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Disney goes for the gold with "Treasure Planet"

Disney goes for the gold with "Treasure Planet"

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The feature length cartoon that Jeffrey Katzenberg continually tried to stop is finally coming to theaters next month.

For over 15 years now, director Ron Clements has had a dream. To make an animated version of "Treasure Island." Only - this time around - Robert Louis Stevenson's epic adventure would be set in deep space.

This dream of Ron's seemed so flaky to the former head of Disney Studios that Katzenberg repeatedly refused to greenlight an animated film based on Clements' ***-eyed concept. When Ron first brought the idea up after he finished directing "The Great Mouse Detective," Jeffery said "No. Go make 'The Little Mermaid' instead." When "Little Mermaid" opened to great acclaim, Clements again brought up "Treasure Planet." And - again - Katzenberg said "No. Go make 'Aladdin' instead."

Finally, when "Aladdin" opened and was (for its time) the highest grossing animated film in the history of the Walt Disney Company, Clements finally thought that he and his creative partner - Disney Feature Animation veteran John Musker - had a real shot at getting "Treasure Planet" made. But - rather than saying "No" - Katzenberg made a deal that deferred production of Ron's dream project. If the pair would just agree to deliver a more commercial sounding cartoon first (Like - say - one based on the legend of Hercules), the Mouse House mogul would finally agree to let Ron'n'John make their space going pirate picture a few years down the line.

Of course, that was 'way back in the early 1990s. And who could know that Jeffery was fated to leave Disney in September of 1994 to go co-found Dreamworks SKG? Musker and Clements did keep their end of the bargain, by the way. They delivered "Hercules" onto the Mouse House in June 1997, then immediately set to work bringing their wildly imaginative reimagining of Stevenson's classic to life.

The end result of this epic behind-the-scenes struggle sails into "a theater near you" on November 27th. That's when we'll finally learn if Jeffrey Katzenberg's instincts was right. Is "Treasure Planet" really just too wild an idea for audiences to embrace? Or is Ron Clements' dream project going to pour tons of pirate gold into Disney's corporate coffers?

One thing's for certain. An awful lot is riding on the hoped-for success of Disney's "Treasure Planet." The Mouse House really under-performed at the multi-plexes this past summer. While "Lilo & Stitch" and "Signs" both raked in the dough, "Bad Company" didn't do good business, "Reign of Fire" went down in flames and - as for "The Country Bears" ... Well, insert your own lame "grizzly fate" joke here.

Anyway ... Walt Disney Studios really needs a big fat hit right about now. And with Tim Allen once again donning his fat suit, "The Santa Clause 2: The Mrs. Clause" certainly looks like it has the "big, fat" part of that equation covered. That said, no one back in Burbank is entirely certain that this somewhat-overdue sequel to this 1994 Touchstone Pictures release will eventually emerge as a "hit."

Which is why Disney is pinning a lot of its hopes for the end of this year on "Treasure Planet." By that, I mean that Disney CEO Michael Eisner has certainly been talking up this pirate picture. The way I hear it, Uncle Mikey has reportedly been constantly drawing parallels between the Walt Disney Company's performance in 2002 and how Disney did back in 1991. Why for? Well, because 1991 was also a pretty miserable year for the Mouse House, movie-wise.

Can any of you out there remember that seemingly endless string of duds that Disney delivered back in 1991? Here's just a sampling of that year's cinematic stillborns: "Scenes from a Mall," "The Marrying Man," "V.I. Warshawski," "Billy Bathgate," "The Doctor," "Deceived," "Paradise," "Oscar," "The Rocketeer" (Which I actually personally think is a pretty good movie. Even so, "The Rocketeer" - just like all of the rest of the films that I just listed - didn't even come close to covering its production & marketing costs).

But then - on November 22, 1991 - one film came along that turned the whole year around for the Walt Disney Company. Can you name that picture? (What am I saying? You're all Disney dweebs. Of course you can answer that picture. Which was ...) "Beauty and the Beast."

