The Loot of a Thousand Worlds

Treasure Planet (2002)

Disney

Jim Hawkins (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) speeds through the clouds above his planet Montressor, boot-laden feet locked into a steampunk windsurfing board. The maroon-and-gold sail flutters behind him until he stamps his heel down on a button, and the sail snaps into the board like a pleated fan. A momentary rise with inertia, and then the free-fall begins. 

The board above his head spins helicopter style. In the last second before a crash, Jim mashes the button again, and the fan bursts into place, a bright flame in the gray canyon through which he sails. He emits a joyful yell that rips through the air.

Police sirens turn Jim’s triumphant grin into an embarrassed wince. “Oh, great,” he groans as robot officers, with frozen faces and tinny voices, rise into frame.

Now, those tall canyon walls look like stretches of the American west—the towering Virgin River Gorge, for instance, or swaths of Utah and Arizona. The pink-tinged clouds above Montressor look no different than our own. In that familiarity lies the enchantment of Treasure Planet (2002), an animated film directed by John Musker and Ron Clements that braids outer space and fantasy into a familiar environment. We know them outside the film’s context, but when it gives us those images through the lens of another world, the atmosphere transforms and glistens.

It’s how sci-fi films hook us: the draw toward the unknown. Pitch-black infinity meets an expanding universe full of dead stars, aliens, asteroids. We watch as these characters look for answers among the constellations or battle strange creatures on a murky planet. Treasure Planet takes that wonder—whether awesome or fearful, admiring or investigative—and slots those emotions into celestial adventure. The film urges us forward with promises of a rich bounty, escapades with seedy pirates, foreign planets, conquests, and crusades. But rather than propel us into a world that feels exclusively like a galaxy far, far away, Treasure Planet cleverly repurposes pieces of our own environment to entice us with another. 

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We might recognize Treasure Planet’s Jim Hawkins as a fantasy anti-hero. His theme, “I’m Still Here”—written and performed by Goo Goo Dolls guitarist and frontman John Rzeznik—captures Jim’s rage and uncertainty, for “a moment to be real” and to “feel I belong.” He’s not a demi-god or the predestined Chosen One but rather selected for his voyage through a coalescence of position and luck. Indeed, his drive to prove himself meets the chance of a lifetime that occurs at the opportune moment; when Jim flew his solar vehicle through the restricted area that warranted his arrest, he also violated his probation. We meet Jim, then, when any future mistake could “result in a one-way ticket to Juvenile Hall,” the robot-police tell his mother—an impetus for improvement, or to further dig in his heels against authority.

So when Jim obtains the verifiable map to Treasure Planet shortly after this exchange with police, he also receives a chance to come of age—to find where he belongs. Importantly, the map also charts a course through a childhood dream: to uncover the legend of the “loot of a thousand worlds” that awaits him at the “farthest reaches of the galaxy.” As a child, Jim always believed the roots of his favorite bedtime story were true. As an adult, the quest becomes a search for self, presented in a manner that appeases his drive for adventure. 

In the film’s opening scene, a boyhood Jim sneaks a look under his covers at the book about Treasure Planet—the stronghold of riches created by the infamous Captain Nathaniel Flint (Peter Cullen). In the book, the blood-red sails of a bee-sting-shaped pirate ship announce a malicious crew, which hoists a black flag impressed with a white skull and crossbones. This futuristic “read” lifts the pirate story off the pages through moving images; Jim opens the book, quite literally, to a movie. The narrator’s voice emits from its pages, and the colors of the scenes glow upon his face. 

Much like how Jim’s solar vehicle resembles a windsurfing board on modern-day Earth, the pirates’ flag in the storybook bears only a passing resemblance to the Jolly Roger. The skull, in Treasure Planet, is oblong and three-eyed, with two sharp pincers jutting out from its jaw. The “crossbones” are diagonally intersecting oval hoops, which mirror the Saturn-like rings around Treasure Planet. As viewers, we exist like young Jim does. We look for nonfiction in the fantasy, whether in the pirates’ flag or in the backdrop of the “Etherium,” the outer-space “ocean” where ships traverse waves of nebulae and dark skies.

