The Strange Voyage to Treasure Planet - Part Two

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Last week, I talked about the birth of Treasure Planet and its story. Today, here is some additional information about the process, the characters and how it bombed badly when it debuted.

Basically, there are three different forms of animation in Treasure Planet (2002). The characters, for the most part, were done using hand-drawn animation; Silver's mechanical items, B.E.N. (voiced by comedian Martin Short and animated by Oskar Urretabizkaia) and some alien creatures were done using CGI; the sets and background utilized Deep Canvas and Virtual Sets.

Clements and Musker were no strangers to blending two animation techniques: hand-drawn and CGI animation were used together in The Great Mouse Detective (1986) during the climatic final battle inside the gears of Big Ben in London

While most of the characters in Treasure Planet were completely hand-drawn, the character of John Silver was a hybrid of traditional animation and CGI. Musker explained, "It was challenging because the character had to be created twice. It was almost like having two characters."

Disney Legend Glen Keane would do the 2-D animation for Silver, but Eric Daniels animated the mechanical pegleg; the cyborg arm, where a different selection of devices would rotate into place when needed; and an eye used as a targeting mechanism and the ability to scan objects. Neil Eskuri, the film's artistic coordinator, called Silver the first "5-D" character since he was part 2-D and part 3-D.

The character of John Silver was a hybrid of traditional animation and CGI.

To test if the concept would work, the animators took some of animator Frank Thomas' original clean-up drawings of Captain Hook from Peter Pan (1953) and re-shot them, digitally erasing the arm and hook. They replaced the arm with a computer generated mechanical one to see if the fusion would work. It did seamlessly.

Clements said, "We always pictured [Silver] as a big, shambling, burly guy. Glen is really good at delivering larger-than-life characters and getting into their feelings. [Silver] became a cross between a buccaneer and a bear."

During an interview when the film was first released, Keane said:

"But there are a variety of different people there for my interpretation of Silver. One is the soldier who guards the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington who has a head that's like it is sculpted out of rock. Then there was the guy who did Morph [Mike Show]. He had a baby during the making of the film and he had a picture of the baby's face exploding with joy. I thought that was Silver.

"Then I was studying the face of Robert Shaw in the movie Jaws with the space in his teeth. Then there was my high school football coach. There was a blend of real people.

"I put all these ingredients in the pot, it cooks and stews until it just explodes on the page. It's a strange thing, I think our characters exist before we start to draw them and your drawing is trying to find that character. In the end you have a very complex face that I would never have designed if I was wanting to make my life easy. But that's who Silver is and you go along with it.

"There was one actor, Wallace Beery [who played the role of Silver in MGM's 1934 live action version of Treasure Island] whom I loved because of the way he talked out of the side of his mouth. Silver does that for almost the whole film. Generally I don't like to look at previous versions of a character because those are the things I'm trying to forget and trying to clear my mind of stereotypes and trying to get to what Stevenson intended at the beginning.

"I also drew inspiration from Brian Murray, the South African-born actor who does the voice for Silver. He has such a warm, musical brogue. It's totally disarming, which is exactly what Silver needs to be to win Jim's confidence."

At one point, a team of animators visited a local Benihana restaurant to observe and make notes on how the chef prepares the shrimp to aid in the scene in the film where John Silver cooks shrimp for the new recruits.

Jim Hawkins (voiced by Joseph Gordon Levitt, whose biggest credit at the time was his role on the television sitcom Third Rock from the Sun) was made a teenager to help attract the demographic that Eisner was targeting in new attractions at Disney theme parks.

"In creating our version of the story, Jim was the hardest character to flesh out," Musker said. "We wanted him to be sort of introverted and have the typical problems of a teenage boy, but not have that be off-putting in any way."

Jim's lead animator was John Ripa who stated: "I looked at films starring James Dean, River Phoenix and Leonardo Di Caprio and Mel Gibson in Braveheart. There are a lot of close-ups on characters in Braveheart who are going through thought processes, just using their eyes. With James Dean there was a whole attitude, a posture. You felt the pain and the youthful innocence. I kept coming back to that as I was working on Jim. I had not really known James Dean; he was just a guy on the side of a coffee mug, I had not seen his films. It was John Musker who recommended I watch Rebel Without a Cause and when I did I was blown away."

At the beginning of the film it is revealed that Jim's middle name is Pleiades, a cluster of stars that can be found in the constellation Taurus.

Also at the beginning of the film Jim can be seen wearing very dark oversized clothes, and he has a dark streak across his eyes; this is done to represent that he's a bad boy. As the film progresses Jim changes so his clothes change from charcoal to olive, his clothes fit better, and the dark shadow over his eyes fades and by the end of the film he is in a white uniform, showing he's turned into a good guy.

