‘Treasure Planet’ turns 20: Story of Disney Animation’s great flop

    With a budget of 140 million dollars, ‘Treasure Planet’ was, and still is today, the most expensive 2D animated film in Disney’s history (yes, other 3D animated films would surpass that figure), but its performance in box office did not correspond to such a bet. On the contrary, it was a historic failure for the company (it only raised 109.6 million) and, furthermore, it is often said that it was to blame for the abandonment of traditional animation in favor of new technologies (the latter quite questionable). Not even having two big names in the studio saved her from disaster. Of course, twenty years after its premiere, although it cannot be considered one of the 24 movies that unfairly failed at the box officehas managed to be claimed by some fans, either moved by nostalgia or highlighting some of the merits of its proposal, which also has them.

    rejected three times

    Directors Ron Clements and John Musker had dreamed of bringing this idea to the screen for years. It was about taking ‘Treasure Island’ by Robert Louis Stevenson and taking it to space to give it a fresh air that would attract the public, even telling the same adventure story. And although ‘Treasure Planet’ would not hit theaters until 2002, they presented the idea much earlier, in 1985., along with that of ‘The Little Mermaid’. Disney opted to take viewers under the sea, but Clements and Musker didn’t give up: they took three noes and made ‘Aladdin’ and ‘Hercules‘ until they finally got the yes.

    It was Roy E. Disney himself, president of The Walt Disney Company, who gave them the go-ahead, it is said that in part by hitting Jeffrey Katzenberg, head of the studio at the time and who had rejected the project. But beyond that rivalry, Roy E. Disney had a certain tendency for innovation (he was determined to carry out ‘Fantasia 2000’, another flop of the time although that one cost less than what was collected), especially at a time when the stage of the Disney Renaissance was coming to an end: what had worked in the era of ‘The Lion King’ and ‘Aladdin’ was beginning to fail and they were looking for a way for the public not to flee to other studios.

    A too classic story… or outdated for the time?


    After ‘Tarzan’, which is considered to close that golden age of study, Walt Disney Animation Studios was at a point where it did not know where to go and tried everything with irregular results: digital proposals like ‘Dinosaur’, comedies like ‘The emperor and his follies’ or classic adventures with a touch of fantasy like the one at hand. Also, that rare avis of traditional animation and watercolor when everyone was tending towards 3D, as was ‘Lilo & Stitch’. None of these attempts hit the key.

    Clements and Musker didn’t puzzle over the ‘Treasure Planet’ script. Unlike other Disney classics that reinterpret classic tales or legends beyond recognition (for example, ‘Hercules’ and his reinvention of Greek myths), on this occasion they remained quite faithful to the plot of Stevenson’s novel, the biggest change being that Jim Hawkins is a rebellious teenager abandoned by his father, instead of a child. But overall, he maintains his classic adventure story essence. Maybe too classic for the moment.

    To understand the context in which the failure of ‘Treasure Planet’ happened, we must remember that a year earlier, in 2001, two 3D animated films with a rather casual approach had swept away. On the one hand, ‘SA monsters’ who followed the path of comedies high concept that Pixar had marked with its previous films (and made a gap between All 26 Pixar Movies, Ranked From Worst To Best) and, on the other, ‘Shrek’. Both are examples of what was considered modern and current at that time compared to the classic animation stories that were in the doldrums. Especially ‘Shrek’ had opened a window to a sense of humor that would dominate the box office in those years and that everyone would want to emulate.

    To top, ‘Treasure Planet’ competed in its opening weeks with an impossible rival to beat: ‘Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets’, the second part of a franchise that had children and young people in their pocket.

    His visual proposal: virtue and error

    disney treasure planet


    While the script of ‘Treasure Planet’ is quite predictable and formulaic, one of the most interesting discoveries of the film is its concept and aesthetic proposal (and, paradoxically, also its slab). The directors did not take ‘Treasure Island’ to some spaceships a la ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Star Trekk’, but they kept the pirate movie aesthetic and took sailing ships into outer spacegiving it a rather curious retrofuturistic and dystopian touch.

    The galactic walruses (who star in one of the most beautiful shots), the aliens in almost Victorian clothing or post-apocalyptic worlds, as well as the protagonist who is a kind of skater from the late nineties, are perceived as a constant dialogue between tradition and innovation, past and future, which was just what Disney was experiencing here: If it made sense to mix traditional and digital animation in a movie at the time, it was here. And, certainly, it is one of those that have aged the best in this sense and where the union feels natural.

    Now, the collection of browns, grays and ochres that make up the palette of ‘Treasure Planet’, his drawing style and character design did not quite make it stand out as something unique and was lost among other titles close in time such as ‘Atlantis: The Lost Empire’, from Disney itself, or those watered-down counterattacks from the competition such as ‘Titan AE’ (another galactic flop, this one from Fox) or ‘In Search of Camelot’, ‘The King and I’ and ‘The Iron Giant’ (these are from Warner).

    In crops of nobody

    disney treasure planet


    What started out as a risky concept, ended up in a conservative development and result. The conventionality of the adventure story, which takes us from one side of space to the other without shocks or surprises, together with a group of less than charismatic protagonists, they added up enough flaws for ‘Treasure Planet’ to sink by itself. All in all, Disney achieved an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Film for this film (and another for ‘Lilo & Stitch’ in that same edition), although it did not have much to do with ‘Spirited Away’ from studio Ghibli.

    Perhaps it’s unfair to blame this box office hit for Disney leaving pencil-and-paper animation behind and heading for even more questionable destinations (hello, ‘Chicken Little’), since ‘Lilo & Stitch’ did pretty well. and still could not stop the moment of change. The breakthrough of 3D would most likely have happened even if ‘Treasure Planet’ had been a hit. Yes, one thing would have been different: we would have seen the sequel to this moviewhich was planned but, for obvious reasons, ended up in the trash.

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‘Treasure Planet’ turns 20: Story of Disney Animation’s great flop

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