[Andrew Leal has pointed out an error in this piece. John Pomeroy
is not missing entirely from the credits for Treasure Planet.
He is credited as the supervising animator for "Captain
Flint and his Crew," the storybook pirates seen briefly at
the start of the film.]
When I saw the Disney animated feature Atlantis:
The Lost Empire in the summer of 2001, I was baffled by
the animation of Milo, the young man who was the film's protagonist.
Milo's movements were always physically plausible, but everything
he did seemed calculated and thought-out, with not a trace of spontaneity
or flow. Then, on the end credits, I found the answer: John Pomeroy,
long a close associate of Don Bluth, was the lead animator for the
Pomeroy's animation of Milo was Bluth animation, which is not merely
literal but also painfully self-conscious. It is the kind of animation
that results when animators try to achieve the vaunted Disney "sincerity"that
is, animation in which the characters really seem to believe in
what they're doingby having the characters behave as if they
know that they're appearing in a film.
What's involved is not mere staginess, the usual mugging or playing
to the audience. In Bluth animation, the characters are not entertaining
hams, or, even less, ironically self-aware; instead, they
are as painfully awkward as adolescents on a first date. The characters'
insistent self-awareness is what makes Bluth animation so uncomfortably
This peculiar animation style apparently originated in Bluth's
determination, when he left the Disney studio a quarter-century
ago, to make features grounded in a seriousness that he understandably
found lacking in the latter-day Disney product. From the beginning,
though, with The
Secret of NIMH, the stories for Bluth's features have been
so poorly constructed or so bizarre (or, as with Anastasia,
both) that they have made "sincere" animation all but
impossible. Instead, the stories have invited tongue-in-cheek animation,
which is, to say the least, not Bluth's métier.
Animation of the sort that Pomeroy eventually contributed to Atlantisawkward
animation in which the characters seem to believe not in what the
story calls for them to do, but that they're performing for an audiencewas
the barely workable compromise that Bluth and his animators came
up with, no doubt without realizing what they were doing. To no
avail: audiences have warmed to few of the Bluth films. Like another
director, Ralph Bakshi, Bluth has been much more successful at attracting
financial backers than at filling theater seats.
John Pomeroy's name is missing from the credits for Disney's Treasure
Planet, the new animated feature that relocates Robert Louis
Stevenson's novel Treasure Island to outer space, but it
might as well be there. Even more than Atlantis, Treasure
Planet is full of characters who seem constantly on the verge
of glancing nervously at the camera's lens.
What might be called "the Bluth disease" has been a long
time incubating in the Disney features, but now, in Treasure
Planet, it has cut down everyone in its path. Even the sturdy
Glen Keane, one of the two contemporary Disney animators whose work
has best withstood comparison with the great animation of the past
(the other is Andreas Deja), was not immune. His Long John Silver
is a twitchy, gelatinous mess.
If it is relatively easy to explain how the Bluth features turned
out the way they did, the Disney story is more complicated. Rather
than riding their films over a cliff in the Bluth manner, the Disney
people sabotaged them with a sort of time bomb.
The decisive period for Disney was the middle to late eighties,
when the slovenly features of the seventies and early eighties (Robin
Fox and the Hound) gave way, after the ascension
of the Michael Eisner-Jeffrey Katzenberg team, to much more tightly
organized and much more formulaic films (The Little Mermaid,
Lion King). The formulas were those of the pre-Sondheim
Broadway musical, encompassing a rudimentary boy-girl plot, high-energy
songs, swishy comic-relief characters, and a fundamentally cynical
worldview only partly masked by an aggressive sentimentality. Like
the Broadway shows they resembled (and were sometimes turned into),
the new Disney features flattered their audiences into feeling both
knowing and warmhearted.
As the features changed, so did the part animators played in their
The Disney features of the seventies were made when the last of
the famed animators known as the "nine old men" were still
active. In them, animators like Milt Kahl and Ollie Johnston could
be found amusing themselves with set pieces (Kahl's Madam Medusa,
Johnston's self-portrait as elderly cat, to cite two examples from
Rescuers) that weren't necessarily attached very firmly
to the rest of the film. The dreadful features of the eighties that
followed the retirement of the "old men" fell into a generally
With the advent of Eisner and Katzenberg, there were fewer opportunities
for animators to go off and play in a corner. A film's animators
now had to serve the interests of the film more directly. This new
arrangement recalled the symbiosis that existed when the greatest
Disney shorts and features were being made, in the thirties and
early forties; but the resemblance was misleading.
Sixty and seventy years ago, as interviews and the transcripts
of meetings have made clear, there was a constant give-and-take
among animators, writers, and directorsorchestrated by Walt
Disney himselfwith almost everyone preoccupied with making
the best film possible. In the nineties, for all the pulling and
hauling (and waste of money) that went into the new Disney features,
the underlying motive was not so much to make the best films possible
as to find the most immediately effective expression of the formulas
That distinction was fatal. When it is more than an empty slogan,
sincerity in animation bears a necessary relationship to truthfulness.
