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Why "Treasure Planet" tanked

Jim Hill

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Why "Treasure Planet" tanked

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So what IS the deal with "Treasure Planet?"

I mean, here you have a film that was crafted by Disney Feature Animation vets Ron Clements and John Musker. The directing duo that brought us "The Great Mouse Detective," "The Little Mermaid," "Aladdin," and "Hercules."

This was also the project that had master animator Glen Keane -- the guy who brought Ariel to life, not to mention the Beast in "Beauty and the Beast" as well as the title characters in "Aladdin," "Pocahontas," and "Tarzan" -- working at the very top of his game.

Then you had the infamous Walt Disney marketing department (which -- if it put its mind to it -- probably COULD sell ice to Eskimos) spreading the word far and wide for "Treasure Planet."

So here you have this new Disney animated movie that the company's top talent put together, that was being relentlessly promoted by the Mouse's marketing machine. That seems like a surefire recipe for box office success, doesn't it?

And yet "Treasure Planet" has been greeted with a collective shrug by American moviegoers. As of this past weekend, the film has only grossed $35,820,872.

So what exactly went wrong here? Why isn't this movie about space-going buccaneers pulling in lots of gold for the Mouse? Over the past couple of weeks, I've heard dozens of theories. Some folks have suggested that "Treasure Planet" under-performed because it was actually a summer movie mistakenly released in the depth of November. Still other folks are suggesting that the Mouse made a tactical error in putting "TP" out in theaters when there were already so many strong kid-friendly films (like Warner Brother's "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" and Disney's own "Santa Clause II") out in the marketplace.

I've also had some industry insiders tell me that it was a grave error for the "Treasure Planet" production team to turn Jim Hawkins in an angst-ridden teen. That the film might have been a much bigger success if Disney had just followed Robert Louis Stevenson's lead and kept Jim Hawkins a kid. (As a counter-point to this theory, I should point out that I have two 12-year old nieces -- Mary and Rebecca -- who absolutely love Jim Hawkins in "Treasure Planet." They think that the brooding teen that Disney animator John Ripa dreamed up is a really cutie. Which is why they have a poster of Jim solar-surfing tacked up to their bedroom wall and why they listen to the "Treasure Planet" soundtrack constantly. So Ripa's take on the character clearly connected with at least some members of the audience. Anyway ... )

Other theories I've heard about the film's failure include:

"They should have gotten a celebrity to do the voice of Long John Silver. That would have at least given Disney another way to promote the picture."

"Pirate pictures are box office poison these days. I mean, look what happened with that Geena Davis movie, "Cutthroat Island." That was a legendary bomb. People just don't go in for this swashbuckling stuff anymore." (This theory will, of course, not make the folks who are currently in the middle of post production on Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean," the film that the Mouse hopes will be its big blockbuster for the Summer of 2003, very happy.)

"To put it bluntly, 'Treasure Planet' lacked heart. The movie itself looked great. The animation was top notch, as was the film's design. But I never found myself getting caught up in the story. I never made an emotional connection to the characters."

Well, certainly the comment above appears to have a bit of validity. I've heard from a number of animation insiders who suggest that the reason that "Lilo & Stitch" was readily embraced by moviegoers this past summer while "Treasure Planet" left would-be audience members cold was that "Lilo" had heart. That thanks to the storytelling skills of Chris Sanders, Dean Deblois and the rest of the team down at Disney Feature Animation-Florida, audiences really came to care about what happened to that lonely little Hawaiian girl and her extra terrestrial "doggie."

Of course, to be fair, I should also point out that "Lilo & Stitch" had the benefit of one of the more innovative movie promotional campaigns that Walt Disney Studios has ever mounted. A full six months before "Stitch" officially debuted at your local multiplex, that obnoxious little alien was knocking down chandeliers in faux "Beauty and the Beast" trailers, horning in on Aladdin's action by taking Princess Jasmine out for a joy ride in his intergalactic hot rod, hanging ten with Ariel, even subbing for Simba during his presentation at Pride Rock.

You see what I'm getting at? These teaser ads for "Lilo & Stitch" were highly effective. They made moviegoers think -- long before they headed to the movie theater -- that "L&S" was going to be a very different animated film from Walt Disney Studios. Which is (perhaps) why so many folks went out to the cinema last summer. To see what all the fuss was about.

Whereas "Treasure Planet" ... well, that film's promotional campaign tried very hard to give people the impression that this movie was NOT in fact "Atlantis II." Which is why (I'm guessing) that all the advertising for "TP" seemed to prominently feature Jim Hawkins out performing dangerous stunts on his solar surfer. As if the Mouse's marketing department had hoped that -- by repeatedly highlighting this footage -- extreme sports fans would have no choice but to embrace this movie.

