"Treasure Planet" offers a wealth of visual gems with its kaleidoscopic blend of computer and hand-drawn animation. But all that glitters on-screen is not gold.
Disney's latest animated adventure applies wondrous technique in updating Robert Louis Stevenson's pirate tale "Treasure Island" to outer space. Yet for all the clever mixing of tall-ship nautical trappings with science fiction gizmos, the movie never quite gets off the ground.
Maybe it's overfamiliarity with a story that's been around more than a century and filmed umpteen times before. Maybe the script got shortchanged in the filmmakers' preoccupation with visual spectacle.
Whatever the reason, "Treasure Planet" leaves viewers marveling at the light show but not at a plot that holds little suspense and characters who are just mildly engaging.
"Treasure Planet" was directed by John Musker and Ron Clements ("The Little Mermaid," "Aladdin," "Hercules"), who also co-wrote the screenplay with Rob Edwards and served as producers. It's the first movie to be released simultaneously in regular theaters and large-format cinemas such as IMAX.
On paper, the futuristic setting sounds like a nice variation for Stevenson's oft-told tale. The execution is halfhearted, though, as the filmmakers unsuccessfully struggle to recreate that ineffable blend of lovable heroes, likable rogues, cuddly mascots and slightly menacing creatures that has clicked in past Disney cartoons.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt ("3rd Rock From the Sun") provides the voice of Jim Hawkins, a troubled teenage human who dreams of venturing to the stars, leaving behind a routine life with his innkeeper mom (Laurie Metcalf, who also provided the mother's voice in the "Toy Story" flicks).
Jim's wishes are fulfilled after a pirate crash-lands at the Hawkins' inn and bequeaths the youth a holographic treasure map to a legendary planet loaded "with the loot of a thousand worlds." Hot on the pirate's trail comes a gang of buccaneers who torch the inn, sending Jim, his mom and a family friend, the dog-faced absent-minded astrophysicist Delbert Doppler (David Hyde Pierce), fleeing.
In pursuit of the treasure, Jim and Doppler book a space galleon commanded by feline Capt. Amelia (Emma Thompson) and her crisply efficient first officer (Roscoe Lee Browne).
But the landlubbing Doppler has unwittingly hired a crew of cutthroats planning a mutiny so they can steal the treasure. Leading the mutineers is John Silver (Brian Murray), who instead of the peg-legged pirate of Stevenson's tale is here part flesh and part cyborg, with a machine arm, leg, ear and eye.
Rounding out the cast is Silver's lead henchman, the spidery villain Scroop (Michael Wincott), the ditzy robot B.E.N. (Martin Short) and Silver's pet shape-shifter, Morph (Dane A. Davis).
The mix generally feels forced, with not many laughs emanating from the heroes and not many chills coming off the bad guys. Thompson and Browne's vocal talents are put to the best use in the starchy but affectionate bond between captain and first mate. Pierce and Short's comic skills, though, are wasted by a script without much wit.
The stars of "Treasure Planet" are its gloriously detailed tall ships, masts decked out with solar sails that hurtle them through the cosmos. But even a warp-speed schooner can only carry a movie so far when the crew's not up to snuff.
"Treasure Planet," a Disney release, is rated PG for action adventure and peril. Running time: 94 minutes. Two stars out of four.
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