Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Small Gems: Treasure Planet

Note: I call this film a ‘small gem’ because it’s relatively obscure, older, or just doesn’t seem to warrant a full review, but which I nonetheless found interesting or impressive enough to talk about.

                The other day, purely out of curiosity and a few haltingly promising reports, I watched Disney’s mega-flop Treasure Planet. It was really rather shockingly good. I mean, I wouldn’t call it one of the top ten Disney animated films of all time, but it’s a solid story, an actually pretty faithful adaptation of Stevenson’s book, and boasts some of the most spectacular animation of any Disney film that I can remember.
                The set up is more or less the same as the book: ambitious young Jim Hawkins (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is given a treasure map by dying pirate Billy Bones (Patrick McGoohan in his final performance before his death), which he uses to charter a ship to seek the treasure of the legendary Captain Flint. During the voyage, he has a job as a cabin boy under the watchful eye of the ship’s cook, Mr. Silver (Brian Murray), with whom he strikes up an unexpected friendship, despite the fact that Bones had warned him to beware of a man exactly matching Silver’s description. Little does he know, however, that Silver is in fact a pirate, as is most of the crew, and that he is planning to lead a mutiny to take the treasure for himself.
                The twist, though, is that the action has been reset from the 18th century to the far future, and instead of wooden ships and iron men, you have galleys that sail among the stars and a whole galaxy worth of aliens serving as the crew (Jim and his mother are the only straight-up humans we meet). Whereas in the book Silver was a one-legged man, here he’s a cyborg with mechanical arm, leg, and eye. Instead of his talking parrot, Captain Flint (named for the legendary pirate), he has a shape-shifting little blob called Morph (“from Proteus 3:” nice reference). And where the book featured a journey to a mysterious island, the film is a trip to a strange planet where Flint has stashed “the loot of a thousand worlds.”
                The result of this clash of past and future is a breathtaking, almost surreal exercise in style and imagination. There isn’t the slightest effort at scientific accuracy, and that’s for the best because then we wouldn’t have had the image of 18th century sailing ships drifting among the stars or riding a long-boat into the tail of a comet like it was a restless sea, or the ship weathering a supernova and black hole at the same time (I think the very existence of that scene probably made Stephen Hawking cry, but it was totally worth it). The film doesn’t even bother to address the question of how anyone is breathing in space. Accuracy isn’t the point; style is, and the film delivers that in spades. It’s a triumph of visual imagination set free from any constraints or concerns about possibility.
Not only that, but the animation is unlike any I’ve seen before or since: a combination of computer and hand-drawn animation that allows for startling camera-movements and intricate detail that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. Early on there’s a moment where the characters run up the stairs and through a door, and the camera follows them through the space and you suddenly realize that that scene would have been impossible with traditional animation. It’s a small taste of things to come.
                Really, the film is worth seeing just for the visuals. But how about the story? Surprisingly enough, they get it pretty much exactly right. Even as they soften it slightly (particularly Silver’s character) and render it a bit more topically specific, they still manage to convey the two key things that made the book a classic: namely, the unabashed adventurism and the complex relationship between Jim and Silver.
                It’s the latter that gives the story its heart. Here Silver becomes a kind of surrogate father to Jim, whose own father had abandoned him and his mother years before (the film is rather startlingly blunt about this point, and the subsequent negative effect it had on Jim’s maturity). This, of course, will make things complicated for both of them when Silver leads his mutiny.
                In the meantime, though, Silver sets about teaching Jim to be a man: making him learn responsibility and hard work, pricking his ego, passing on knowledge, and building him up where he needs it. It’s a really lovely relationship, and the film takes the time to let it grow and mature, so that when the betrayal comes, we feel it all the more and are genuinely interested in how each character will react.
