10 December 2009

DISNEY ANIMATION: WANT TO TOUCH THINGS I DON'T FEEL

Now, here is a situation that I do not understand whatsoever: after completing Aladdin in 1992 and witnessing as it became the highest-grossing animated film ever produced at that, and still one of only two traditionally-animated features to break $200 million at the U.S. box office, directors Ron Clements and John Musker tried for the third time to sell their bosses at the Walt Disney Company on their long-held dream project, "Treasure Island in space". And for the third time, their bosses said "no", but as did not happen in the immediate aftermath of The Great Mouse Detective and The Little Mermaid, the corporate overlords were a little bit willing to play ball: like the evil stepmother in Cinderella, they presented the two men with an IF. IF they would make one more project of the company's choosing, and IF it was a financial success, then the Treasure Island project would get the green light.

The result of that bargain was Hercules, a not-half-bad comedy that didn't entirely see the directors holding up their end of the bargain: it didn't lose money, but it was certainly no Aladdin-sized hit. Indeed, it had the lowest domestic gross of any Disney film in the 1990s, and all told ended up making just a wee smidgen more than half of Clements and Musker's (Clusker, that's what I was calling them, that's right) previous smash hit, internationally. Here's the bit that I don't understand: despite Clusker thus demonstrating the sudden loss of their golden touch, and despite the fact that the suits had never seen the box-office potential in the Treasure Island project, they still went ahead and gave the okay to that project, maybe just so they could get the directors to shut up about it already, maybe because it fit into the sudden strange emphasis on science-fiction narratives that also resulted in Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Lilo & Stitch. But the strangest part is that, after dragging their heels on the project for so long, the executives poured such an outlandish amount of money into it now: with a budget north of $140 million, it was the second most expensive Disney animated feature ever produced, behind only Tarzan.

It did not return their good faith investment.

Released in November, 2002, during a period when the upper echelons of Disney's management were starting to turn on each other like hyenas, Treasure Planet debuted to muted favorable reviews and intense audience disinterest. Its American box office take was an icy $38 million, and international receipts only boost that number to a grand total of $109,578,115 - the most dramatically unsuccessful Disney animated feature ever released. It couldn't even out-perform the tawdry DisneyToon Studios theatrical sequel Return to Never Land, released in February of the same year. By most accounts, it was the money-sucking failure of this project that led directly to the announcement early in 2003 that traditional, "2-D" animation was no longer going to be practiced at the studio that, since 1928, had done so much to define and perfect the American style of that artform; once the last two Disney projects well along in development, Brother Bear and the problem-ridden Home on the Range, were released, it was going to be all CGI, all the time. From the instant that this decision was made, it was obvious that the corporation had learned exactly the wrong lesson from its financial struggles in the first years of the 2000s - they were blaming the medium for the failure of their movies, rather than mismanagement, a hideously corrupt set of core values, and an executive mentality that had become incomprehensibly fixated on courting teenage boys, just about the only market segment guaranteed to stay away from fully animated features (but a mostly-CGI "live-action" feature like the disgusting Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen? The little fuckers eat that right up). As I said, though, this was a difficult time for the upper management: Michael Eisner and Roy E. Disney were at each other's throats over everything, and it was at this time Eisner's marketing-driven approach that was winning out, and not Disney's "Boy, my Uncle Walt sure was a genius" enthusiasm. So the destruction of traditional animation was probably a fait accompli from the moment that Shrek did its little tap-dance at the box office in 2001.

If I could go back in time to late 2002, knowing what I know, I would do just about anything to make sure that Treasure Planet turned a profit; yes, I would even go to see it in a theater (I skipped it at the time, as I skipped Lilo & Stitch: my pronounced aversion to Atlantis was enough to finally kill my interest in Disney animation, despite clinging to it all throughout my adolescence. When I finally saw the film, it was on DVD three years later, part of a boozy weekend at my then-girlfriend's home, at which point I also saw Home on the Range for the first time; bless her dear mother for doggedly buying every Disney theatrical animated project, no matter how dubious. I will not, incidentally, claim that Treasure Planet led directly to the end of our two-year relationship, but we broke up only about a month later. Telling, no?).