The animator tries to understand how even the most fantastic character
would behave if it really existed, and he animates it in a way that
reflects his understanding as accurately as possible. Formulas have
nothing to do with such truthfulness. They are instead about generating
a predictable response from an audience, regardless of whether that
involves manipulating the characters in ways that make them less
A reliance on formula storytelling was thus fundamentally at odds
with "sincerity." When the animators were fully subordinated
to the formulas, "sincerity" would be possible only in
the debased form in which it already existed in the Bluth features.
That is what has finally happened in Treasure Planet.
What has made Treasure Planet doubly disastrous is that
the Disney people no longer know how to crank up a good formula,
The effectiveness of the formulas polished in films like Beauty
and the Beast
(1991) and Aladdin (1992) began diminishing in
the middle nineties. The formulas' decline was accelerated by the
death of the lyricist Howard Ashman, who with his composer partner
Alan Menken gave the early musicals of the Eisner era their authentic
Broadway flavor. Hercules
(1997) signaled the bankruptcy of the Broadway formulas by asking
its audience to take seriously, in its second half, what it had
burlesqued mercilessly (and often cleverly) in its first half. But
once the cynic has taken off his mask, there is no putting it back
The Disney people have been groping for new formulas for some years
now, with limited success. In Treasure Planet, as in Atlantis,
the formulaic solutions are in a boys'-adventure mold. In
Treasure Planet, though, the formulas actually collide
with one another, in a sort of animated demolition derby.
Jim Hawkins, a young boy in Stevenson's Treasure Island and
Disney's 1950 live-action film based on the book, is in Treasure
Planet a stereotypically rebellious teenager, the product of
an unsuccessful effort to pander to an adolescent male audience.
But he is also shoehorned, mostly through a heavy-handed montage
sequence, into a father-son relationship with John Silver. However
plausible the comparable relationship may have been in the earlier
film, it is in the new one nothing more than a clumsy attempt to
manufacture emotional depth. The boy is too old and too self-sufficient
(he is a preternaturally skillful skateboarder) to have slipped
so easily into such a relationship. Silver is a grotesque cyborghalf
man, half machinewho has nothing fatherly about him.
The character designs magnify the unlikelihood of what the audience
is being asked to swallow. Silver is ugly in a puzzling waylike
other characters in the film, he suggests an animal more than a
human being, but it's not clear what kind of animal he might be.
Jim is a conventional pretty boy whose turned-up nose disappears,
leaving a disconcerting blank in the middle of his face, when he
is seen straight on. They scarcely seem to belong in the
same film, much less to be capable of forming an emotional bond.
It is in the Silver-Hawkins scenes that the pervasive self-consciousness
of the animation is truly deadly. Through it, the characters seem
to be conveying their own skepticism about what they're doing. They
all but defy the audience to care about what happens to them.
The sense of parts not fitting together is pervasive. Treasure
Planet is a rich-looking filmmost of its budget of a reported
$140 million wound up on the screenbut there was minimal effort
to blend its drawn and computer-generated animation, or to introduce
some plausibility into its depiction of eighteenth-century ships
that sail between planets. The images are often arresting, but nothing
more. The dismissive phrase "eye candy" applies here as
to no other animated film.
Even when formula devices are not in conflict with one another,
their omnipresence is a lead weight on the film. There is the inevitable
flatulence gag (an alien who speaks in farts), and the inevitable
coupling of doglike and catlike creatures (the financier and captain,
respectively, of the RLS Legacy) that results in the inevitable
armload of babies. That coupling occurs despite the contempt the
female cat captain has shown repeatedly for her male canine companion.
As in Atlantis, gratuitous insults are striking in their
abundance and their apparent authenticityis this what it is
like to work at Disney Feature Animation?
I saw Treasure Planet early on a weekday afternoon, at a
large, plush Washington, D.C., theater, and I literally had a private
screeningI was the only person there. To judge from boxoffice
reports, my experience was far from unique.
Treasure Planet deserved to fail. And yet: what a sad, wasted
opportunity. There's no reason that a science-fiction version of
Treasure Island could not have been an exciting and suspenseful
film, but such a success required both a proper respect for Stevenson's
story and an imaginative recreation of it. That approach might have
resulted in, for example, both a younger Jim Hawkins and a truly
villainous John Silver, with a relationship between the two far
more complex than what Treasure Planet offers.
Supposedly, Treasure Planet was a labor of love, the cherished
project of its co-directors John Musker and Ron Clements, whose
credits include several of the most successful Disney features of
the eighties and nineties. The object of their devotion has turned
out to be a film as mechanical as John Silver's robotic arm. That
outcome no doubt says a good deal about Musker and Clements as filmmakers,
but I'm afraid it says even more about the environment in which
[Posted May 2003]