Treasure Planet

Voices of Joseph-Gordon Levitt, Brian Murray, David Hyde Pierce, Martin Short, Emma Thompson. Directed by John Musker and Ron Clements. Aspect ratio: 1.66:1 (anamorphic). Dolby Digital 5.1, THX. 95 minutes. 2002. Walt Disney Home Video 00348. PG. $29.99.

A clever adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's classic novel Treasure Island, Treasure Planet was a classic box-office disappointment—taking in less, according to some reports, than Disney spent to promote it, much less produce it. It's hard to say why, though the competition offered by the latest installments of the ongoing Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings sagas might have had something to do with it. More likely, however, were the demographics. The science-fiction trappings of the film would normally be a sure-fire hit with teenage boys, but most teenage boys wouldn't be caught dead watching an animated film.

For those of us who love great animation, however, there's a lot to like here. The vocal characterizations are solid, particularly Martin Short's hilarious work as BEN, the long-marooned Bio-Electronic Navigator from Captain Flint's pirate crew. The story has been moved from the high seas to the high frontier. Jim Hawkins' search for hidden treasure takes him not to an uncharted island but to an uncharted planet. His nemesis is still Long John Silver, who not only has the standard-issue peg leg but cyborg body parts as well. There are some other nifty sci-fi ideas too, though typically for the genre they're not always original. A portal allowing instantaneous travel to distant parts of space screams Stargate to any card-carrying SF fan.

Interstellar travel in Treasure Planet's universe, however, is not by rocket ship, but by multi-masted sailing ship, propelled by rockets supplemented, of course, by solar sails. There's also, it seems, breathable air in this cosmos (an uncomfortable reminder of Disney's 1979 live-action film, The Black Hole), as well as spacefaring whales and puffy white clouds in a clear blue, um, sky. But if you can suspend your disbelief and accept all of this as simply a leap into fantasy—certainly no more fanciful than the "science" in Harry Potter—you'll have a good time. It may be significant that I enjoyed Treasure Planet far more the second time around (in my home theater) than the first (on its theatrical release). On that first viewing I was put off by the fantasy; on the second, I knew it was coming and could more easily go with it.

My more favorable experience at home may also have been the result of better sound than I heard in the theater. And the sound on this DVD is outstanding. The bass is deep, powerful, and tight. The dialogue is clear, the effects explosive. For the most part, James Newton Howard's music score is crisp and spacious-sounding. The only off-putting elements were two John Rzeznik songs that, for me, were totally inappropriate for the film—shades of Titan A.E. Fortunately, only one of the songs is in the movie itself (scored over the action, not sung by the film's characters—Treasure Planet is not a musical). The other simply clutters up the end credits.

Many of the visuals are stunning as well. The film aggressively mixes vivid, 3-dimensional computer animation with flatter, more traditional hand-drawn images. It's an uneasy marriage, but despite this there are several action scenes that will knock your socks off. I found the film much more effective—and not only in its visuals—than Disney's last attempt at animated sci-fi/fantasy, Atlantis: The Lost Empire. And the direct-to-digital transfer is consistently outstanding; the computer-animated sequences, in particular, looked as good or better at home on my 80-inch-wide screen as they had in a theatrical DLP presentation. I had only one complaint: a poorly located layer change.

While it isn't a "Special Edition," this single-disc release has enough extras to keep most viewers happy. There are deleted scenes (including an alternate ending), behind-the-scenes featurettes (including one hosted by the producer and directors), games for the kids, and more.

The front-loaded trailers that Disney consistently pushes on its DVD customers are also less annoying here than usual, and include a new one for next summer's Disney/Pixar computer-animated release, Finding Nemo. I have a suspicion that the latter will help Disney's bean-counters forget Jim Hawkins and his interstellar adventures.

While you're not likely to confuse Treasure Planet with The Lion King or even Lilo and Stitch, it's a fun trip that deserves a far better reception than it received in theaters. Hopefully it will get it courtesy of this DVD.—TJN