Aye, I would indeed love to have history re-writ, that Treasure Planet might have been a hit and that 2-D Disney animation might not have suffered its five-year period in the wilderness; but at the same time, if there is one thing I do not like, it is to see film executives rewarded for their stupidity, and pouring out that kind of money on a film so conceptually awful as Treasure Planet was a stupidity indeed - if any single project was going to end a 74-year-old tradition of excellence, I can hardly name a better one. It's not the simple notion of "Treasure Island in space" that's bothersome - though I certainly cannot understand why Clements and Musker were so damned attached to it for over a decade, the idea is not without merit - but the hypnotically dreadful specifics of the story and the universe in which the story takes place. I like to say, in my generous moods, "There are no poor concepts, only the poor execution of concepts," but Treasure Planet stymies me: spaceships that look like galleons, complete with open decks and sails, now that's a concept that wouldn't work if you took the DNA of Michael Curtiz, Steven Spielberg and James Cameron, and genetically engineered a perfect director whose only purpose in life was to make sci-fi pirate movies, and asked him to direct the thing.

This is the point where I must concede that plenty of people don't have the same problem I do with this concept. Like I said, though I can hardly believe it even after confirming the fact, Treasure Planet had generally positive if fairly unenthusiastic reviews in 2002, and it enjoys a small but robust cult following - just look at the IMDb message boards for the movie, and observe the number of people bemoaning how terribly overlooked it is, how it's the most underrated of all Disney features, how unfair it is that shoddy marketing and a terrible release date (smack dab between Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers) left it unable to recoup its huge budget. I do not begrudge these people their opinion. Long I learned that even as there is no movie so well-made that it is truly universally acclaimed (I personally know people who dislike Casablanca and The Rules of the Game), so too is there no film, no matter how toxic its reputation, that is hated by every single person that has seen it. And despite what it may sometimes seem, I don't want anyone to dislike any movie, even if I personally hate it: the world is a better place when people are made happy by the movies they see, and it is a comfort to know that Treasure Planet has given real joy to someone. But even so I'm not ashamed of my own opinion, which is that this is the worst of all the traditionally-animated Disney films. I cannot go quite so far as to say that it's the worst of all Disney animated films, period - I haven't yet seen Chicken Little, which enjoys a still more notorious reputation. Though at the same time, calling Treasure Planet a "traditional" animation without further analysis is disingenuous: the film boasts a far more ambitious and comprehensive mixture of hand-drawn and computer-generated images than any other movie I can name, and it's a hybrid sort of a thing as much as anything else.

I should hasten to add that Treasure Planet is not completely and unforgivably terrible: at the very least, it has story that holds up pretty well, as it should. It's no accident that Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island remains a classic, hard upon 130 years since its first publication; the story of the adventurous boy Jim Hawkins and his quasi-familial bonding with the charismatic mutineer Long John Silver remains one of the most emotionally complex situations in all of children's literature. Besides that, everybody likes pirates. My point being, all that the writers (Clements, Musker, Rob Edwards, and on story duty, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio - Aladdin vets who were shortly to become superstars thanks to Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl) had to do was to stay the hell out of Stevenson's way, which they do rather more often than not. Really, take out the sci-fi thing, and this counts as decently faithful version of the infinitely-adapted novel (among those adaptations being the first-ever all live-action film ever released by Disney, in 1950; this version remains my favorite, in fact). There are certain unavoidable concessions to streamlining the plot and changing the emotional stakes (the whole matter of Jim's father is treated altogether differently in this movie; the opening act is quite a bit less plot-heavy), but this is perhaps the most faithful of the studio's adaptations since all the way back in the '50s, with Peter Pan.

As such, the basic dramatic situation and characters can't help but work, although the filmmakers try awfully hard to make Jim Hawkins (voiced in his one scene as a boy by Austin Majors, and as a young man by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) completely unbearable. So in that very important respect, Treasure Planet isn't an utter & absolute wreck. Indeed, thanks to very sensitive and good vocal performances by Gordon-Levitt and Brian Murray as John Silver, the relationship between the two central character honestly does work, and it is moving, and all that. It is not the only thing about Treasure Planet that works, either, although it is the only part that makes me feel a touch guilty for the absolute disdain in which I hold the project.

