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Setting Sail with Walt in Mind: Treasure Planet

Setting Sail with Walt in Mind: Treasure Planet

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EDITOR'S NOTE: What a treat it is to have Rhett Wickham join us as our special guest today. Those of you who are familiar with the insightful and entertaining articles that Wickham has already contributed to LaughingPlace.com are no doubt aware of Rhett's unique take on the animation industry. As an actual industry insider, Wickham has a real appreciation for the artistry (as well as all the nuts and bolts stuff) that goes into the creation of a feature length animated film. Which is why it was so gratifying -- as well as disturbing -- for me to read the following feature by Rhett.

You see, this is an enthusiastic review and commentary of "Treasure Planet." But at the same time, there's some genuinely disturbing info folded into this piece as well. The stories about how key creative personnel at WDFA are being allowed to slip away to other studios, how the legendary studio machinery that cranked out this gem is being systemically dismantled ... all just to save a few bucks.

Here's hoping that you folk enjoy this piece as much as I did. With any amount of luck, maybe we all can "persuade" Rhett to start contributing regular features to JimHillMedia.com. Well, here's hoping anyway.

Read and enjoy!


In a techno privileged and co-dependent 21st century, it seems that the old struggles harder than ever to keep pace with the new. Judges can barely hand down decisions on the likes of Microsoft before the technology is passé. But for moviegoers - and Disney animation fans in particular - the new has been struggling for decades now to keep pace with the old. The imprint of the patriarch's hand is something fans long for at a time when Disney the company seems to have drifted farther and farther from Disney the founder and his unique cinematic ideology in particular.

Well, if you're among that longing crowd (and I think everyone is to some degree) then look no further than "Treasure Planet." For here, at the close of the second chapter of Disney Animation, is a film so "like Walt", so true to his vision (and yet also uniquely of this present generation of artists) that it is cause for celebration. From its starry opening shot, to a touching final frame that echoes what many of the new generation must see when they look for Walt in the clouds, the film is rich in classic style and grace.

Robert Louis Stevenson's adventure tale "Treasure Island" has quite possibly mesmerized more boys holding more flashlights under more bed covers late at night than any other literary classic. I'd dare say the navies of the world are still littered with countless young sailors who first tasted the stinging salt air of adventure through Jim Hawkins, no matter how far inland they lived.

But the sea doesn't hold the allure it did for our ancestors. The greatest adventure possible on the ocean these days may be braving a tour on the Disney Cruise Lines with only one change of clothes and little more than enough spending cash to tip the staff each night. Outer space on the other hand still holds great mystery, in spite of how many visual effects houses have insisted on populating the multi-plexes of the nation with their version of what lies beyond the stars. The fact remains that only an easily comprehended number of us have actually ventured beyond the atmosphere of our planet Earth. Out there is the unknown, the unseen, the daunting and the daring all surrounded by a thick black darkness in which stars twinkle and danger looms unseen, where dreams are sent to wishes made on distant lights and angry demons wait in hiding like the monsters under our beds at night. Here from the ground we look up into the ink of space and, if we stand still just long enough we can actually feel it - great adventure!

So it is that movies, like space, should have a mesmerizing effect on the child in all of us. "Treasure Planet" is spellbinding in its scope and compelling in its storytelling. It is also one of the most moving of the Disney films, and certainly pulls at your heart without being cloying or pat. The directors have overcome the near impossible task of creating a young male/older male mentor relationship that doesn't swim in sloppy sentimentality, but still causes adult viewers to risk tearing up. More than one father will be insisting his family stay seated through the credits so that he can have a few moments to compose himself before hitting the red-eye revealing glare of lobby lights.

Like "Cinderella," Disney's "Treasure Planet" has a literal storybook opening. Only we don't discover this until we're shown a young Jim Hawkins at age three captivated by a great pirate tale told to him by his holographic storybook which animates the story (and conveniently lights itself under the covers) and comes to life with a resonant and appropriately baritone narrator. This modern marvel that threatens to make "hooked on phonics" obsolete is heard recounting the days when merchant ships sailed the galaxies laden with glittering cargo, only to find themselves prey to Captain Flint - an optometrist's nightmare of eight eyes and a skeletal frame swathed in 18th century finery, complete with tri-corner hat and waist sash. But young Jim soon cross fades into teenage Jim 12 years later who resembles, in all imaginable ways, every thrill seeking, self-absorbed, authority testing boy who was ever poised precariously on the edge of manhood. When he is dragged home by robotic constables for violating probation and trespassing on his solar surfer, we quickly begin to see his working mother's dilemma - a fatherless son in an ever expanding and dangerous social play pen is just waiting to become a juvenile statistic. If this sounds familiar, it should. It's been going on well before the 18th century, but like so much else in "Treasure Planet" it has the ring of our modern world.