Jim’s mother, Sarah (Laurie Metcalf) encourages his curiosity, but hesitantly. Through Sarah, we hear the skepticism surrounding this tale: “I think it’s more…like a legend,” she tells him. But, of course, we don’t buy this. As audience members we anticipate the promised Disney tropes of myths doubted and undiscovered, like Milo Thatch’s discounted search for the eponymous underwater kingdom in Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001). Like Jim, we continue to seek answers to prove the pirate attack’s existence, someone who will respond to our questions about the elusive, six-eyed Captain Flint. 

As Jim grows up, Treasure Planet lingers in his mind, even if not mentioned by name. Without a course to discover the real adventure, Jim instead recreates that risk and exhilaration by riding through Montressor’s off-limit areas. Indeed his father’s absence since his childhood informs that rebellion, but the carelessness other characters frequently attribute to him is not so—it’s curiosity. His desire to leave Montressor to explore another world so resembles that childlike disposition toward a thirst for adventure. And so, perhaps in spite of the expectation he should grow up, Jim initially pushes away those who fail to understand the root of his struggle.

Sarah, for one, suffers as she watches Jim seemingly forgo his intellectual skill for unpredictable behavior. Their astronomer friend Dr. Delbert Doppler (David Hyde Pierce) remains equally perplexed when he consoles Sarah while dining at the Benbow Inn, which Sarah owns and runs. Jim, who overhears their conversation, scowls morosely at Montressor’s cloudy sky. His body language and facial expressions frequently betray how this defiant attitude replaces a genuine yearning for a “moment to be real.” As the movie enfolds Jim’s curiosity into our own, so too does it unveil to us this truth behind his need for adventure: to find himself. But atop the Benbow’s roof, he was perched on the precipice of another story: the teenage runaway, the absolute disappointment—the felon, as Delbert accidentally calls him. 

*

That same evening, the opportunity for Jim to prove himself arrives. A spaceship crashes outside the Benbow, and Jim receives the bronze sphere map to Treasure Planet from the ship’s sole rider, an injured Billy Bones (Patrick McGoohan). He uses his final breath to warn Jim, “Beware the cyborg.” 

The moment between Bones and Jim again merges familiar imagery with the unknown. Like many characters in the movie, Bones is a hybrid of human and animal. While Treasure Planet aligns its scenery and vehicles with Earth-equivalent characteristics, its characters’ physical appearances establish the narrative’s crucial other-worldliness. Jim and his mother look human, but the characters they serve at the Benbow Inn, for instance, range from Mrs. Dunwiddie, a one-eyed squid-hybrid who demands refills of “purp juice,” to Delbert himself, whose doggish appearance includes a long snout and floppy ears. Bones’s body bears reptilian characteristics, and his message about the cyborg reveals the existence of human-machine hybrids. Montressor, in this vein, becomes a mythical planet with its own identity, and in turn it shows us this universe’s eccentric version of our so-called normalcy. It also satisfies that prerequisite need of something more in outer space stories—that which makes us awestruck, fearful, or investigatory of the things we encounter.

Pirates descend on the Benbow shortly after Bones’s death, and they burn it down in search of the map. After an escape to Delbert’s house, Jim unlocks the map for the first time. A swirling vortex of light pours from the sphere, bright green jets that twist into a hologram of the universe. The map engulfs Delbert’s study, as if the planets and galaxies themselves had shrunk down and descended upon the room. When Delbert touches Montressor, the map moves the characters through the pixelated cosmos, like a projector on rapid speed. Delbert identifies the Coral Galaxy, which collides with Jim’s torso and blooms like a flower behind him. And then the emblematic, glowing oval rings that define Treasure Planet materialize before them: proof, at last, the journey Jim always hoped to embark on is completely within his grasp. The map also gives them imperative access to the gold that would help rebuild the Benbow.