Truth be told, the animation isn't half-bad either: none of the characters are particularly outstanding, although several of them have some very nice acting moments scattered here and there. John Silver in particular is worthy of note, for a number of reasons: he was the last character supervised by Glen Keane, who remains with Disney although he did not work on The Princess and the Frog, and appears to have fully transitioned into more of a leadership and directing position than remaining in the animation trenches, as evidenced by his shepherding role in the anticipated 2010 release Rapunzel. Silver also found Keane having to co-ordinate his work with Eric Daniels, a technician who joined Disney as a computer specialist for Tarzan, and was here the lead CGI animator for Silver's cybernetic arm, leg, eye and ear, a blend of hand-drawn and computer-generated animation (painted over in CAPS to match the traditional drawings) never attempted before or since - and while the results are not across-the-board successful (the eye especially seems to float atop Silver's face just as often as it look like a part of it), it is still heartening to see the Disney animators finding new ways to exploit technological advances for their art.

As befits Keane's longstanding position as one of Disney's greatest animators of the '80s, and '90s, his work on Silver is the best in the movie. His whole career was founded on two stones: his characters like the bear in The Fox and the Hound or the Beast, large and imposing physical presences that dominate and threaten; and his characters like Ariel and Aladdin, characters with a tremendous collection of facial expressions, delicate and subtle, and greatly evocative. Silver is a good combination of those two separate branches of Keane's art: as some sort of hulking almost-human alien, he moves about with a great deal of presence and authority, hefty and massive; but on his mushy face (more than a little suggestive of Wallace Beery's in the '34 Treasure Island) we see little twitches of emotion, particularly in regard to his increasingly fatherly feelings towards Jim, that can melt your heart a little bit. Jim himself is a pretty good example of animation, supervised by John Ripa (who unlike many Disney animators of the old school, was actually able to make the jump into CGI features; he was a supervisor for Meet the Robinsons); he has the wide and expressive eyes typical of Renaissance and post-Renaissance Disney protagonists (he doubtlessly gets them from his mother, who looks uncannily like Ariel), and they are well-used to express his ambivalence and confusion at this whole "growing up" thing. I do not, however, have any use for Jim's design; in a terrible attempt to make him "hip", he was given extremely dated and silly-looking hair, and his face is weirdly proportioned.

Outside of these two, the animation throughout is not quite at the level one would hope for a 2002, $140 million Disney feature; it is for a start a significant step down in quality from Tarzan, which feels like the right movie to compare it to for a number of reasons. For a start, they're the two projects to use the Deep Canvas software most extensively (Atlantis makes only subtle, occasional use of Deep Canvas; I do not remember that any other films beside these three use it at all); and the character design in Treasure Planet seems like something of a return to the Tarzan style, after three diversions: the sassy cartoonish lines of The Emperor's New Groove, the harsh angles of Atlantis and the dreamy softness of Lilo & Stitch. Even the use of CAPS for lighting effects is a throwback to the Renaissance style, after those same three features played around with CAPS in some decidedly non-standard ways.

Deep Canvas gets quite a hefty work-out in Treasure Planet: the ships are all made using that technology, as are most of the interiors. It's nowhere near as effective here as in Tarzan, mostly because the directors get a little drunk on the possibilities, and so there are a great many weird camera movements that wouldn't be possible in older 2-D animation, and wouldn't really be desirable in live-action; it's movement for the sake of it, calling attention to how awesome it is that the "camera" can zip backwards up a flight of stairs, for example, without considering if that is the shot which properly serves that moment (it is not, in the case I am thinking of). And it turns out when you use Deep Canvas indiscriminately, it starts to look really obvious, making Treasure Planet a throwback in another way: not since Pocahontas has a Disney film suffered so from CG effects that aren't properly integrated with the hand-drawn animation. Considering that this was exactly the flaw that Deep Canvas was meant to solve, it's a bit disappointing to see Treasure Planet stumble on that front.

