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An animated "Treasure'

Published Sep. 4, 2005

When Robert Louis Stevenson first envisioned the premise for his classic novel Treasure Island, he would have had a difficult time imagining what two Hollywood film writers would do with it 119 years later.

The culmination of their efforts is the stunning Treasure Planet.

"Some years ago at Disney, we had a meeting where we sat around a table and each person brought in a couple ideas of what would make a good animated film. The ideas were sort of kicked around at that meeting," director John Musker said in a conference call interview with co-director Ron Clements.

Clements brought two ideas to that meeting. One was The Little Mermaid, and the other was Treasure Island in Space, based on Stevenson's book.

"That was the first introduction of (Treasure Island), although it went through a long development process. Ultimately it didn't really get put on the fast track until five years ago," Musker said.

Treasure Planet, which opens Nov. 27, is Musker and Clements' fifth animated feature film together in their 25-plus years with Disney (their previous films include The Great Mouse Detective, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Hercules). These guys do it all; they write, produce, direct, animate _ the whole shebang. And it looks like they have another big winner with Treasure Planet.

Jim Hawkins (voice of 3rd Rock From the Sun's Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a 15-year-old renegade whose life has never been the same since his dad walked out on him and his mom when he was a young boy. His life begins to turn around when unusual circumstances provide him with a map leading to the legendary Treasure Planet, which he had read tales about.

He teams up with a longtime family friend, Dr. Doppler (voice of David Hyde Pierce of Frasier), to search for the planet that holds "the loot of a thousand worlds."

They begin their expedition with a questionable crew on a large ship named the RLS Legacy, a tribute to Stevenson. Jim unwittingly forms a father-son bond with a cyborg named Silver (voice of Brian Murray), but Silver is a turncoat who is out to get the treasure for himself. As the conflicts heat up, the crew must turn its selfishness into selflessness in order to survive the mission, which is growing more dangerous by the minute.

Right off the bat, I'll say that this is a great movie. I saw it at Channelside Cinemas in Tampa, in IMAX format (Channelside is the only theater in the state that has this film in IMAX form). The enormous screen brought me right into the film. The colors were vibrant, rich and almost explosive at times, and I could feel the sounds rumbling through my chest.

The animation breaks new barriers and sets new standards for excellence. Early on, the directors envisioned an action/adventure movie, because that's the kind of book Treasure Island is. They wanted to give the film a live-action feel. So they used a technique called virtual sets, in which 3-D sets are "built" into the computer, then painted by background painters.

The visual effect that method created was extremely effective. The characters seemed to soar through these sets. The characters' expressions were incredibly similar to those of the actors who voiced the parts. That's because the animation was done after the actors recorded the vocal tracks. The animators sat in the room with the actors, noting their mannerisms and facial expressions as they performed, then modeled the character after the actor.

This was most obvious in Jim. I kept seeing Gordon-Levitt's face and personality in his character. It's amazing how many people are involved in the production of a film like this.

Because this is a remake of a classic novel, it was very important for Musker and Clements to honor that and give the movie a timeless feel. They wanted to produce a setting that was neither past nor future. They were careful to exclude things such as microwaves, computers and other technological equipment that might date the movie. They focused on how Stevenson might have envisioned the future. What a brilliant idea!

"We felt really early on that we wanted big galleons with open decks, and that you could breathe in outer space, because we felt that's what was so great about Stevenson's story," Clements said. "We thought that if we had everybody in space suits in more of a high tech kind of thing, that it wouldn't be as much fun. We were pushing the fantasy and the retro kind of thing. The individual details and the overall look of the film evolved over a period of time, though. A lot of experimenting went into this film, but we finally ended up with something we were really happy with."

The musical score was great. Goo Goo Dolls founder and lead singer John Rzeznik wrote and performed two songs.

"Jim is a really easy character to relate to," Rzeznik said in a phone interview. "You know, he's 15, he's a juvenile delinquent, and he's getting brought in by the cops at night. He kind of reminded me of a young me. It was really easy to write about his feelings and emotions."

The lyrics of the featured song, I'm Still Here, were heartfelt and well-thought-out, but more important, they captured Jim's sentiments.

"We really liked the emotion John put into it," Clements said. "The whole point of the song was to get inside Jim's head and to expose things that he would never say out loud, just to kind of get a feel for what he was feeling."

By using Rzeznik in the soundtrack and Gordon-Levitt as the voice for the lead character, Disney set up this film to be enjoyed by an older audience than the typical animated Disney feature is for.

Don't get me wrong; younger kids, 8 and up, will like it, too. There are characters that any age group would find appealing. The film is a well-paced 95 minutes. And if young teens can get past the "it's a Disney movie _ I'm too old" mentality, I think they could enjoy it. I did.

The combination of an all-star cast and a cream-of-the-crop film crew makes Treasure Planet well worthy of an A+ grade. I highly recommend the IMAX version, which will be showing only at Channelside, but this film works anywhere you see it.

Billy Norris, 15, is in the ninth grade at Seminole High School and is a former member of the Times X-Team.


Treasure Planet

Grade: A+

Directors: Ron Clements, John Musker

Cast: Roscoe Lee Browne, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, David Hyde Pierce, Brian Murray, Martin Short and Emma Thompson.

Rating: PG