That one film was such a huge hit with the public - moving mountains of merchandise, generating tons of acclaim for the Walt Disney Company - that everyone just seemed to forget about all the awful movies that had preceded it. (Which was a really good thing for Jeffery Katzenberg. Seeing as he was the studio exec who had greenlit all of those flops. If "Beauty" hadn't come along when it did, Mr. K might soon have been out of a job.)

Michael Eisner seems to be hoping that - just like Jeffery Katzenberg did 'way back in 1991 - that his fading professional fortunes can be revived by the soaring success of a single Disney animated film. But will that actually happen? Will Uncle Mikey's ship really come in when "Treasure Planet" floats into view next month?

Maybe.

Disney insiders clearly have lots of differing opinions when it comes to "Treasure Planet"'s chances at the box office. Some animators that I've spoke with say that it's Ron'n'John's "masterwork. It's the very best thing that these guys have ever done."

Still others aren't so optimistic. Or - for that matter - particularly kind. A few studio wags have reportedly dubbed the film "Atlantis Revisited." Which suggests that "Treasure Planet" - with its space based pirate storyline - might have limited appeal and may have trouble luring in audience members who aren't boys 8-13 (The only demographic that actually turned out in great numbers for Disney's summer 2001 release, "Atlantis: The Lost Empire").

Certainly films that appeal to very narrow demographics have a much tougher time recouping their production & marketing costs. I mean, look what happened to Dreamworks SKG's latest animated release, "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron" this past summer. Industry analysts had projected that this feature length cartoon would pull in at least $150 million during its domestic run. Instead, a significant hobbled "Spirit" had to struggle all summer to pull in a meager $73 million.

What went wrong? Industry experts suggest now that - in spite of Dreamworks' valiant attempts to make "Spirit" appeal equally to boys and girls (Katzenberg reportedly told the animators at Dreamworks to pack on the thrills in that picture. Jeffrey was actually quoted as saying that "I want at least six 'Die Hard' moments in this movie. Moments when the audience thinks that there's no way that this horse can survive that.' ") - only little girls who really loved horses made their way to the multi-plexes to see the "Stallion of the Cimarron." As one Dreamworks SKG animator put it to me yesterday: "Of course 'Spirit' only made half as much as it was supposed to. Only half the audience actually showed up."

Which brings us back to "Treasure Planet." Disney's extremely anxious to avoid the half-sized audiences that turned out for "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" and "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron." Which is why the film's promotion got underway in earnest earlier this summer.

But rather than go with a monstrous promotional campaign (like the one that Disney rolled out for Musker and Clements' last movie, "Hercules"), this time around, the Mouse opted for smaller and smarter. Take - for instance - the "Treasure Planet" preview that Mickey rolled out in "Disney Adventures" magazine back in June. For the last few months, tweens who read "DA" have been able to follow the comic book adventures of young Jim Hawkins, a rebellious teen who's trapped on the backwater mining planet of Montressor.

Disney marketing execs hope that this low-key series of comic strips - which actually cover adventures that young Hawkins has on Montressor prior to the start of "Treasure Planet"'s storyline - will help "Disney Adventure" readers bond with Jim's character. Which - it's hoped - will make these tweens that much more likely to drop by their local theater this coming November and go see "TP" (Rather than watch Warners' "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" for the fifth time). A similar series of "DA" comic strips seemed to have a positive impact on "Lilo & Stitch" earlier this year. So Disney's hoping to strike gold once again with DA's "Treasure Planet" preview series.

Another way that Disney hopes to get the girls to come out for "Treasure Planet" is through the film's unusual use of music. Rather than go the tried and true route (Which would have involved recruiting Academy Award winner Alan Menken to churn out yet another series of tunes for their new toon), Ron'n'John opted to go in a different direction. Which is why they recruited poster boy Johnny Rzeznik of the "Goo Goo Dolls" to write & perform two songs for the film.