In fact, the use of CG throughout is shockingly amateurish. Far too often, the characters and the computer elements appear to be in two separate planes of reality; then there are issues like a crash-landing on the planet of the title, in which the lifeboat our heroes ride in glides and skips in a manner that makes it entirely clear that it has no actual mass - obviously, it's in an animated film, but one of the things the best Disney animation excels at is suggesting weight and physicality, and to see that violated so horribly - that which I named is not the only time that a CG model will appear to be insubstantial as a bubble, though it is the most distracting such moment - is one of the bitterest disappointments of this film. Particularly since there's so many computer-generated environments, often in situations where hand-painted flat backgrounds would have worked just as well.

But all other considerations aside, Treasure Planet's failure, for me, ultimately comes down to issues so fundamental and theoretical that they needed to be addressed at the first stages of pre-production. For a start, it is a film that seems not to know its own audience: the emphasis on action, things exploding, and the presence of a phenomenally terrible song written and performed by John Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls all indicate a young adult or teenaged target audience, while the inordinately cute comic relief Morph, a pink blog that can turn into anything that functions as John Silver's parrot in this version, has come from something much closer in demographic to your Lilo & Stitch. David Hyde Pierce's Dr. Doppler (a dog-alien astrophysicist, standing in for both Dr. Livesey and Squire Trelawney) offers another kind of malapropism-based comedy that doesn't have a particular age-group associated with it, and Martin Short plays the marooned robot B.E.N., whose screaming neurotic personality and drama queen hysterics prove him aimed squarely at those viewers who hate life. Man, I could say some terrible things about that robot. I will content myself with the observation that a being made up entirely of (theoretically rigid) metal ought not be subject to the rules of "squash and stretch" animation.

More damningly, for my tastes, is the film's absolute failure at universe-building - this is one of the most important tasks for any science-fiction narrative, to build a world that functions according to certain rules that are consistently maintained. Treasure Planet arguably achieves that, for things certainly appear consistent - but whatever the rules are, the audience never, ever gets to see them. The biggest one is of course that goddamn "tall ships in space" conceit that, I understand, some people think looks imaginative and beautiful. Me, I think it's gaudy as hell and one of the most dramatic misfires in Disney history. But even that isn't the core issue: that's the question of, What kind of culture would build these ships? In what world does this actually make sense as a design mentality? We learn exactly why it's a bad idea when various crewmen go tumbling off the deck, or float up to their doom in the absence of the artificial gravity field. We never learn why it's a good idea, or exactly how it is that these characters aren't suffocating (the filmmakers have mentioned here and there that the universe of Treasure Planet is thick in something called "Etherium", an outer space atmosphere. Setting aside the insane physics of that, because it's a cartoon fantasy, I think that's a nifty idea, but boy, it would be awesome if I'd learned that from watching the movie, and not from the Wikipedia page.

In essence, the film is nothing but a tumbling mess of ideas that look pretty cool and that is it: they make no sense, have not deeper meaning for the characters, plot, or emotional fabric of the movie, and they MAKE NO SENSE. I don't want to harp on that, but Jesus, it's such an important part of making a sci-fi picture, and the filmmakers drop the ball so readily... like, why, if books are holographic projectors, do you still need to turn the page at a certain point? And how does the book indicate that it's time to turn? Why does every single alien race we see have only one representative, except for the two humans, Jim and his mother. The answer to that one is, because that's how it was in the Star Wars cantina scene, and Treasure Planet is an unabashed member of that large and mostly undistinguished subgenre of science fiction, the "blindly ripping-off Star Wars" movies. It is pretty weirdly cynical that there is only one prominent human character, and he's the protagonist: why not make him an alien too, which would fit the story logic better, or make a couple more humans, here and there, which would also solve the problem of having one representative of a whole bunch of species, one of the more tiresome tropes in the genre.