Unfortunately, that didn't happen. With the possible exception of my two 12-year old nieces, it didn't seem to like there are any demographic group who embraced this film whole heartedly.

"If that's really the case, Jim, then how did 'Treasure Planet' end up pulling in $35 million?," I hear you asking. Ah, this is where it starts to get interesting, folks. According to internal Disney Studio documents that were passed along to me earlier this week, the only reason that "Treasure Planet" has done as well as it has is because of folks like you. The hardcore Disneyana fan. The big time animation buffs. It seems like you're the only ones who actually went out of their way to catch "TP" during its initial theatrical release.

So why did the rest of the viewing public opt to take a pass on "Treasure Planet"? Again, another interesting wrinkle: according to Disney's own marketing surveys, the number one reason that people said they were opting not to see this movie while it was in theaters was because they were eventually intending to buy "Treasure Planet" when the film came out on video or DVD.

Imagine Mickey's horror when he learned this: that consumers had finally caught on to the Walt Disney Company's release patterns. (As in: 3 to 9 months after every new Disney feature length animated film appears in theaters, the Mouse always puts this same film up for sale at your local Wal-Mart and/or Target in the home video or DVD format.)

Gone are the days when -- if you didn't catch a Disney animated cartoon while it was out in theaters -- you'd have to wait another seven years before you got a chance to see this movie again. Nowadays, just like clockwork, the video and DVD version of every film predictably pops up for sale, just a few months after the film falls out of theaters.

You see what I'm saying here, people? The urgency is gone. Consumers are all too aware that if they miss out on taking the kids to the movies to go see the latest Disney animated feature, that it's really no great loss.

This explains why the Walt Disney Company has been so eager to embrace the idea of exhibiting its newest animated films in the IMAX format. Thereby creating a cinematic experience (Jim Hawkins solar surfing on a screen 10 stories high!) that the typical consumer would never be able to replicate with their own home entertainment system. This plan will (hopefully) turn going out to see a new Disney film while it's in theaters back into a special occasion again.

Sadly, this gambit didn't seem to work with "Treasure Planet" (I.E. "TP" was the very first new Disney feature length animated film to make its debut at both conventional sized screens as well in as the large screen format on the very same day).

So what's the Mouse going to do to try and turn this situation around? Clearly, the Walt Disney Company isn't going to abandon its highly lucrative practice of putting its latest animated features up for sale in the home video and DVD format as soon as humanly possible. To be honest, the Mouse now relies quite heavily on the cash that it receives from the sale of these DVDs and videos to bolster the corporation's bottom line.

I mean, why else do you think that that the home video and DVD version of "Lilo & Stitch" hit store shelves on December 3rd, a full eight weeks before this film was originally supposed to go on sale to consumers? 2002 had been a really lousy year for the Mouse House. Which is why Disney CEO Michael Eisner was counting on those pre-Christmas sales of "L&S" to help the Walt Disney Company look like it was doing a lot better than it actually was.

Anyway ... clearly, something needs to be done to improve the box office performance of Disney's newer animated films during their initial theatrical release. Some way has to be found to compel audiences to come out to their local multiplex to see these movies prior to their inevitable release on home video and DVD.

Now, a somewhat cynical person might say "Well, Jim, if the Walt Disney Company wants the theatrical audience for its newer animated films to come back, maybe the studio should start by trying to tell better stories." Me, personally? I don't buy that. Why? Because I think that "Treasure Planet" actually did have a pretty good story. One that moviegoers actually would have enjoyed if they'd just gotten up off of their couches and went out to their local multiplex.

But -- since it's obvious that moviegoers haven't exactly been all that enthusiastic about the subject matter of the studio's last few animated features -- WDFA is in the process of regrouping. Mapping out different strategies for the next five to seven years worth of releases.

What sorts of different strategies? Well, one battle plan calls for Disney Feature Animation to return to its roots. Which -- of course -- means a return of the musical fairy tale.

After all, if "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast," and "Aladdin" helped to kick-start the Second Golden Age of Disney Feature Animation, it stands to reason that another series of movies that are based on the stories of Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm could possibly help usher in the Third Golden Age. Toward this end, WDFA currently has movies that are based on the tales of Chicken Little, Rapunzel and the Snow Queen in development.

Disney's also looking to take advantage of any and all promotional opportunities that may come the company's way. Take for example, WDFA's recent decision to swap the release dates of its upcoming releases, "Home on the Range" and "Bears."

