THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


At one time, Walt Disney Pictures effortlessly ruled the roost when it came to family films. These days, the studio has to fend off highly successful franchises belonging to other studios, such as Warners' Harry Potter series, or DreamWorks' Shrek. When Disney came up with the idea for Treasure Planet, the studio execs probably thought they had a sure-fire winner - a retelling of Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island" set in outer space. But despite a lot of sophisticated razzle-dazzle, the movie is ultra-traditional and therefore somewhat dull. Instead of breaking new ground, the film plays it too safe.

The main character is Jim Hawkins (voiced by Joseph Gordon Levitt), a teenage ne'er-do-well who yearns to prove himself to his disappointed mother. (Like most Disney heroes, Jim is the product of a single-parent home.) One afternoon, he comes into possession of a mystical orb that, when manipulated properly, reveals a map to Treasure Planet. It has long been rumored that such a planet existed but no one has ever proven it. Supposedly, the place is filled with untold riches.

Young explorer Jim Hawkins meets a robot named B.E.N. (voiced by Martin Short) in Walt Disney's Treasure Planet
Jim desperately wants to find the planet; he sees it as a chance to redeem himself. With the help of family friend Doctor Doppler (David Hyde Pierce), he charters a ship and a crew. Important members include Captain Amelia (Emma Thompson), a shapeshifting blob, and a droid named John Silver (Brian Murray) who plans to stage a mutiny and claim the treasure for himself. The trail eventually does lead to the title world, where Jim meets a silly robot named B.E.N. (Martin Short, in full screech mode). A battle rages for ownership of the endless gold and jewels that are found.

Treasure Planet is not a bad movie by any means, but it isn't up to Disney standards. For starters, I couldn't figure out why anyone felt the need to interpret "Treasure Island" as a sci-fi adventure. The concept is ill-conceived from the start, as it has no apparent logical purpose. Sure, the sight of giant pirate ships sailing through space is cool, but mostly the concept seems cynical. I couldn't escape the feeling that it was done simply because no one believed today's kids would gel to this story unless it was dressed up in a lot of flashiness.

Maybe the idea would have seemed better had the film not been trumped by Titan A.E. - a superior animated sci-fi adventure from a few years ago. I kept thinking back to that picture and realizing how much more I enjoyed it. Disney's own underrated Atlantis: The Lost Empire was also similar, combining action and animation in a more satisfying and imaginative way.

Perhaps most notably, Treasure Planet lacks a single compelling character. Jim Hawkins is a bore. There's nothing about him that draws you in; he's a standard Disney hero, minus the charisma. He has something to prove, which of course he accomplishes in very predictable ways. Even the supporting characters are blah. The aliens are particularly unoriginal; how many creatures with multiple eyes or appendages can we see in movies? The movie needs a character the audience can get invested in. Sadly, there's no Aladdin, no Simba, no Stitch here.

I've noticed that Disney has incorporated more computer animation into their movies. Combining CGI with traditional hand-drawn animation worked in small doses, such as the way it was used in Beauty and the Beast's stunning ballroom scene. CGI is used a lot here, to give the movie a high-tech look. I actually thought it was used too much, to the point where it was distracting. I've become so accepting of the fact that technology can be amazing that I'm almost more impressed by intricate low-tech.

Despite my handful of criticisms, Disney movies are rarely (if ever) downright unredeemable. Treasure Planet has nice animation, to be sure. The last half-hour improves dramatically as the action cranks up to an admittedly involving level. And there are two good songs courtesy of John Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls. In other words, Treasure Planet is not a movie without its charms.

However, it is also a movie that doesn't reach the level of most Disney animated features. It is merely passable, as opposed to great. This summer, I greatly admired the studio's Lilo & Stitch, which showed innovation in both animation and story telling. Treasure Planet feels like a step backward - a familiar story told in a familiar way. Most Disney flicks work on an adult level; I don't feel like I need a kid to lug into the theatre with me. This time, I felt like I needed a kid.

( 1/2 out of four)

Treasure Planet is rated PG for adventure action and peril. The running time is 1 hour and 35 minutes.

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