In short: everything is busy and colorful and chaotic and full of imaginative touches and weirdly marvelous things, and it all lacks a soul - even stealing the soul from Robert Louis Stevenson, it still lacks a soul. There's too much stimulation, signifying nothing: the film suffers from the being overweighted by the massive explosion of creativity of two directors who'd been privately nurturing the story for at least 12 years by the time they finally got a chance to make it, and were so eager when their chance finally came that the forgot or didn't care about putting some kind of brake on their creativity - they never stopped to ask, "Yes, but why do we do this? Why the cat-woman with Emma Thompson's voice who looks just like Jane from Tarzan? Why put a supernova right in the middle of the plot, especially when we do not understand how supernovae work? Why, other than because it allows for an awesome transition, should this spaceport be shaped like a crescent moon?" Why, why, why, why. Whys pour off the movie without end, absolutely smothering its decent story and pretty animation. There is simply too much of Treasure Planet, and none of it fits together except in some catch-all bucket marked "in science fiction, you can do this." It is like stepping forth, in an explosion of colors, weird body shapes and bad comedy, into somebody else's migraine.

10 comments:

Rob Niven said...

I have to admit, the premise behind Treasure Planet worked really well for me. Stevenson's book was always one of my favorite growing up and there's nothing in cinema I love more than Star Wars.

Long story short, this movie did not work. I'm glad for your review because you helped me identify a few of the things I couldn't put my finger on but knew I disliked. It's just such a disappointment because I think the concept could almost work. Unfortunately, as you pointed out, most of the good qualities of Stevenson's work were tossed aside for slap-stick gags and big explosions.

...and why oh why were the spaceships old-style galleons?!

Tim said...

When they decided to wrap things up by blowing up the damn planet, that's when you know that they had other priorities in mind than paying full tribute to Stevenson.

The Caustic Ignostic said...

[Begin Geeky Speculation]

It's always been painfully apparent to this Dungeons & Dragons geek that Treasure Planet borrows much of its fantasy-cum-science-fiction rules and aesthetic from the Spelljammer campaign setting, which boiled down to the superficially loathsome high concept of "Dungeons & Dragon: IN SPACE!" In actuality, Spelljammer was a highly enjoyable, fairly original universe, with a robust swashbuckling tone to it. The "galleon sailing through outer space" visual was a staple of Spelljammer. It worked because within the context of the setting's hefty product line, the authors actually provided some, you know, justification for this visual. They developed an elaborate "fantasy physics" for their setting, based on a combination of Aristotelian and medieval cosmology, and thought carefully about how Middle Age cultures with access to magic would change when exposed to inter-planetary travel. It wasn't exactly *thoughtful*, but you could tell that some thought had been put into it.

The point being, I guess, that there is the nugget of an interesting science fiction setting here, but that an animated feature film is a terrible, terrible medium for conveying it, particularly when one has to shoehorn in excruciating comedy relief, pop songs, and other garbage.

[End Geeky Speculation]

Oliver said...

Holy shit, this sounds like exactly the sort of indefensible garbage that I love without reservation, but always defend from a critical platform. Like The Spirit. I'm going to have to watch this.

Meg said...

I watched this movie at the behest of previously-mentioned female steampunk friends, and good lord would I never do it again. The most enjoyable parts of viewing it (for me, at least), was going "a ha!" at various lit nerd recognising the plot of the source material moments, and making fun of Jim's hair.

javi75 said...

I guess I'm a simpleton but I find it mind-boggling (in a good funny way) that you would ask yourself so many questions about the universe the movie presents and how it works. Well, I guess I may do it with other movies were something stands-out and bothers me but it doesn't happen here.

All in all, after so much disparaging, I think this is a fairly positive review. You say the story is fairly well adapted and it kind of works emotionally. That would be the bottom line of any movie for me.

You fault the movie for being science-fiction and then not making any sense out of its science, but I believe this movie is not really sci-fi, it's not about science, the story is that of the book (altered and so on, but so to speak). I believe he ships in the movie sail through space instead of through the sea just to give the visuals a spin. To make it look "cool". I think there's nothing else to it, and it's true the sci-fi context really doesn't interplay with the story, and I understand the problem in that, but don't care much. I just enjoy the visuals for what they are.

Daniel said...

