How Disney’s Most Promising Project Failed

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Animation is a huge industry that saw a massive rise in popularity and monetary opportunity in the mid to late nineties – this boom being led by the titan, Disney. This movement in 2D animation was known as “The Disney Renaissance,” and was kicked off with the release of the nearly instant classic, The Little Mermaid, followed by other wildly successful films such as The Lion King, Hercules, the chilling – though tonally deaf – Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Beauty and the Beast which went on to become the first ever full length animated feature film nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. This renaissance was monumental, even in its lower points, like Pocahontas, which ended up not doing quite as well in the box office as the corporation had hoped.

This era brought a new hope to the Disney corporation, which had been losing momentum for years prior. While many may find it hard to believe that Disney was ever struggling to keep their footing in the industry, after Walt himself passed, Disney seemed to begin losing their identity. Their movies stopped making as much, with movies like The Black Cauldron being massive flops both critically and at the box office. Only with the release of the The Little Mermaid did Disney regain their identity and begin to dominate the industry once again – musical, animated features with stunning artwork, memorable characters, and strong emotional beats that will stay with people for ages. From an outside view, this sounds like quite the success story for a had-been failing company now being one of the most well known and largest corporations to date. But inside, Disney still only cared about one thing – their monetary gain. But of course, there are always exceptions to this rule.

Enter Ron Clements and John Musker, two men who had a hand in huge hits such as Aladdin and The Little Mermaid. These two men had two major hits under their belt, and with this, they approached their boss, Chairman Jeffery Katzenberg, with their passion project. This project was known as Treasure Planet, a story based on the novel Treasure Island, but set in a futuristic world with interplanetary travel. Katzenberg though, didn’t like this idea, but made a deal with these men. He said if they made him one more huge hit, one more piece of media so widely marketable to all general audiences, they could in fact make their passion project.

Along came Hercules, a movie easier to explain what it wasn’t, than what it was. This isn’t to say the movie didn’t have anything to offer – it introduced one of the most iconic Disney villains to date, and had a creative, unique art style – but it’s still filled to the brim with pop culture references, safe plot, and marketable characters. With Hercules out, Katzenburg gave the green light to Clements and Musker to move forth with Treasure Planet. With the okay, the expensive and lengthy production for the film began. The program a large chunk of the movie was made in was known as “deep canvas,” and was originally used in Tarzan to more easily animate the lush forest backgrounds without having to individually repaint the backgrounds frame by frame.

The program has the ability for the animators to build a 3D space of vague geometric shapes that suggest the expanse of what’s going to be animated in, then is sent to the background painters to paint over the shapes to make the full 3D space background, and then to the character animators to animate their characters onto. This process is very expensive, and this wasn’t much of a problem while being used in Tarzan as it was only used for a few brief shots to keep the movie visually interesting. But, with Treasure Planet, it was used for the “RLS Legacy,” the ship that most of the movie spends its time on. This isn’t even mentioning how the movie managed to seamlessly blend its 2D animation with CGI.

With the help of the very pricey, but very well worth it program, the movie introduces us to an interesting cast of characters that are very easily relatable and likable, absolutely stunning visuals both in character movements and the backgrounds, strong emotional beats emphasized by amazing music that only adds to the immersion, and an engaging story. So, what was the issue? This seemed like it could easily be an instant hit. Well, it could’ve, had Disney put any thought into their marketing scheme. Disney had decided that they would start release a summer adventure movie in November, when most holiday movies would be releasing – and it would be released against the first Harry Potter movie, which was guaranteed to be a hit. And this isn’t even mentioning the way they advertised their movie. Any trailers or commercials either didn’t reveal anything about the movie, or flat out spoiled the movie.

Why would Disney do this? Well, many think they were trying to bomb their own production. 2D animation was on its way out, and Disney knew. The market for 2D animation only got smaller and smaller as the years went on and as Pixar was building their way up, possibly even passing up Disney. A lot are under the impression that maybe if they had one more final 2D animated movie that failed, they could finally have a catalyst to move to CG permanently. Treasure Planet is, to date, Disney’s biggest failure in the box office. It cost 140 million dollars, and only made back 38 million dollars. It put the company back 102 million dollars, and after making one last 2D animated picture that also hadn’t done as well, Disney made their switch to CG animation almost permanently, with exceptions like Princess and the Frog in 2009.

A lot of people aren’t familiar with this movie, and it’s a shame that not everyone got the experience with this movie I did when I was younger. If you haven’t, I’d suggest giving this movie a watch. As much as I would like to go more in depth with the detail and time spent on this movie, this would go on for days, but you could tell the crew loved this movie as much as the small audience that grew up with it. While no one could go back and make up for this loss, it’s possible to give this 2002 marvel some love now. It was two hardworking, talented men’s passion project that they poured their heart into, and you can tell.