The former artistic director of the Yale Rep, Lloyd Richards, once commented that a good resident theatre company has an obligation to produce plays relevant to its community. The real test, wrote Richards, was if he could look at the audience sitting in the theatre just before curtain on any given night, and then walk out in front of the theatre and see the same mix of people walking in the streets. (A tough thing to achieve if you know anything about New Haven.) Well at the time "Treasure Planet" was being completed, Walt Disney Feature Animation was an awful lot like a repertory theatre company for the large community. And "Treasure Planet" more than any other Disney film of recent years, is most likely to draw in an audience that reflects the larger population, and entertain that audience with something relevant as well as mythic. Sadly, that repertory theatre company was blindly dismantled in a penny-wise pound foolish downsizing, but I'll save that extended commentary for another time.

Over and over the film succeeds in reflecting the world in which its audience is living while taking them far enough away from it to not feel like "just another troubled teen movie." Although impossible to predict, the film is so perfectly balanced between then and now that it may well outlive its contemporaries to remain as entertaining and delightful a parable for generations who will look at its holographic maps and solar powered sailing ships and think "Gosh, remember those?!"

This well crafted re-telling of pirates and treasure, of promises broken and self-reliance discovered has everything a great fairy tale has - unseen lands peopled by characters we never knew existed, death and mysterious tales told by firelight, fatherless children and surrogates larger than life. And most of all - a compelling, surprising, rewarding story. A great story with a great backdrop, to boot! Set in the future of yesterday and the past of tomorrow thanks to a magnificent vision guided by art director Andy Gaskill. Influenced by the Brandywine school of painters like Howard Pyle, Maxfield Parrish and NC Wyeth, the film glows with a lush and luminous pirate treasure palette. But this is an 18th century where when it's storming outside you crank your windows to show a sunny flower filled meadow rather than draw the curtains. Not a Star Trek holodeck meadow, but an impressionist's stained glass meadow complete with the sound of birds in the distant trees that fits perfectly with the sense and sensibility of its inhabitants.

The inhabitants themselves are equally as complex and compelling. David Hyde Pierce lends his voice to a Kevin Kline-like canine astro-physicist named Dr. Doppler. Supervising animator Sergio Pablos, who brought Tantor the elephant to life in Disney's "Tarzan", turns in a spot-on performance that opens up Hyde Pierce's snotty tones to reveal one of the most original Disney characters in years. Musker and Clements have cleverly combined Squire Trelawny and Dr. Livesey of Stevenson's novel and made him a single character who is far more interesting and much less stuffy, not to mention less confusing as the characters in the novel always seemed to be longing to meld into one. Pablos and Hyde Pierce give a priceless nod to another star trekking doctor that is so perfectly set up that you'll never see it coming (and may likely miss a moment or two of dialogue thanks to the best laugh line in the film.)

Martin Short and CG animator Ozkar Urretabizkaia turn old Ben Gunn into B.E.N., a bio-electronic navigator who was long ago abandoned by Flint on this distant planet. One circuit short of being a toaster, B.E.N. provides delicious staccato counterpoint to the sullen teenage Hawkins and never trips while walking the requisite tightrope of silly sidekickdom required in every Disney adventure.

Doppler's social foil, the space galleon's captain, is cleverly transformed from the novel's stiff-lipped Trafalgar-like Captain Smollett into a she-lion alien named Captain Amelia. Emma Thompson provided the vocal characterization for master animator Ken Duncan's swan song in a long line of great Disney heroines - including Meg in "Hercules" and Jane in "Tarzan." (Sadly, Duncan has defected to the browner pastures of DreamWorks where, like his defectors before him such as the once brilliant James Baxter, his talent risks going to waste or to seed. Duncan is the best animation actor of his generation to give life to female characters. Amelia is dead-on his best work to date. Too bad he's unlikely to get another plum like this ever again if he remains under Jeffrey Katzenberg's not so nimble animated thumb.)

The good news is that right on Duncan's heels is John Ripa, who thankfully has raised his craft to its highest level with his performance as Jim Hawkins. Ripa's only other supervising animator work was on "Tarzan" where he guided baby and young Tarzan. He bumps it up a few dozen notches with Hawkins, and rises above a perfectly fine but fairly by-the-book vocal turn by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. This is the kind of break-out animation acting that sets the stage for a third generation of Disney artists to bring life to the screen for another twenty years. We eagerly await his next work as Ripa is presently training on MAYA and the proprietary Disney CG animation system so that he can bring his talent to bear on new characters using new tools.

