Treasure planet: a promotional failure

- By Shane Hughes

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When we think of Disney, we imagine an unstoppable force of cinematic triumph that has given the world classic animated films such as ‘101 Dalmatians’ (1961), ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (1991), ‘The Lion King’ (1994) and ‘Frozen’ (2013). For generations Disney has churned out success after success, ingraining itself into all of our childhood minds. Yet for a brief time in the early 2000’s Disney’s success story briefly waned and the company seemed artistically struggling for direction.    

Treasure Planet (2002), was a loose adaptation of the 1882 classic Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. The film was one of the last Disney outings in an unsuccessful style of animation that had already included box office disappointments such as Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001). Disney was looking to create a new style of animation for the next generation of young cinema lovers, yet they were failing spectacularly. Treasure Planet was Disney’s last hope at salvaging this far more edgy animation style, which they were so desperately trying to push forward. With a budget of $140 million, a voicing cast which including Emma Thompson and a young Joseph Gordon Levitt, alongside a film score made in collaboration with The Goo Goo Dolls front man John Rzezik, Disney seemed confident that this grungy, steampunk animation would pull in the audience recent Disney films hadn’t. Alas, the movie took in a minuscule worldwide box office of $109 million and was a total flop. So what went wrong?

In the run up to the film’s release in 2002 everything seemed to being going fine. Disney were planning for a November release date, thus banking on the usual holiday cinema attendance increase. They had a Treasure Planet video game ready for release and were promoting their latest animation through promotional materials inside of children’s cereal boxes and at multiple fast food chains. The film which Disney had banked so much on, that they worked so hard to promote somehow just didn’t catch on. In fact, Disney were so over confident that the film would be a hit, they already had a team of animators working on preparing what they believed would be an inevitable sequel or spin off. Yet it was Disney’s overconfidence and attempt to stand aside from epic failures like the Atlantis franchise that caught them out so dearly.

Treasure Planet’s release date of November 27th 2002 seemed like the perfect time slot for a big budget holiday film. Only this wasn’t a holiday film. Other cinematic releases in November 2002 included Harry Potter and Chamber of Secrets and Disney’s very own live action sequel The Santa Clause 2. The Santa Clause 2 was a Disney sequel that was almost a decade in the making and Harry Potter was the worldwide super hit that was to continue conquering children’s hearts for another ten years. This decision to release in November against a flood of tough competition was terribly miscalculated. Parents hoping to take their kids to see a movie in November or December of 2002 had the option of seeing two sequels to beloved children’s franchises (Harry Potter and the Santa Clause), or this unknown Disney film about space pirates and solar wind surfing. One can see why attendance for Treasure Planet was quite low.

Disney shot themselves in the foot by releasing a huge budget animation with a lot banking on it against Harry Potter, but it was particularly careless to release the film against a festive sequel of their own making during the early Christmas period. To complicate this further, the films marketing approach, which although costly and very visible was poorly thought out. Treasure Planet differed from the typical style of Disney animations both in appearance and narrative. The central character wasn’t a helpless princess or dashing male prince, the villain wasn’t an evil witch or sorcerer. Instead, the film which was flooded with alien creatures tells a simple human story. Jim Hawkins (voiced by Levitt) was an angst filled teenage boy lost and disillusioned, raised by his single parent mother who also ran a successful business. Our central villain wasn’t in any way typical either, acting as father figure for Jim, forming a bond with the young man as the film progresses that in the end made for a warm hearted and loving plot set against a darker world and a punk rock soundtrack. This was from the beginning a very contemporary take on Disney’s style of storytelling.

Yet the team in charge of promoting Disney’s Treasure Planet released very little evidence of this warm hearted plot and its contemporary message of self discovery in their marketing material. Any clips released of Treasure Planet seemed to focus on the image of Jim solar boarding and angry pirates in battle on giant spaceships. The film seemed to be aimed at a largely male market and more so young male teens and pre teens. What was in fact a fun family adventure for the whole family looked to be a more mature animation, designed for older children and the stereotypically adventure seeking young boy. Compare this to Disney’s Lilo and Stitch, released just two months earlier which focused on the loving relationship between the film’s main cast and fun humour all the family could get in on. Treasure Planet had all this too, so why then was it made much less clear in its marketing? Because Disney, despite their hopes and ambitions for the film simply didn’t believe in its mass appeal, ultimately attaching it to a certain demographic and hoping a huge budget would make it look glossy enough to attract a larger audience. It has to be mentioned Disney was still feeling the sting of Atlantis: The Forgotten Kingdom’s disappointing box office figures, and they wanted to make sure Treasure Planet, a similarly styled animation didn’t get the treatment that film was given. This ultimately dooming Treasure Planet to obscurity. Despite all this the film was quite well received by critics who praised the films animation and plot, leading to a nomination for the Best Animation Oscar. Yet, even an approval from the Oscar board couldn’t save Treasure Planet.

So why did Treasure Planet become one of Disney’s biggest ever failures? Because Disney made it so. A badly planned release date, conflict between it and their other Disney releases, coupled with a sketchy marketing approach sent Treasure Planet spiralling to the bottom. Yet, following its cinematic release the film garnered modest success on DVD and home video and in this age of online streaming it has been rediscovered by fans new and old alike, giving it a modest cult following that keeps this Disney gem alive and kicking. However, the launch of Disney’s very own streaming platform next year will see semi forgotten Disney films like Treasure Planet get a second chance at life and finding an audience. Who knows, perhaps in this era of cult film revivals and Disney remakes, Treasure Planet might in fact get the attention or love it so desperately deserved.