                I was a little surprised to find how well the film follows the book, up to including classic scenes like Jim overhearing Silver’s plans while hiding in the apple barrel, the siege between the mutineers and the loyal crew that ends unexpectedly, and Jim’s lethal confrontation with an especially nasty one of the pirates (though, this being a Disney animated feature, Jim does not, alas, ‘blow his brains out’). Of course, the apples in this case are some bizarre purple substance, the siege involves laser weaponry, and the nasty pirate is a spider-crab-type deal.
                One of the marks of a faithful adaptation, I think, is that you can trace how certain elements were changed for the new medium: thus doomed first-mate Mr. Arrow (a dissipated drunk in the book) is here changed to a stalwart type to better emphasize the evil character of the pirates, the captain has been turned female (and feline) to lend a bit more diversity to the cast (and though I generally find this sort of thing annoying, I think it works out very well here, largely thanks to Emma Thompson’s excellent voice work), and an action-packed climax has been added, putting Jim in center stage. All this is a way of saying that you can see them following the book and making adjustments as they go along, rather than simply taking ideas or situations piecemeal as many Disney adaptations do. As a matter of fact, an argument could be made that this is Disney’s most faithful animated adaptation ever (oddly enough). I would have to check on that, but none of the others spring immediately to mind as a serious contender for the title. The mere fact that you can see how it follows the storyline of the book puts it in very narrow company (this isn’t necessarily a criticism of other Disney films, by the way, but it must be admitted that, for better or for worse, they tend to play very fast and loose with source material).
In a way, it reminds me of The Great Mouse Detective, in that it serves as a crackling good adaptation precisely by being an oblique adaptation (for Great Mouse Detective it was the Sherlock Holmes mythos, through the intervening medium of a series of children’s books): that is, an adaptation that takes the core structure of the story, but changes some key factor. Here it’s the setting: the high seas in the age of piracy become the heavens in the far future. This actually can be a very helpful tool: it allows the creators to exercise their imagination in transplanting the tale rather than altering it. ‘Straight’ adaptations sometimes fall flat by either being route and unimaginative, or by adding so many interpretive spins and additions that they break the story. Here, by simply moving Treasure Island into space, the filmmakers are able to exercise their creativity to the full while still allowing Stevenson’s classic to shine through.  
                There are, of course, drawbacks. Some things aren’t really established properly, such as why Jim is assigned duty as cabin boy when he’s one of the men who chartered the expedition in the first place. Though I enjoy ‘cute imitation’ humor probably more than most, I must admit that Morph feels oddly out of place, design wise: he’s too cute and, well, cartoonish (shades of the snowman from Frozen). The book’s character of Ben Gunn, the half-mad marooned sailor Jim meets on the island, has been translated into BEN; a damaged robot left behind on the planet. Like the book’s Ben, BEN has been driven near-mad by isolation, which in his case translates to erratic, loud behavior and a fondness for giving out hugs. Personally, I thought he was pretty funny, but judging by other reviews most people find him almost unbearably annoying. Let’s call it your mileage may vary.
                One thing I especially appreciated was that the film allowed the male characters to be actually heroic and, well, masculine. Yes, yes, I know the tradition is to praise films where the female characters are allowed to be heroic, but let’s face it; that’s all-but a given these days. Much less common is a movie where the men are allowed to actually act like men. That is, we expect our young hero to save the day, but we don’t necessarily expect him to make tough moral choices or learn the value of hard work. We expect badassery from the super-competent cat-like captain voiced by Emma Thompson, but we don’t expect cool-headed heroism from the comic-relief dog-faced doctor voiced by David Hyde Pierce. We expect our main antagonist to have way-cool weaponry and the ability to cow a spider-crab monster into submission, but we don’t really expect him to be a source of simple virtue and common wisdom.
                So, in the end, I’m not saying Treasure Planet is a great film, like Beauty and the Beast or Sleeping Beauty. But it’s a good one; on a par with The Great Mouse Detective or Lilo and Stitch: one of that small, motley crew of off-beat, inventive, non-formula films that showed Disney trying its wings, stretching its muscles, and attempting to do something different with its animated features. Give it a try!
Final Rating: 4/5

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