One thing to add on Treasure Planet’s lack of commercial success – it was released about the same time as The Santa Clause 2, another Disney film, and although I have no idea if they were actually competing for the same marketing dollars, the sense I got at the time was that Disney threw everything it had at Santa Clause and next to nothing at Treasure Planet. Nobody saw it because nobody knew about it.

Normally I’d agree about the importance of universe-building in sci fi but I don’t think that this movie is particularly guilty of it. I think the “etherium” concept was clear enough even without having a name to attach to it. I had a much tougher time accepting the physics of Jim’s rocket-powered hoverboard.

Overall I liked it.

The.Watcher said...

Tim, you are absolutely correct in every critique you brought forth.
But for some reason, I enjoyed this movie. Not loved, certainly, but I did like this movie more than any other Disney picture in the 00's (except maybe Stitch).

I certainly didn't find anything appealing in Princess and the Frog. Or any other Princess movie from Disney's canon.

Jim Miles said...

I have to say that I disagree with your review in about every way. I think TREASURE PLANET is a masterpiece. Like box office bombs FANTASIA, BAMBI, and ALICE IN WONDERLAND, TREASURE PLANET will survive to be appreciated in the future.

At this time in Disney history, the studio was trying to expand its outlook. The biggest sins of TREASURE PLANET and ATLANTIS (which is also very enjoyable, if not perfect) were to not present animation stories that fell into the realm of what people expected from a "cartoon."

JD said...

@Jim Miles:
You forget the one thing that elevates this movie above all those you mentioned, and perhaps even the brilliant successes of "Snow White" and "Dumbo" and "The Little Mermaid!" The thing lifting this feature into a most rarified standing, not only amongst animated features but the entire filmmaking canon, a work of sublime beauty that will be spoken of for generations! You forget...fart aliens.


Seriously, though, I watched it with an open mind, and I tied to like it, but it just never came together. I almost--almost!--liked the setting; adding some dash of fantasy to a swashbuckling adventure plot could've worked well if they had built it on a solid aesthetic. Make it steampunk and keep the fantastical machinery, commit to the sci-fi angle and keep the aliens and spaceships and supernovae--hell, drop the teenage audience focus and make it another fantastical talking-animal feature, and you could've made a world consistent enough to earn the suspension of disbelief, and use that as a springboard into whatever ridiculous gimmicks you wanted. But instead, you end up with a mishmash of the three that fails to keep a viewer interested when the plot sags (i.e., whenver John isn't around), and raises all sorts of distracting niggling questions (in addition to the ones in the review, I found myself wondering why John needed to go below deck to retrieve his spyglass when he had a hi-def automatic-zoom robot eye, and how a poor lowlife buccaneer like him ends up with a piece of heavy weaponry in his Swiss-Army-arm, but only uses it once, to bust down a door).

And what the hell was B.E.N. there for? I admit that I haven't read the source material--did Robert Louis Stevenson inserted an unpleasant screaming shitty comic-relief character two-thirds of the way through the story who serves almost no narrative function yet still gets treated like a hero in the original story?

The one thing I felt that actually worked--and again, I don't know how much credit goes to Stevenson's original--was John, who effectively steals every scene he's in, both as a hellacious treasure-minded freebooter and as a hardened old man softening up as he takes a wayward soul under his wing. He's also one of the few characters I can think of in the Disney canon who can't be classified as a straightforward good guy/bad guy, mentoring the protagonist at one point, and plotting to kill him at another to keep his own dream alive (only Kaa comes close to playing both sides for his own means, and I think that was more of a product of an aimless script than of characterization) and he actually brings some welcome emotional complexity into another "surly teenager is The Chosen One" narrative. Unfortunately, when he's not on screen, it's either sulking Jim, well-worn slapstick, or awkwardly composited hand-drawn/CGI shots that are probably supposed to be breathtaking but instead look like properties ripped from the old PC game Myst.


All in all, it sounds a bit like everyone's other favorite Disney fiasco, John Carter: a director (or directors) clings tightly to a pet project for a decade, finally earns the stamp of approval, proceeds to get drunk on possibilities, comes up with a movie with an unappealingly generic name that scratches his/their ridiculously specific itch but fails to appeal to anyone else at all, and winds up costing the company somewhere north of $100mil.