Treasure Planet (review)

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That Disney Magic

Jim Hawkins may be a guy, but he’s got everything in common with the Disney heroines of the last 13 years: He’s misunderstood. He’s lonely. He’s restless. He wants so much more than one small provincial spaceport can offer. So as Treasure Planet‘s teenaged Jim is introduced to us, soaring joyously free on the air on his jet-powered sailboard through the industrial detritus of the remote backwater of his home planet, we’re with him not just physically — the animation and you- are- there perspective are stunning — but also emotionally: We know this desire to be free, not just from the experience of our own hearts but from every traditionally animated Disney flick of the last decade.
A moviegoing pal of mine calls it “Disney goosebumps,” the awestruck, think-I’m-gonna-cry feeling evoked when the alchemy works and image and music fuse with your imagination and longing to transport you to another world. Almost every hand-drawn Disney movie since The Little Mermaid has had at least one or two moments to make you feel this way. But Treasure Planet doesn’t let up with the Disney goosebumps. This one has instantly been placed in my personal panoply of Disney flicks I’m not embarrassed to bawl my eyes out to, which up to now had included only Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and the recent addition of this summer’s Lilo & Stitch. Treasure Planet is just that wonderful.

The tale here is familiar (you’ve read Robert Louis Stevenson, haven’t you?), but the updating, the Disnification, is brilliant. In moving the story of a boy and his treasure map to a science-fiction realm, Disney has invited its artists to let their imaginations run wild, and Treasure Planet is populated by more aliens than George Lucas ever conceived — the film is like a 90-minute version the Star Wars cantina, only the aliens are funnier, meaner, cuter, uglier. They’re real characters with diverse personalities, not guys in latex masks. And the setting allows for a very Disney “magical sidekick” without making it feel shoehorned in: Morph, an alien blob (and stand-in for Long John Silver’s parrot) who hilariously comments on the action through its imitation of the people (of all planets) and objects around it.

But the team of Disney vets — including codirectors Ron Clements and John Musker — who revised Stevenson knew what elements of the classic to integrate. This is space travel the way Stevenson himself might have imagined it — not scientifically accurate, but charming and swashbuckling, in which sails strung from the masts of galleons catch the solar wind and carry tricorn-wearing creatures to far-off planets in search of the loot of a thousand worlds. It’s a delicious synthesis that recognizes the huge overlap in the fandoms of naval and space adventures, in those who revel to the exploits of both Horatio Hornblower and James Kirk. Treasure Planet has at its heart a romantic, not a realistic, notion, one to stir a bold soul and call him to adventure.

Jim Hawkins (the voice of Joseph Gordon-Levitt) hears the call, of course, and his adventure takes him, but of course, not only far from home but along the path from disaffected teen to mature young man. Happily, Disney has again let the seams out a bit on its Broadway-musical formula, a model that has failed more often than it has succeeded, and instead of Jim singing his heart out at each painful juncture, we get one perfectly constructed animated montage at the halfway point of his inner journey, when he’s gone from being the fatherless kid, — echoing the motherlessness of the typical Disney heroine — to the protege of cyborg spacer John Silver (Brian Murray: Bob Roberts) and is starting to understand what being a man is about. Singing from Jim’s perspective, the Goo Goo Dolls’ John Rzeznik, in the penetrating and catchy “I’m Still Here,” gives us a tune as astute — “And how can the world want me to change / They’re the ones that stay the same” — as anything by Disney’s grandmaster lyricist, Howard Ashman, taking Jim from adolescent withdrawal to an adult demand to be heard. James Newton Howard’s little-bit electric, seminautical, towering, sweeping orchestral score is more traditional, but in taking advantage of the rage of rock, if only in small measure, Treasure Planet moves Disney in a new direction… as does the anime influence in the faces of the human characters, all huge eyes and tiny noses and mouths, and very, very expressive with only the smallest quirks of movement.

I can’t rave about this movie enough. More awesomeness: Some of the most personality-laden voices are put to their best use here: David Hyde Pierce (Full Frontal, Isn’t She Great) as the bookish, canine Dr. Doppler; Emma Thompson (Primary Colors) as the whipsmart feline Captain Amelia; Martin Short (Mumford) as the amnesia, half-crazy robot B.E.N.; Michael Wincott (The Count of Monte Cristo, Alien Resurrection) as the villainous, crablike Scroop. The painted outer-space backgrounds are gorgeous. The story is classic. (Even the ongoing fart joke is actually clever, and that’s something I never thought I’d live to say.) See it in IMAX, if you can — this is the first time a film is being released simultaneously in 35mm and large formats — and as my 8-year-old moviegoing companion, who had never seen an IMAX film before, said in awe: “It’s like you could walk right into the movie.”

Treasure Planet is without question one of the very best movie experiences I’ve had this year. There really is something sorcerous about the Disney magic, when it all comes together, when a simple story becomes profound, when it’s all absolutely perfect that you don’t want to overanalyze it lest that feeling of walking on air that you left the theater with disappears. If you’ve been longing for Disney to find its bearing again, and Lilo & Stitch didn’t do it for you, this is it.

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