The score was composed by James Newton Howard, who said that the score is "very much in the wonderful tradition of Korngold and Tiomkin and Steiner." Songwriter John Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls wrote the two songs for the film including I'm Still Here for the montage of Jim and Silver bonding.

"I felt that Jim was finding himself," Rzeznik explained. "He was confused, beginning to doubt himself and then he meets Silver who becomes his mentor. Jim was learning to be a man, which is what I tried to get across in the lyrics."

In the scene where both Silver and Jim are trying to persuade Morph to give up the map, all of the dialogue was ad-libbed during the recording session and not scripted.

"I've never done this with anybody where we actually worked at the same desk," Keane said. "John would draw what Jim was doing and then I would draw what Silver was doing. I could see when Jim would tilt his head so I would know how to counter pose it with Silver. It was like tag team wrestling."

In the earliest version of the story both Amelia and Doppler were human. Doppler's lead animator Sergio Pablos recalled, "[Clements and Musker] made me understand that I should really use the chance to do something more original for the film. I tried all kinds of aliens. Since the character of Amelia had developed into having the features of a cat, they suggested I try a dog which would play to their initial contrary nature and help the tension. I really didn't want it to be just a person with a dog head. That didn't feel natural to me. I used the 70-30 rule and made him 70 percent human and 30 percent dog. His hands are a combination of human hands and dog paws. For his face, I elongated his nose and made it half a muzzle. His chin still remains a human chin but his nose sticks out. I gave him those droopy ears. And that's about everything he has that could be related to a dog."

Pablos told one reporter that he looked to his pet weimaraner dog for inspiration but also the character's voice actor who "improvised and added to the lines". That voice actor was David Hyde Pierce, perhaps best known at the time for his work as the fussy brother on the television sitcom Frasier.

While Pierce was still working on A Bug's Life (1998) as the stuck up stick bug known as Slim, he was sent the script, and a couple of preliminary sketches. He ended up loving both and accepted the role.

Captain Amelia, who had previously served in the Interstellar Navy, is voiced by actress Emma Thompson. While recording her lines, she was pregnant with her daughter Gaia. The character's lead animator was Ken Duncan,who had worked on Jane in Tarzan and Meg in Hercules.

"We offered it to [Thompson[ and she was really excited," Clements says. "She sent us a lovely note saying 'I get to do an action film without having to train at all!'"

Musker recalls, "We wrote the character, and she tweaked it. Before we recorded the lines, we sat down and had a cucumber sandwich with her and she said, 'I have some ideas on the character.' We went through the script sequence by sequence. She frequently had input on the character's dialogue, helping shape her into maybe the smartest person in the movie."

Producer Conti stated, "Emma really brought a lot of the British aspects to the character. A lot of the specific phrases that Amelia uses like 'spot on' and other appropriately British expressions that helped define and typify the character, Emma brought to the script."

Amelia was originally going to be bald and then one version had black tentacles for hair that would be able to help her by holding items.

"Being the captain of the ship, Amelia is stoic and quiet, but with the ability to act and react quickly," Duncan recalled. "The personality of a cat seemed like a great fit."

A line at the end of the film was deleted that would have revealed that Dr. Doppler was the one to give birth to their babies (three kittens and one nearsighted puppy), however the directors thought this might be too much for young viewers.

The voice of Billy Bones was performed by Patrick McGoohan, in his last movie role before his death in January 2009. Clements and Musker were huge fans of the actor's work, which is why he was brought in for the small role.

"The day that he came in to record, he had a terrible cold," said Musker. "We said, well, we wanted Billy to be kind of wheezy and unhealthy and on his last legs anyway. But the cold brought something to the performance. We weren't as sympathetic as we should have been about the cold. It really did give Billy Bones a kind of gutteral, or shall I say, phlegmatic performance."

Every member of the crew of the R.L.S. Legacy was a different species and had their own back story:

  • The Riggers (Scroop, Birdbrain Mary, Dogbreath, Greedy, Macriki, Oxy and Moron) go up and down the rigging to unfurl or take in the solar sails and work below deck to look after the solar crystals that make up the fabric of the solar sails.
  • The Ropers (Hands, Aquanoggin, Pigors and Schwartzkopf) let out or pull in the lines for the sails and drop and weigh the astral anchor (the invisible force field used to moor the ship).
  • The Specialists: Snuff (anti-gravity engineer), Onus (the lookout), Meltdown (in charge of laser cannons) and Turnbuckle (helmsman).

Caricatures of Clements and Musker appear in short cameos in the movies that they have directed. In Treasure Planet, Musker appears briefly as a lanky robot at the top of a ladder and Clements as what looks like a furry, otherworldly creature holding the bottom of the ladder and giving Jim directions

Disney released a plethora of merchandise, including a variety of Hasbro figures of Jim, Silver, B.E.N. and a talking Morph (with the ability to record your own voice and have Morph repeat it); Disney Store five exclusive plush figures of the main characters; books; McDonald's Happy Meal toys of eight different characters each with a piece of the orb; collectible pins; film trading cards; adventure board game; Viewmaster three reel set; video games and more including three different spoons in special boxes of Kellogg's cereals.