This scene touches on my favorite part of outer-space and fantasy media—the adventurer’s leap into the secrets of the universe, and one we get to traverse with him as equals. As Milo in Atlantis forms a crew to prove Atlantis’s existence—rejecting those naysayers who scold him for “chasing fairy tales”—so too does Jim combine his intrepid savvy with his drive to see worlds other than his own. As viewers, we are as enthralled by Treasure Planet as Jim is, and so we commence this escapade with him as equals. Of course, the confirmation of Treasure Planet’s existence also elicits a resplendent call to action from Delbert, who uses his savings to finance a crew to steward the journey. “I’ll make you proud,” Jim promises Sarah. She smiles. She believes him.

*

Jim and Delbert arrive in the crescent-moon-shaped Crescentia Spaceport, the hub of intergalactic travel takeoffs and landings, to find the R. L. S. Legacy. Here we enter another familiar space—the rich world of double-masted ships and billowing white sails, an enterprise helmed by Captain Amelia (Emma Thompson) and Mr. Arrow (Roscoe Lee Brown). John Silver (Brian Murray)—the cook, and dreaded cyborg—lurks below deck while he coalesces secretly among the other crew members, who sought the positions on the ship to steal the map. They, too, have dreams to fulfill.  

Within these characters we breach a novel aspect of this outer space adventure—whether the time and effort to find the gold was worth the sacrifices to do so. Silver wears a bionic eye and ear and mechanical prosthetics for an arm and leg, all losses in his quest for riches. Jim works under Silver as an all-hands cabin boy, and they grow close, like father and son, despite Jim’s unspoken suspicion of Silver’s motives. 

Jim doesn’t initially know about Silver’s plot to steal the map, so when he asks him later, as they sit in a parked longboat, how he lost his leg, Silver replies, “You give up a few things chasing a dream.” 

The Treasure Planet of Jim’s childhood was all about Flint’s joyous spoils. After Flint looted a targeted ship, though, his storybook didn’t linger over the damage the pirates caused, nor the physical or mental anguish of such pillaging and plundering. In Silver, the film confronts this cynical foundation of Treasure Planet: one pays a price to uncover these fabled riches; Silver himself risks his life, and covertly the lives of those aboard the R. L. S. Legacy, all for a selfish fantasy. 

Jim’s noble cause for his pursuit of Treasure Planet complicates Silver’s dream, but rather than join forces—and bond over this shared goal—Silver and his conspirators exploit Jim’s optimism. Indeed Silver, driven by fear of failure to achieve his dream, embodies instead the rebellious anger Jim aims to shed on Montressor. 

Their conversation in the longboat translates as genuine to Jim—who relays to Silver his own hope for this journey to “make people see me a little different”—but we still perceive the cruelty of Silver’s dishonesty.

“Was it worth it?” Jim asks.

Silver sighs, sidles over to Jim, and puts an arm around him. His words are sincere, even as his actions become spiteful.

“I’m hoping it is, Jimbo,” Silver concludes. “I most surely am.”

Immediately following Jim and Silver’s conversation, a shock wave from an exploding star blasts the ship, knocks out its windows, and sends asteroids into its sails. The blue Etherium turns volcanic orange, and the star transmutates into a violent black hole. So quickly does this private moment between Jim and Silver turn perilous—and prove Silver’s prediction that “plans go astray.” 

The crew members recover the ship safely, but they lose Mr. Arrow. One of the mutinous members, Scroop, severed his lifeline, the enemy’s spider-and-crab body scuttling fiendishly toward the rope. Amelia charged Jim with securing the lifelines, and Jim, blind to Scroop’s betrayal, blames himself for Mr. Arrow’s death. Just when his quest toward greatness sets off, the doubt that defined his time on Montressor reemerges, and the nonfiction grows visceral after he believed for years in the fantasy. The harshest truth Jim fails to face in this sequence, however, is that Silver’s treachery invited Scroop on the ship and enabled his murder of Mr. Arrow. A price paid for those vast riches. 

