Only six years since “Muppet Treasure Island” — the last Disney version of the Robert Louis Stevenson classic, already filmed at least 30 times — the Mouse House is back with yet another PG-rated variation. “Treasure Planet” starts with the clever idea of transforming the story into an old-fashioned space opera, and the animated visuals are handily up to the studio’s best. Yet the film’s total appeal may be undercut by a script that rarely feels inspired. Although there’s a hefty built-in audience for this highly accessible entry both theatrical and down the line in video, B.O. is unlikely to match the usual Disney holiday standard.
Among the many previous versions of “Treasure Island,” pic has a specific antecedent in “Treasure Island in Outer Space,” an eight-hour West German/Italo 1987 mini-series directed by Antonio Margheriti (Anthony Dawson) and starring Anthony Quinn and Ernest Borgnine.
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Writers-directors John Musker and Ron Clements and their crew have applied a risky strategy to the transformation of the setting, one that mostly works: While the original book’s ocean has been replaced by outer space, and its rough crew of pirates by a variety of alien space sailors, the filmmakers have retained many of the period elements. The intergalactic space vessels still look like 17th century sailing ships, but with sails powered by solar rays rather than wind. (Everyone, human and alien, seems to breathe quite easily in the interstellar vacuum.)
With a narrator recounting the tale of notorious space pirate Captain Flint and his legendary treasure, viewers quickly learn that what they’re seeing is a futuristic storybook reading itself to a very young Jim Hawkins (Austin Majors). Dissolve to 12 years later: Jim is now a troubled 15-year-old (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) with a penchant for getting in hot water. He lives with his mother (Laurie Metcalf), who has been running a modest inn by herself ever since her husband took a powder some years earlier.
One day Billy Bones (Patrick McGoohan) arrives and promptly expires, leaving an intriguing metal sphere. When Jim accidentally figures out how to open the device, he discovers a holographic 3-D map, presumably leading to the fabled Treasure Planet, where Flint’s loot is stashed.
Of course, Long John Silver (Brian Murray) and his pirate buddies aren’t far behind. After they arrive in search of the map and end up burning down the inn, Jim decides to venture off to Treasure Planet, accompanied by the fussy, dog-like Doctor Doppler (David Hyde Pierce).
They hire a ship, under the command of the feline Captain Amelia (Emma Thompson), and her first mate, Mr. Arrow (Roscoe Lee Browne). Unfortunately, crew includes Long John Silver and his gang, who plan to mutiny and take the treasure for themselves.
Musker and Clements have been very faithful to the original story. With the exception of a romantic subplot involving the doggy Doppler and the catty Captain, “Treasure Planet” cleaves closely to Stevenson’s tried-and-true plot.
It would have been easy to simply convert everything into its science-fiction equivalent, but the result would have been far less visually interesting. Long John’s peg leg is now a robotic prosthetic; his parrot has become a “Morph,” an adorable sidekick who can change into any shape; the loony Ben Gunn has become the chip-damaged robot B.E.N. (Martin Short). The juxtaposition of 21st -century hardware and 17th-century woodwork makes for an always-amusing hybrid. Likewise, James Newton Howard’s score ingeniously blends “Star Wars” orchestral bombast with Celtic-sounding sea chantey themes.
If only the script were as amusing as the visuals. Musker and Clements have been responsible for “The Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin,” and the less commercially successful, but very funny, “Hercules.” Yet outside of the cleverness of the basic conceit, and the inventiveness of the modernized characters, humor is in short supply. Nonetheless, Pierce is almost as funny as he was in the misbegotten “Osmosis Jones,” doing a variation on his standard Niles Crane character, and Thompson manages to deliver her lines in a wonderfully clipped accent and at a dizzying speed. But they don’t have much to work with despite a setup that would seem well suited for comic asides.
The action scenes may satisfy the kids; and the correlations to the original should amuse adults who know the book or one of the many film versions. In the end, however, the listlessness of the script, particularly during the final half hour, leaves only visual invention to keep the aud’s eyes on the screen.