There was even some merchandise that was exclusive to foreign countries.

In an interview on October 15, 2002, Thomas Schumacher, president of Walt Disney Feature Animation, stated, "We've got a story and some storyboards and concepts up and a script for what a sequel to this could be. There's also a notion of what a television series could be. I have all the pieces in place and should we [decide] to push the button, we push the button and go with it."

That button never even came close to being pushed.

Officially, the film cost $140 million to make but the actual costs were rumored to be much higher. Marketing costs drove that figure up to $180 million or more. The film ended up grossing only $38.1 million domestically, with an additional $71.4 million internationally for a total worldwide gross of $109.5 million.

Within days of its release, Disney's Buena Vista Distribution reduced its fourth-quarter earnings by $47 million acknowledging that Disney felt the film would not find an audience since it only drew in $16 million in its first five days of release. It was the first film to be released in both normal theaters and IMAX on the same day.

Clements was skiing with his family at Mammoth Mountain when he received the bad news about it and both he and Musker were so devastated that they refused to make any comment to the press.

That same November, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was released becoming the second-highest grossing film of the year, as well as Disney's own The Santa Clause 2 and the James Bond film Die Another Day.

Dick Cook, chairman of the Walt Disney Studios, defended releasing Treasure Planet up against these other films, "There was plenty of business out there — we just didn't get it. In our marketing maybe we should have stressed other elements to make it fun and exciting. Maybe we didn't do a good enough job to entice an audience to want to come. Maybe we were too serious and earnest in the marketing — that's what we're questioning."

Certainly, the marketing campaign for Lilo and Stitch earlier that year was much more innovative and fun.

Producer of the movie Roy Conli said at the film's initial release, "There's a wonderful movie out there and [it represents] five years of heart, sweat and blood and we want people to see it. This has always been a movie driven by the passion of the artists, the directors and myself and the team is hoping it has legs."

Some pointed out that Katzenberg had been right and that pirate films were box office poison. However, the first live-action Pirates of the Caribbean film was released the following year and was a huge hit.

Hardcore Disney animation fans did go to see the film in theaters, but the general audience, according to surveys Disney did, had figured out that just a few months after the theatrical release, Disney would issue the film on DVD and they could enjoy it then. There was no urgency to see the film and if they missed it or chose one of the other popular movies playing, people felt they could always catch it later in their home.

To try to stop the financial hemorrhaging, Disney released Lilo and Stitch on DVD the first week of December, weeks before it was officially going to be released, and enjoyed significant holiday sales.

"It was never completely apparent what the concerns were," Musker recalled. "The story doesn't have a romance, and we never saw it as a musical—those were never articulated, but those may have been some of the issues.

In reality, the studio had no choice but to release it when it did because, under a promotional deal with its longtime partner, McDonald's, the studio was locked into the November 27 release date back in 2001. At that time, Eisner was expressing concerns about the characters and the plot, feeling they were both a bit "flat," after viewing an initial rough cut.

There was no single smoking gun to explain why Treasure Planet seemingly bombed big time. The bottom line was that audiences just weren't interested in seeing it.

Disney realized what the true problem was. It was not the characters, story or marketing. Audiences just no longer cared for seeing traditional 2-D hand drawn animation.

Audiences had flocked to the computer animated Ice Age produced by Blue Sky Studios for 20th Century Fox when it was released in March 2002. It had brought in over $380 million making it the eighth top grossing film of the year. Pixar had an unbroken record of critical and financial hit computer animated films and were primed to produce more.

So Disney announced that with the release of Home on the Range (2004) that was finishing up production, they would no longer do hand drawn animated features but concentrate only on computer animation. It did not seem to occur to Disney that Treasure Planet was actually a hybrid of hand drawn and computer animation.

Musker joked that the poor showing of Treasure Planet had killed the Disney animation renaissance that he had Clements had started with The Little Mermaid. Disney would not do another hand-drawn animated feature for five years until the release of Princess and the Frog (2009) also co-written and directed by Clements and Musker.

While popular and making a profit, it did not come close to grossing as much as recent releases of the animated features Bolt and Up both done in computer animation.

Clements and Musker, who could not get another feature greenlit after Treasure Planet, resigned from Disney in September 2005. When John Lasseter was appointed chief creative officer over Disney Feature Animation in February 2006, he invited them back to direct The Princess and the Frog (2009).

After the release of that film, several projects they were working on did not proceed. However, they were teamed again to direct Moana (2016), their first all computer animated feature film. In March 2018, Musker retired from Walt Disney Animation Studios.