Ahoy, Oh Boy

Treasure Planet reveals an embarrassment of riches

It's doubtful Robert Louis Stevenson imagined his Treasure Islandpopulated by cyborgs and scored to Goo Goo Dolls outtakes. And one has to wonder what the author would have made of his characters being turned into talking and walking dogs and cats who (gulp!) copulate and reproduce mangy hybrids. Far as I recall, there were no galaxy-galloping black holes in the original tale, no crescent-moon space stations, no ships sailing on cosmic winds, no room-sized hologram maps of buried treasure, no shape-shifting green blobs with impish personalities. But why squabble over trifles when there's great fun to be had aboard Disney's latest bit of giddy revisionist animation?

Treasure Planet may not be a classic, yet it's one more bit of Classics Illustrated to be plundered by Michael Eisner's pirates, joining the likes of last year's Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Tarzan, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Pocahontas, among other famous tales and myths writ big, bold, bright, and deafening just in time for the holidays.

Without question, Treasure Planet dazzles and delights, like a billion bits of gold bullion strewn about the caves of a rampaging buccaneer. The movie makes tangible the imagination, even if it also serves to do all our thinking and dreaming and oohing and aahing for us. This is why kids will never again read anything, save for Harry Potter doorstops; how can black words on a white page ever live up to their expectations of the wide screen (or, in the case of this film, the IMAX screen)? Even Disney is aware of this, though we're not sure what to make of the opening scenes in which young Jim Hawkins (voiced by Austin Majors, later by Third Rock from the Sun's Joseph Gordon-Levitt when he turns 15) is seen "reading" a three-dimensional pop-up book that looks just like the film we're about to see. It doesn't feel like a knowing joke, nor does most of the movie, which takes its broad comic cues from Frasier's David Hyde Pierce as the clumsy, canine-featured Doctor Doppler and Martin Short's obnoxious B.E.N., a robot who appears to be the distant cousin of Futurama's wise-cracking Bender. In an almost-great film, they merely grate.

Once more, in Disneyland, ours is a protagonist from a broken home: Jim's dad has disappeared, and his put-upon mother, Sarah (Laurie Metcalf), is stuck running a pitiful inn -- running it straight into the ground. Jim is as reckless as he is restless, piloting his airborne surfboard into endless trouble with robocops; he's not a little bit reminiscent of Luke Skywalker, hoping to pilot his bored behind off the miserable rock he calls home.

He gets his chance when a monstrous stranger deposits an orb that casts a magnificent treasure map, his golden ticket to endless riches. It also comes with a warning to beware the cyborg, which turns out to be one John Silver (Brian Murray), not merely a villain but also Jim's would-be surrogate father -- the Darth to his Luke, a not entirely inappropriate comparison in a film that gleams and glistens like the Star Wars prequels and comes with its own star port populated by intergalactic freakies. There's also a would-be mother, Captain Amelia (Emma Thompson), who's quite the pussycat, dolled up in thigh-high boots and an imperious wardrobe that suggests she's quite good at purring orders.

Unlike, say, Atlantis, with its cobbled-together mythology, Treasure Planet offers no narrative surprise; it's a boy-seeks-treasure tale even older than Harrison Ford. But co-directors and writers John Musker and Ron Clements (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Hercules) doll it up so marvelously that you're sucked into the screen and forced to confront the fact that at their best, these filmmakers can make the two-dimensional astonishingly warm and full-bodied (rare is the cartoon populated by characters you actually care about). It's Captain Blood by way of N.C. Wyeth (who illustrated one of the myriad versions of Treasure Island) by way of Nintendo, a ride at a theme park crafted grand and glorious by men who know how to dust off musty epics and render them spectacular. If only someone would have pushed John Rzeznik, provider of bad alterna-ballads, and Martin Short off a very short plank; then, you'd really have something.

 
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