Disney’s Failed Science-Fiction Era

To fully understand why Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet performed so poorly at the box office, it’s important to take a few steps back and squint at the political climate surrounding these two releases. After realizing that this bigger picture is too blurry to make out, worry incessantly about your poor eyesight for a solid minute (bigger pictures should be easier to see, right? Are you nearsighted or farsighted? Or are you just blind?!). I’m handing you some cheaters. They’ll do until you can afford an eye exam. Be-spectacle your faces, dear audience, and squint no more! We’re about to clarify that blurry understanding of what went wrong for Disney’s animated science fiction debuts.

Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet were not widespread faves. It would not surprise anyone if you’ve never seen them. In fact, it would be surprising if you had.

Over the years, they’ve picked up a couple more fans with their at home releases and with each movie being available on Netflix or Hulu at one time or another. Most of their fanbase is made up of loyal followers who picked up the DVD on a whim and were given the choice to either put the movie back or put the Bratz doll back, but Treasure Planet looked really cool and Jim Hawkins looked cute, so it was a no-brainer, duh.

The key here, though, is that these movies were released post-Disney’s Renaissance, a golden period for Walt Disney Animation Studios from the late 80s to the late 90s. A lot of favorites were released during this period: The Little Mermaid, Beauty and The Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, Hercules, Mulan, and Tarzan, to name a few.

A still from Atlantis: The Lost Empire.

And if it isn’t obvious enough: Atlantis and Treasure Planet look very different from these well-performing animated movies. But if being different equates to being bad, well, that would go against just about everyone’s basis for even the slimmest bit of self-esteem.

Allow me to yank you back just a little bit farther.

Bleakly nicknamed “The Disney Dark Age” (or, for neutrality and “they’re not THAT bad”-purposes, “Disney’s Bronze Age”), Disney released either critical or financial disasters, one right after the other following Walt Disney’s death. Well, “disasters” by Disney’s standards. The Jungle Book and The Aristocats were the last films approved by Walt Disney, and while The Aristocats was liked by critics and audiences, it just didn’t do as well as past movies released. It really kick-started this whole Dark Age Thing. Most notably, The Black Cauldron was released during this era, nicknamed “The Film That Almost Killed Disney”, and rightly so.

There was a $44 million budget for this film and it grossed $21 million domestically. That’s not even half.

The Black Cauldron cover. You may have never even seen this because it was a disgrace.

We’re not here to talk about The Black Cauldron (1985), though. Not really. Just know that this was Disney’s rock bottom. Keep it fresh in your mind, please.

Basically, this dark age/bronze era had its run for nearly two decades. It started with The Aristocats (1970) and ended with The Little Mermaid (1989). Well, technically, Oliver & Company (1988) was considered the last release of Disney’s Dark Age. It laid the groundwork for the Renaissance. Y’know. Disney’s golden children. Metaphorically–for what we’re covering–Disney’s firstborns. Disney’s Madonnas, if you will. Which would make Atlantis and Treasure Planet the faulty middle children, if we’re sticking with the children comparison. And Disney’s whores–if we’re sticking with the Madonna-whore complex metaphor.

The Lack of Musical Numbers

With each Disney high-grossing animated movie release, there’s a chart topping single released with it. Frozen has “Let It Go” and Moana has “How Far I’ll Go”, but this tradition–if you will–dates all the way back to Pinocchio‘s “When You Wish Upon a Star” in the 60s. And, of course, there are earth-quaking scores by Phil Collins for Tarzan and Elton John’s fine contribution to humanity (Lion Kings’ score).

Treasure Planet has James Newton Howard’s Celtic/sci-fi score and two bops performed by Goo Goo Dolls’ John Rzeznik. Atlantis tried to sneak in Mya’s “Where the Dream Takes You” in the credits and had an Indonesian-inspired score also by Howard, but they both lack Ariel yearning to be “part of your world” and they have no vase ladies to let you know that “Herc was on a roll” and that he went “zero to hero just like that”. Was it the nonmusical aspect that lead to their failures?