Contrary to rumor, this move was not made because "Home on the Range" is still bedeviled with story problems. (Actually, now that Roseanne is in place to provide the voice for the film's lead cow, I'm told that this project has finally begun to gel. And that -- with a little bit of luck -- "Home on the Range" may now end up being one of the funnier films that WDFA has ever produced. Here's hoping, anyhow...) But rather, because Disney thought that they saw a primo promotional opportunity for "Bears" this fall with the upcoming release of the Platinum edition of "The Lion King."

See if you can follow this logic: Disney reportedly feels that it will be very easy to sell people on the idea of going out to their local theater to see "Bears" this coming November if they just tack a trailer for that film onto every copy of the home video and DVD version of "The Lion King." Evidently, the thinking in Burbank seems to be: "Hey, if people liked "The Lion King" enough to buy the Platinum Edition of that film, they're the perfect target audience for 'Bears.' So let's strike while the iron is hot."

Another somewhat disturbing trend is -- since Pixar projects like "Toy Story," "a bug's life,' "Toy Story II" and "Monsters, Inc." as well as Fox's "Ice Age" have done so well during their theatrical releases -- that executives at WDFA are reportedly flirting with the idea of abandoning traditional animation in favor of the studio making most of its upcoming feature length cartoons in the CG format.

To quote one WDFA insider: "Look, if a piece of crap like 'Ice Age' can make $176 million during its domestic release, while something as sensational as 'Treasure Planet' has to struggle to pull in $35 million, clearly audiences' tastes have changed. So Disney has to change with the times. Otherwise, it risks losing its core audience."

Me personally, I think that the real reason that "Ice Age" did so well this past spring wasn't because the film was done in CG. I mean, if that was really the case, then why did "Final Fantasy" perform so miserably at the box office?

The way I see it, "Ice Age" became a hit because it was promoted so cleverly. Both in theaters (were you like me, that as soon as you saw that Scrat trailer, you knew that you just had to see this movie?) as well as with all those TV commercials that Fox had air during the 2002 Winter Olympics. But more importantly, this film had great word of mouth.

Of course, it's easy for a movie to have great word of word when a film's as entertaining as "Ice Age" was. Loaded with laughs and -- more importantly -- heart, this Blue Sky Studios production deserved every dollar that it pulled in (and whoever it was who came up with the idea of casting Ray Romano as the voice of Manny the Mammoth deserves a promotion right now).

Mind you, as you may recall reading in an earlier JimHillMedia.com column, the Walt Disney Company actually had a shot at acquiring "Ice Age" away from Fox. (Why for? Because Fox management -- honestly, no joke intended here, folks -- apparently got cold feet when it came to the idea of actually releasing this full length animated film.) But the Mouse took a pass on this CG project, preferring to stick with a sure thing like "Treasure Planet."

Well -- as we now all know -- "Treasure Planet" wasn't exactly a sure thing. Though this film is hardly the flop that the financial press (and the Walt Disney Company's own management) would have you believe it is.

You see, with a project like "Treasure Planet," it's important to remember that -- what with the money that Disney will make off of the overseas release of "TP," plus factoring in the monies that will eventually be made off of pay-per-view, home video and DVD sales, the awarding of network broadcasting rights and the like -- that the money that a movie makes off of its initial domestic release is really just the beginning. Truth be told, these days, the domestic gross only accounts for about 1/5th of a film's eventual earning power.

So -- if you can follow that math -- it stands to reason that "Treasure Planet" (just like those other historic Disney under-performers like the original "Fantasia" and "Sleeping Beauty") will eventually make some big bucks for the Mouse. This just means that the Walt Disney Company may have to wait a few years longer than it had orifinally intended before it gets a return on its $74 million (Or was it $140 million? Or even $170 million? Disney spokespeople seem to be playing extremely fast and loose these days whenever they discuss "Treasure Planet"'s alleged production costs with the press) investment.

My apologies if this has been a somewhat more methodical -- rather than emotional -- discussion as to why "Treasure Planet" didn't exactly haul in Flint's treasure during its initial domestic release. Perhaps this has been a lot drier story than you were expecting. My apologies. But my goal here was to avoid much of the histrionics that currently surround most discussions of this movie.

"What histrionics am I talking about?" Well, get on Google and type in "Disney Treasure Planet." I'm sure -- if you poke around long enough -- you'll eventually come across some website where the "TP" conspiracy theorists are at play. These are the folks who will tell you about how the Walt Disney Company deliberately torpedoed "Treasure Planet" so that it would make it that much easier for the corporation to abandon traditional animation entirely. So that the studio would now have a solid excuse for its decision to totally CG in the not-so-distant future.

This sort of talk (and I'm trying to be polite here) is patently ridiculous, people. Why for? Because real life isn't like "The Producers" -- where people deliberately create a flop with the hope that they'll be able to profit from this project someday further on down the line.