*

Up until this point, I’ve left off one of my favorite inventions of Treasure Planet: Morph (Dane A. Davis), the little, well, morphing creature, often small enough to fit in Jim’s hand. In his traditional form, Morph is a pink blob, but throughout the film he becomes a straw, a spoon, a wrench, an imitation of Jim. He speaks in high-pitched gibberish. As a pair of scissors, he cuts the ribbon to open the restored Benbow Inn. 

In my adulthood, I realize how Morph suits Jim. A boy finds his identity through different iterations—attentive, then unruly, then mature—and his childhood dreams inform his adult path. Morph is often the character whom I most wish to revisit when I rewatch Treasure Planet, whose familiar shapes are comforting within the fantasy. But mostly, I don’t want to take him too seriously. I love Morph like I did as a child—reveling in his jovial hijinks, his large eyes and little hands peeking over Jim’s shoulder.

*

The R. L. S. Legacy arrives, finally, at Treasure Planet, its intersected rings hazy in the distance. But the reverie splinters once more. With Silver’s treachery, he pays yet another price; he loses Jim’s trust after he enacts the mutiny. Jim, Delbert, and Amelia manage to sneak off the ship, and it’s upon this planet’s surface—moss green, algae-covered, as if it hasn’t been inhabited for years—the film rests faithfully in the realm of magic and science fiction fantasy. As the crew traverses the planet’s surface, guided to the treasure by a blinking neon line, they cruise on a longboat beneath gargantuan mushroom-like trees and navigate tall stalks oozing green sap when Silver cuts through them.

When Jim slots the map into a hole in the ground, it opens up a massive, triangular screen, and a miniature version of the spherical map acts as a control board to open and close the screens’ doors. That screen, they learn, is a portal to different worlds, as varied and alien as Montressor was to us when we first started the film. 

When the crew members select the portal to the treasure, they reach through its transparent border and frolic among the gold—real gold and jewels, rolling hills of it, not the stuff of legend. But they also trigger the self-destruction device that Captain Flint, whose bones rest among his bounty, set up to ensure no one would steal his treasure. Missiles shoot into the gold; characters slip into the wide burning pit at the center of the planet. Flint demands the final price—your life for achieving your dream. 

Jim and Silver face off on a longboat that brims with gold and is poised to escape destruction, but a blast knocks them out of the ship. Silver uses his metal prosthetic arm to grip onto the boat, his treasure in sight, while his other hand is just beyond reaching Jim, who dangles off a wall above the molten core. Yet Silver chooses to save Jim from dying, and he forgoes a shipful of gold in doing so.

“Just a lifelong obsession, Jim,” he says, exhausted, when they emerge out of the destruction. “I’ll get over it.”

The escape isn’t quite complete yet. The rest of the planet races toward annihilation. Though they’ve left it behind, the crew must return to the portal and use it to get to Crescentia Spaceport. Their salvaged ship weaves through broken buildings and forceful explosions. In an exquisite recreation of the earlier wind sailing scene, Jim fashions a makeshift solar vehicle, swooping ahead to hit the correct portal doorway so they can escape to safety. And so, in this final moment, the film joins the childlike excitement that brought Jim to Treasure Planet with the identity he sought: the brave hero, the intelligent craftsman, the adventurer—the boy who will “rattle the stars,” says Silver.

And he doesn’t leave empty-handed, either. Silver, who later escapes on a longboat under the R. L. S. Legacy, digs in his pocket and throws Jim a few salvaged gold pieces before his departure. For his mother to rebuild the Benbow. Both dreams, fulfilled.  

*

Like Jim, too, after all these years I am still enthralled by Treasure Planet’s (and Treasure Planet’s) promises of canary-yellow gold and crimson jewels among the rippling nebulae, greedy space pirates, mutinous crews. The film’s fantasy animation feels timeless—its characters I know well, its imagery as arresting as if I saw it firsthand from the ship’s deck. Those uncharted skies promise bounty and adventure. When I rewatch the film now, it feels as though I’m using a map to walk right back into the living room in the house where I grew up, my own private treasure trove, where I can watch it with my younger self for the very first time.