Why Rzeznik? Well, to hear master animator Glen Keane tell it, once he heard the "Goo Goo Dolls" lead singer belting out "Iris," he just knew that Rzeznik could deliver the goods - vocally, that is - for "Treasure Planet"'s angst-filled central character.

When approached by Disney to write & perform several songs for the film, Johnny was initially extremely hesitant. Rzeznik told the Mouse House reps straight out that "I can't write show tunes." Ron'n'John reportedly then told the pop star that they weren't looking for yet another version of "Part of Your World." But - rather - they needed a song for someone who didn't seem to fit in anywhere. But in that patented "Goo Goo Dolls" style.

In the end, Rzeznik delivered two songs to the film-makers: A fairly melodic pop song called "I'm Still Here" and a more upbeat rock number, "Always Know Where You Are." Johnny also recorded these songs for the film's soundtrack (Though it should be noted here that Rzeznik's version of "Always Know Where You Are" won't be heard during the film itself. But - rather - will play over the film's end credit).

Anyway ... Truth be told, perhaps the most important role that Rzeznik will ultimately in "Treasure Planet"'s production is in early promotion of the picture. How so? Well, Johnny's pop single version of "I'm Still Here" goes into heavy rotation on Top 40 stations nationwide next Monday. The music video version of this same song has already begun airing on VH1. And Disney's seriously counting on the pop star's photogenic face to get that video plenty of air time.

If Rzeznik's recording of "I'm Still Here" actually begins to climb the charts (More importantly, if TV viewers are actually intrigued by the two brief glimpse of "Treasure Planet" footage that appear at the very beginning & tail end of Johnny's "I'm Still Here" video), that sort of exposure will hopefully compel young girls as well as older teens to come out and take a look at "Treasure Planet."

Disney's honestly doing everything that it can think of to try & compel people to come out and see "Treasure Planet." For example: If you're a young boy under 10, the Disney Store's offering you the chance to bond with Jim Hawkins by getting to dress up like him. You too can own this limited edition "Treasure Planet" Halloween costume by shelling out $35.50. (Of course, if you're a 10-year-old with a paunch, you might want to consider slipping into the Long John Silver costume instead. That Disney Store exclusive is only $45.50.)

Or do you prefer to see your movies on a really big screen? If so ... Well, with the hope that this maneuver will help boost "Treasure Planet" 's box office, this Ron'n'John production is going to be the very first Disney animated film to debut on the very same day in both the conventional widescreen format as well as IMAX.

Are you a huge internet fiend? (Well of course you are! Look at how you get your news about the Walt Disney Company ...) Then you're probably going to eventually want to check out TreasurePlanet.com. (To be honest, a great number of the features at this Disney web site hasn't gone live yet. For example, if you click on the "Games" or "Loot" tabs, all you get right now are messages like " Please enter valid coordinates." But - further on down the line - this site shows plenty of interactive promise. You'll supposedly be able to access the manifests of all the crew members of the RLS Legacy. So you can see for yourself the villainous scum that John Silver recruited to help him carry out his horrible plot.)

TreasurePlanet.com - in addition to offering you access to the "Treasure Planet" teaser trailer - also allows you to enter a Caribbean cruise contest. (FYI: I'm not actually sure where this piece fits into the puzzle. But the Disney Catalog tacked this itty-bitty piece of fine print onto a "Treasure Planet" ad: "Join in the treasure hunt and enter to win fabulous prizes at Treasureplanet.com. Enter coordinates: 21-63-213 to win." Where exactly you're supposed to enter these coordinates, I have no idea. But - if you actually do win a Caribbean cruise - be sure to invite me along.)

Anywho ... I know, I know. All of this sounds very impressive. But - no matter how clever a promotional campaign may be - all of the contests, Top 40 songs, hit music videos, interactive web sites and exclusive Halloween costumes in the world won't be enough compel an audience to come out and see a lousy motion picture. So now we come to the real tough question: Is Disney's "Treasure Planet" really any good?

For a detailed answer to that question, come back tomorrow ... please?

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