Film/TV » Film Features

Above & Beyond

Intelligent Treasure Planet breaks animation mold; The Emperor's Club bores.



It took me about 40 minutes to realize that, mercifully, Disney's Treasure Planet is not a musical. I was so caught up in the characters and style of this adaptation (a few months ago, when I first saw the trailer, I rolled my eyes: "Treasure PLANET?" I muttered to myself. "Disney must be scraping the bottom of the story barrel") that it took me that long to figure out that the success-mold of the studio's better animated films was broken slightly. Near the 40-minute mark, there is a coming-of-age montage set to Goo Goo Doll Johnny Rzeznik's original "I'm Still Here" that is both clever and revealing, and it took me a moment to notice that the protagonist, Jim Hawkins, was not singing it. This was especially impressive because this attractive film succeeds at creating characters that are not only lovable but respectable and without the usual sentimental trappings of cartoon-y fare.

Very similar to the Robert Louis Stevenson original Treasure Island ('cept for the aliens and such, that is), this Planet has a young Jim Hawkins longing for adventure not on the open sea but in the heart of space. The year is I dunno some futuristic time where spaceships are great wooden galleons with a mix of rocket boosters and solar sails more Jules Verne than Jetsons. Jim, speaking of breaking molds, is different from the other boys. He's a bit of a loner and a rebel and likes nothing more than racing his jet-craft through dangerous, off-limits industrial landscapes until the police-bots cart him home with a stern warning to his patient mother that next time it's juve-y hall for him. Ma Hawkins runs the Benbow Inn, full of all sorts of lovable alien types, including the doddering, dog-like scientist Dr. Delbert Doppler. When Jim is given a secret map to Treasure Planet, Doppler concludes rather necessarily that what Jim really needs is a life-threatening adventure in space to build his character, and when thieving rogues burn down the inn searching for the map, there is no choice: Jim must find Treasure Planet!

The most enduring appeal of Treasure Island is not in the swashbuckling escapades of the fortune-seeking Jim but in the complicated relationship between him and Long John Silver, here a cyborg with a mechanical robot arm and leg. As a child, I recall Silver as my first exposure to a literary character who had elements of both good and bad in him. There is a fatherly affection with which Silver regards young Jim, even as he competes for the map and later the gold, once Treasure Planet is within reach.

Treasure Planet is a truly enjoyable film succeeding as a faithful but liberating adaptation and as a visual marvel. The detailed and sprawling starscapes are particularly beautiful, and the anachronistic 19th-century-meets-Futurama stable of ships, robots, and locales are exactingly conceived within the same technological palette. A 2001: A Space Odyssey moment occurs when Jim looks up to a sliver of a moon and a close-up reveals that it is not a moon at all but an elaborate, bustling crescent-shaped space station. This is neat-o. There are, however, some instances where the mostly hand-drawn characters look kind of flat against the dazzling, more 3-D backgrounds, but this works more often than not with the rest of the film's past-meets-future juxtaposition, which looks charmingly like the backgrounds from Toy Story populated with characters from the enjoyable but shoddy Disney film Robin Hood. But Treasure Planet's real accomplishment is in having not one but two cutesy sidekicks a shape-shifting Mr. Bubble reject called Morph and the daffily old C3PO-ish B.E.N and they don't ruin the film à la Jar Jar Binks in the newest Star Wars. Neither are annoying or take away from the film, even though B.E.N. is voiced by Martin Short a time-bomb of cloyingness used in just the right amounts here.

My transparent stab at getting a quote into the corporate marketing of the film: "Fanciful but intelligent, Treasure Planet strikes it rich with parents and kids alike." It's true.

When Kevin Kline, as Western Civilization professor William Hundert, mutters in a voice-over late in The Emperor's Club's second half, "This is a story with no surprises," all I could think was "Hell, if I had known that in the beginning, I might not have stayed!"

Deep breath. Okay. Kline plays Hundert, a respected and upright instructor at the prestigious St. Benedict's boys' prep school, who teaches about ancient Greek and Roman civilizations. We know that beneath his square exterior he is cool because he has his students wear togas when studying Julius Caesar. Enter Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch), son of a good ol' boy West Virginia senator. Bell is a handful undisciplined, uninterested, and sloppy who quickly wins over the attention of his classmates, including the standard ragtag gaggle of school-film stereotypes: brain Deepak (also doubling as the foreign one), nerd Martin, and goof Louis. They even row a boat to the girls' school on the other side of the lake! Hundert manages to keep the boys in check and has faith in Bell's potential and so searches for the right way to reach this spoiled boy, accustomed to getting what he wants and not having to work for anything. Hanging over the heads of the students is the upcoming Mr. Julius Caesar contest a prestigious Greco-Roman trivia competition whose laurels all students covet. One of the film's only good scenes features Hundert alone in his office grading papers. Bell, by now, has begun to apply himself and is ranked fourth in the class. Only the top three will go on to the contest. But Hundert knows that this might be just the push Bell needs to make something of himself. Hundert stares at Bell's essay, graded A-. Patiently rendered, this scene shows all we need to see of Hundert's swaying priority as he reluctantly reaches over with his red pen and makes the grade an A+. Bell is now in the top three, pushing out Martin, whose father won the title as a boy and expects the same of his son.

The big day arrives, and (watch out major "suspenseful" plot points revealed here) Hundert notices that during the contest Bell is cheating. Caught in a pickle, Hundert finds a discreet way of forcing Bell to lose to Deepak. When Hundert asks why Bell needed to cheat when he could have won on merit, Bell answers, "Why not?" The rest of Bell's stay at St. Benedict's is like his beginning: disappointing.

Flash-forward 25 years. Bell is now a politically minded CEO and Hundert a recent retiree. Bell wants to make a contribution to the school on the condition that Hundert will moderate a rematch of the Caesar contest. Has he changed his ways? Have some of Hundert's lessons in character and government sunk in? Stay tuned to find out. Or don't.

William Hundert is a cheap distillation of cinema's best inspirational teachers. Kline is in typically fine form here, but he is utterly wasted on obvious, inferior material and deprived of an Oscar Moment that might explain to his students (or us) why it's important to know the classics or how they enrich our lives. Similar, better films afford their star this courtesy. Instead, this script is a parade of mind-numbing, formulaic clichés that could easily be constructed by a recipe like this: Mix 1 cup Mr. Holland's Opus with 2 cups Dead Poets Society with two tablespoons To Sir, With Love. Sprinkle generously with Goodbye, Mr. Chips and overbake for a merciless 109 minutes. Smother with cheese and let stand. Serve cold.

This is a recipe that many will enjoy. The Emperor's Club is extremely easy to swallow, as it is completely without complication or ambiguity. Right is obviously very right and wrong is wrong. Studying + applying yourself = good. Shirking responsibility + looking at nudie magazines = bad. Written by the scribe most famous for penning star vehicles for Corey Haim, Macaulay Culkin, and Pauly Shore (License To Drive, Richie Rich, and Jury Duty, respectively), these are the issues at work in this clumsy and pandering film.

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