Louis Stevenson) commanded by the stern cat-like Captain Amelia and her rock-like first mate Mr. Arrow. The crew includes the charming John Silver, a cyborg cook, and his pet amorphous blob named Morph who can change shape. Morph's look was inspired by lava lamps.
Lead animator Mike Show did the character in hand-drawn animation because it was too complicated to do all the people and objects Morph becomes in CGI at the time. Show was also inspired by old footage of Apollo astronauts playing with water in zero gravity. Artist Andy Gaskill described the character as "a happy little guy with a puppy dog personality."
The rest of the crew is not so friendly, including the quick-tempered spidery Scroop who got his name from Lord Scroop, the villain from a Shakespeare play, Henry V.
"That's Michael Wincott's normal voice," said Ken Duncan who was the character's lead animator. "When he was talking to us normally or asking for a coffee, that's basically how his voice sounds. It was rather scary to meet him. Scroop was a bit of a technical challenge because he's a spider. And he has claws and big bug eyes and fangs. And inner teeth, as well. He's intimidated by Silver but resentful of him, as well."
Silver and Jim begin to bond during the journey almost like father and son. The ship encounters a star going supernova and becoming a black hole. Jim saves Silver from being lost overboard. During the chaos, Scroop, unknown to the others, sends Mr. Arrow to his doom in deep space to get him out of the way.
The next morning, playing with Morph, Jim accidentally overhears the crew revealing that they are pirates planning a mutiny and Silver is their leader. He also learns that Scroop killed Mr. Arrow. The meeting is interrupted by the cry that Treasure Planet has been sighted.
The crew begins its mutiny and Jim, Amelia and Doppler escape in a skiff to the planet with the map. However, a laser shot from the ship's cannon destroys the skiff and injures Amelia. It turns out the map is actually Morph in disguise. The real one is back on the ship.
As Doppler attends to the injured Amelia on the planet, Jim explores the alien jungle and encounters the eccentric B.E.N. They go to B.E.N.'s make-shift home, but are attacked by Silver and the pirates and the heroes make their way out a back door into a piping system. Jim, Morph and B.E.N. go back to the ship to deactivate the laser cannon and retrieve the real map.
B.E.N. accidentally deactivates the artificial gravity and Jim and the villainous Scroop battle in the rigging until Jim sends the alien flailing into space. B.E.N. turns the gravity back on and disables the cannon. When the two return to the planet with the map, they find Silver and the pirates have captured Doppler and Amelia.
Since Jim is the only one who knows how to properly activate the map, he demands they all travel together to the location of the treasure. When they reach the location on the map, Jim inserts the sphere into a plug and the device shows portals for each planet.
Jim selects the Treasure Planet icon and a portal allows them to go into the center of the mechanism with the treasure and find the skeleton of Captain Flint still clutching B.E.N.'s memory unit. Jim plugs it back into B.E.N. who then remembers the booby trap as the core starts to rip apart. Some of the pirates and treasure are lost to the molten center.
Silver saves Jim, and the survivors escape back to the Legacy as the planet begins to break apart. Through ingenuity, Jim is able to activate a portal to take them all back to the home port.
The remaining pirates are imprisoned, Amelia recommends Jim to the Interstellar Academy and Silver escapes. Morph decides to stay with Jim, who has secretly allowed Silver to leave. As a parting gift, Silver hands over a part of the treasure he took from Flint's loot so the inn can be rebuilt.
The Benbow Inn is indeed rebuilt with B.E.N. as a waiter, Doppler and Amelia are married with children and Jim beginning his career as a military cadet.
In the original script, the film's prologue started with an adult Jim Hawkins as the narrator looking back on his life, but the writers thought it came across too dark, and lacked character involvement. To soften it and keep suspense about whether Jim survived, they decided to start instead with young Jim and his storybook.
Instead of being angry, Clements and Musker were actually grateful that the film had been delayed so long because of the development of new animation technology that would help create a more realistic science fiction universe.
Clements said, "Because of the delay, the technology had time to develop especially in terms of really moving the camera."
"We are taking advantage of the Deep Canvas technology that they used in Tarzan (1999)," Musker explained. "We envisioned Treasure Planet where the camera could really follow the action."
Deep Canvas, a term coined by artist-engineer Eric Daniels, was created for Tarzan where it was used for about 10 minutes during the film of Tarzan surfing through the trees and allowed two-dimensional hand-drawn characters to maneuver seamlessly through a three-dimensional background that looked as if it had been traditionally painted. In 2003, Disney received a special Academy Award for developing the Deep Canvas technology.
Clements added, "We can now also use Virtual Sets. They were actually dimensional sets made to look like 2-D backgrounds, but in truth they were 3-D, and we could move the camera around."
Virtual Sets like the RLS Legacy were created only once but could then be shot or lit differently from any angle imaginable. They were constructed as a three-dimensional model and then digitally painted. For the film, other sets were hand-drawn and then digitally painted. Basically, this allowed the directors to chose any angle just like a live action film director.
Musker stated, "We didn't have to compromise the staging for the limitations of technology."
The visual style of the film was inspired by the work of the decorative illustration Brandywine style of art taught by Howard Pyle to illustrators like N.C. Wyeth (who famously illustrated the 1911 edition of Treasure Island), Frank Schoonover, Maxfield Parrish and others. Pyle's The Book of Pirates (collecting his work beginning in 1897) is a unique combination of historical accuracy and his own personal vision that has been a major influence on how pirates have been visualized for over a century.
Next week: More background on the characters, the innovative animation process and how the dream became a nightmare that killed hand-drawn animation at Disney for half a decade.