Rated PG - Running Time: 1:35 - Released 11/27/02

There have been no less than 19 different movie versions of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic 1883 novel Treasure Island, if you count TV, foreign languages, and Muppets. One would think it would be difficult to produce yet another version of something that has been done so many times and still make it seem fresh, and one would be right. But I suppose if anyone can do it, Disney’s animation studios can. Directors Ron Clements and John Musker, the team behind such classic “Disney renaissance” cartoons as Hercules, Aladdin, and The Little Mermaid, do their best to breathe new life into Stevenson’s pirate-filled, swashbuckling text with the help of a small army of co-writers, a much larger army of animators, and a talented voice cast. Why, then, does it feel so derivative?

By curiously blending space-age technology with 18th-century settings, Treasure Planet grasps at straws to deliver a new spin on the old-fashioned adventure story, whose style and imagery have become the basis for almost every sailor/pirate stereotype we know today, including the pegleg, the parrot, the pirate who says “Arrrr,” and the words “Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum” (penned by Stevenson in 1881). Its spectacular animation deserves note, of course, but since the industry has progressed to its current station of eye-popping effectiveness, its excesses become increasingly self-aware, giving us the same feeling as we get from eating way too much of some really delicious holiday treat. It’s beautiful, it’s funny, it’s colorful. But somehow the magic isn’t exactly there in full measure.

Starring as the voice of the lead character is Third Rock From The Sun’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt, whose Jim Hawkins, unlike Stevenson’s, has become a juvenile delinquent after his father deserted the family many years ago to sail off into space on a solar-powered spaceship that resembles an 18th-century clipper. While his stressed-out mom Sarah (Laurie Metcalf) tries to run the rustic Benbow Inn on the crescent-shaped planet Montressor, the adventure-starved Jim flies around on his solar surfer getting into trouble, and Sarah’s scholarly but easily flustered scientist friend Dr. Doppler (David Hyde Pierce) looks on with good-natured empathy. But Jim’s luck changes when a scraggly old space-sailor named Billy Bones (Patrick McGoohan, of all people) crashes his ship outside the Benbow and tells Jim, while dying in his arms, that he is being pursued by a pack of ruffians led by a one-legged, one-eyed half-cyborg pirate who is not to be trusted. The reason? A gold metal sphere, about the size of a softball, which Jim is soon prying out of Billy’s cold, dead hand.

Jim discovers the sphere contains a holographic map to the legendary Treasure Planet, which is said to contain “the loot of a thousand worlds,” hidden there ages ago by a scurvy old spacefarer named Flint. Soon he and Doppler, who is intrigued by the idea of being first to discover the famed planet, have chartered a Cutty Sark-style-spaceship of their own, whose skipper, a sort of Victorian Catwoman named Captain Amelia (Emma Thompson), is none too thrilled by the lawless nature of the crew Dr. Doppler has assembled. Jim is similarly put off when he meets his new boss, ship’s cook John Silver (Brian Murray), who happens to be a one-legged, one-eyed half-cyborg. But when he overhears Silver discussing mutiny with the other unruly crew members, he knows he’s in for more adventure than he had in mind.

This movie boasts all the amenities of any Disney cartoon of the last 10 years, including the endlessly impressive digital animation, the anachronistic wisecracking, the nice musical score by James Newton Howard (with a few unmemorable songs by Goo Goo Dolls vocalist John Rzeznik), and the energetic performance of its vocal cast. Memorable characters are a given when you consider the source material, and in addition to those adapted from the book, there are some new additions, including a spidery-looking alien villain named Skroopf (voiced by Michael Wincott), a pint-sized gelatinous mass called Morph who can assume any shape he desires (Dane A. Davis), and B.E.N., or Bio-Electronic Navigator (Martin Short), a hilariously malfunctioning C-3PO-type robot who steals virtually every scene he’s in with a characterization not unlike Short’s classic Ed Grimley from SCTV.

But with all of its charms, this film lacks the sparkle, and to some extent the originality, of other latter-day Disney cartoons. It borrows liberally from Aladdin—the entire climactic final action sequence is basically a re-working of the “cave of wonders” scene from that film, and the Morph character bears more than a passing resemblance to Genie (although Davis’s characterization is not nearly as spirited or flamboyant as that of Robin Williams). While Gordon-Levitt does fine with his delivery, his part is not written as a character we can really fall in love with; meanwhile some of the other characters and relationships are tritely stereotyped. Put it this way: of all the versions of Treasure Island produced since 1912, this is surely far from the worst. But it’s not nearly the best, either. ***½

Copyright 2002 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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