This is especially true of the crew over at Walt Disney Feature Animation, where people sometimes labor for five, six or seven years to complete production of an individual animated feature. These guys pour all their art and energy into these films because they sincerely hope that the project will eventually connect with an audience. When that doesn't happen ... there's broken hearts up and down the food chain. From the executive who actually greenlit production of the picture right down to the assistant clean-up artist who made sure that Doppler's glasses looked the same all the way through the film.

When you get right down to it, I guess there really isn't a single easy answer as to why "Treasure Planet" failed to catch on with moviegoers during its initial domestic release. But then ... sometimes things like this just happen in Hollywood. Good animated movies -- great ones, even -- get inexplicably overlooked. I mean, look what happened to "Cats Don't Dance" and "The Iron Giant." Both wonderful movies that died a dog's death at the box office ... all because audiences wouldn't come out to see them.

Anywho ... in the ugly aftermath of "Treasure Planet"'s under-performance, I'm honestly hoping that execs at WDFA will at least do the smart thing. Which is NOT to blame Ron Clements and John Musker for what happened with their movie. Because if Disney were to ever make the mistake of letting Ron'n'John walk out the door (when you just know that Jeffrey Katzenberg and the team over at Dreamworks SKG would greet these guys with open arms) ... well, it would be a tragedy right up there with Disney letting the Brizzi brothers and Eric Goldberg get away.

Speaking of Dreamworks ... I've heard from a variety of sources that folks over at that studio aren't taking much pleasure in "Treasure Planet"'s difficulties at the domestic box office. Why for? Because Dreamworks' next traditionally animated film -- "Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas" -- has been described as "'Treasure Planet' without the flying pirate ships." Which is why I hear that Dreamworks execs are now desperately casting about for a bold new ad campaign to help sell this picture.

What's the problem with the old campaign? Well, have you seen the initial teaser poster for "Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas?" It features a silhouette of Sinbad hanging off of the mast of his ship. Which bears a striking resemblance to the final version of the "Treasure Planet" poster that Disney's marketing staff created for that movie.

Dreamworks execs are reportedly worried that -- if the posters for these two pictures actually look the same -- moviegoers may end up confusing the two movies. Which means that "Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas" could end up suffering the same fate as "Treasure Planet."

Will "Sinbad" end up under-performing just like "TP?" Well, we'll know for sure come June 27th when this Dreamworks picture finally sails into view at your local multiplex.

Anyway ... hopefully, this piece shed some light on all the controversies that are currently swirling around Disney's "Treasure Planet."

Soooo ... what's your take on the situation?

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  • Wow - hindsight really is hilarious. 'People just don't go for swashbuckling anymore?' The Pirates of the Carribean team should be worried? They were about to change the world. Funny how things work ;)

  • Yeah this article is very interesting to read over a decade later. It seems Disney actually did abandon traditional animation after Home on the Range (which sucked), since they've only released Princess and the Frog and Winnie the Pooh since then. Now, most of the 2D projects by Disney are straight-to-DVD sequels, which makes sense after reading this. And yep-- Sinbad flopped. Outside of Anime, there are very few 2D animated movies out now, and Treasure Planet was essentially the movie that started the whole shebang (though 2D movie grosses had been decreasing already; Treasure Planet just so happened to have a gigantic budget).

  • I think "Treasure Planet" was superior storywise than "Lilo & Stitch". "Treasure Planet" had a more cohesive story, while "Lilo & Stitch" was quite muddled. As the matter of fact, I thought "Treasure Planet" was superior to "Lilo" in every single way.

  • Treasure Planet is probably one of the best disney movies of all. the movie was just unlucky to find the proper time of releasing and so many other movies were released on the same period. My conclusion is..... Treasure Planet is an amazing movie, I am going to love it for the rest of my life and no one can stop me from doing so. Also, the main charcater, Jim Hawkins, is cute XD

  • Over a decade later, Pirates of the Caribbean is one of Disney's most popular franchises. Looking forward to the new one coming soon!

  • "...But rather, because Disney thought that they saw a primo promotional opportunity for "Bears" this fall with the upcoming release of the Platinum edition of "The Lion King."..." This probably wouldn't be so bad, had the DVD of "Treasure Planet" not include a teaser trailer of the film, in that instance not called "Bears" but by it's then-new name "Brother Bear"; the teaser was reminiscent of the trailers of 1990s Disney animated movies such as "Aladdin" and "Hercules" among others, complete with unfinished animation and quick behind the scenes footage. The trailer on the Platinum "Lion King" set had more complete footage from the film but also doing away with the behind the scenes business and unfinshed animation.

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