It is the perfect blending of these tools - much like the film's perfect blend of antique and visionary - that stands out above all else. The hand in glove or flesh in circuitry fit of Glen Keane and Eric Daniels is as close to perfect as anything on screen this season. Literally working on either side of the same character - Keane on the hand drawn John Silver, and Daniels on the cyborg pirate's CG animated mechanical arm, eye and leg - the artists had quite a challenge. They overcame it with seamless perfection. However, collaborative efforts aside, this is Keane's baby and there's no doubt about it. Glen Keane is pound for pound and hair for hair, the most accomplished actor in any film this year, and it's a sad thing that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences can't recognize his performance by nominating him alongside his more recognizable on-camera counterparts. Long John Silver is a marvel of animation acting that surpasses all of Keane's previous work. He breathes rich and complicated life into this character that makes him the most believable and complex performance of an already illustrious career. While Silver is frenetic and sometimes even manic, he is always thinking and always alive with detail behind the eyes (or eye, as it were) and not just bouncing about to keep us from spotting the illusion of moving drawings. The character work here is so deeply layered with active and dynamic choices at every moment that this is an Oscar caliber performance, hand drawn but never once drawing attention to the fact it is "animated." It's breathtaking. This more so than the Beast or Tarzan secures the artist a place in history that I would be willing to argue makes him the greatest animator of any generation past, present or future - truly. And I repeat, the most compelling and accomplished personal work of any actor in Hollywood this season.

James Newton Howard has composed a score that supports the film without ever overwhelming us, but a hideous Johnny Rzeznik song comes very close to ruining a terrific montage that shows how Jim's relationship with Silver matures. When asked why he wrote a song for a Disney animated film Rzeznik replied "because long after my band is gone and forgotten that song and movie will still be here." I only hope they let James Newton Howard write something to replace it at some point in the future, once they realize exactly how quickly the band will be (and the song should be) forgotten. It's the one misstep in an otherwise crisply and carefully paced picture.

Ron Clements has spent nearly three decades at Disney telling great stories. "Treasure Planet" has been a dream of his for decades. This film is Clements' and partner John Musker's best story telling effort since "The Little Mermaid" (which, for my money, is still the most solid and satisfying screenplay in the "new" Disney oeuvre) and the closest thing to classic story telling we're likely to see from Disney for a while. Clements and Musker just might be the best directors at the studio. They've got a blue-ribbon recipe for mixing adventure, drama, slapstick and a touch of soap that makes their work perfect for the medium. Their influence on the Disney brand can't be ignored and hopefully will continue for years to come.

"Treasure Planet" is a film Walt would have loved and that would have given him a tough time deciding in which Disney-land its inspired attraction should reside; Tomorrowland or Adventureland? Let's just pray it's not sequel-land. This is an adventure that should be left as is and not subjected to some horrible direct-to-video mess. Leave the performances and near-perfect closing shot un-scathed by franchise mania. Walt would have known to leave it where Stevenson did, as a journey we want to take again and again. I hope audiences will do just that. "Treasure Planet" is well worth discovering in either its standard issue format or IMAX, and you should skip the same old balloons and floats on television this Thanksgiving morning and take either the child or the child within to see it.

Walt Disney Pictures Presents "Treasure Planet"
Directed by John Musker and Ron Clements
Produced by Roy Conli, John Musker & Ron Clements
Adapted from the novel Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
Screenplay by Ron Clements & John Musker and Rob Edwards
Animation Story by Ron Clements & John Musker and Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio
Original Score Composed by James Newton Howard
Associate Producer: Peter Del Vecho
Edited by Michael Kelly
Art Direction by Andy Gaskill
Running time: 94 minutes.
Rated PG for adventure action and peril, but is suitable for all ages.

CAST (in alphabetical order)
Character Voice Artist Supervising Animator
B.E.N. Martin Short Oskar Urretabizkaia
Billy Bone Patrick McGoohan Nancy Beiman
Captain Amelia Emma Thompson Ken Stuart Duncan
Captain Flint & his crew   John Pomeroy
Doctor Doppler David Hyde Pierce Sergio Pablos
Hands Michael McShane Marc Smith
Jim Hawkins Joseph Gordon-Levitt John Ripa
John Silver Brian Murray Glen Keane
Morph Dane A. Davis Michael Show
Mr. Arrow Roscoe Lee Browne T. Daniel Hofstedt
Narrator Tony Jay  
Onus Corey Burton Brian Ferguson
Sarah Laurie Metcalf Jared Beckstrand
Scroop Michael Wincott Ken Stuart Duncan
Silver's Crew   Adam Dykstra & Ellen Woodbury
Young Jim Austin Majors John Ripa
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