A still of Ulysses, the submarine Milo and co board to take them to Atlantis.

Atlantis was the first science fiction film in Disney’s Animated Canon. Computer generated imagery (CGI) was used in spades for this movie, more so than had been done in any previously released Disney films. But it was still a mix of traditional animation and CGI. It was competing against Dreamwork’s Shrek at the time, a film done totally by CGI. And Shrek did phenomenally (Shrek is love, Shrek is life–am I right?), so what went wrong with Atlantis?

Some fans have admitted that there are elements in Atlantis that are . . . illogical. And, while the production was stellar, it was used as a distraction from the dodgy plot.

Fantastic design from Atlantis: The Lost Empire! But, it is distracting from the weak plot?

An abundance of CGI was used for Treasure Planet, topping what was used for Atlantis. For whatever reason, they wanted to combine traditional animation with computerized animation. A theory on that is discussed in the next section, but it is a peculiar choice. Did they not want to overwhelm the audience with–not only sci-fi but–CGI?

Montressor Spaceport, or Crescentia, from Treasure Planet.

But the kids were liking the computerized movies! CGI was kind of on the rise. So, then the question becomes: Was there not enough CGI?

The Traditional Animation

Specifically, where Treasure Planet is concerned, it has been theorized that the movie never had a fair shot from the start because Disney wanted to move past traditional animation and move into CGI. If they had a movie with traditional animation techniques that bombed, well . . . That would be proof enough that the masses just weren’t here for hand-drawn animation anymore. Bringing back the earlier Madonna-whore metaphor, was Treasure Planet–one of Disney’s whores, if you will–used to do the dirty work, as in, retire traditional animation films? Fans of the movie theorize that this was the case. Times were changing. Disney needed to move on to something more futuristic.

Treasure Planet combined a mix of traditional animation and CGI. Jim Hawkins is very 2-dimensional compared to the computerized space whales and the wavy space sky.

This theory would mean that, in fact, Disney conspired to lay off hundreds of employees and blow a whole lotta money on Treasure Planet in order to prove that traditional animation was outdated. I’m not saying it’s true, but I’m saying Disney had the money to blow, all right. Still, it’s a little wild.

The PG Rating

Both Atlantis and Treasure Planet received the rather risqué rating of PG. Disney was trying to appeal to an older, teen audience. Disney may have been specifically trying to target a boy teen audience. But, the thing is, Disney was branded as being “for kids”. And, if anybody knows anything about teens, they hate being treated like kids. I wish someone would treat me like a kid. I digress. But seriously. It was just not cool for teens to go see a Disney film.

Harry Potter was a big franchise around that time. Still is, but it was definitely picking up momentum at this time. It was modern. Kids, teens, adults–everybody was going to see those movies. They knew the books, the characters, were familiar with the story. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson was maybe not on the brink of many teens’ minds. And Atlantis? I still don’t really know where that story came from.

(Just kidding. I researched Atlantis. Plato made it up.)

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was still dominating the box office, when Treasure Planet was released. Did it even have a fair chance?

And, just a little supplementary information for ya: The Black Cauldron was also rated PG. Take that as you will.

The Genre

Both animation failures were considered sci-fi adventures. Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace was released in 1999 and Star Wars was (and is) massive. And sci-fi.

Did Disney try to appeal to the Star Wars audience with the likes of Atlantis? Did they feel like it was the right time to unleash Ron Clements and John Musker’s dream project, “Treasure Island in Space” because it would be relevant to pop culture, but it still flopped? An idea that, by the way, was strung up on a fishing line and held over their hands while they ran on the treadmill that is Disney’s animation assembly line.

Clements and Musker worked on The Black Cauldron, believed in it, and then asked if they could work on what would be Treasure Planet soon after The Black Cauldron flopped. They were told, “No, work on [insert more popular Disney title here] instead and then maybe,” several times, until the project was finally green lighted. Did The Black Cauldron somehow cause Treasure Planet to flop, years and years after its original debut, haunting Clements and Musker? Darn that pesky movie.

Atlantis: Milo’s Return cover art.

Honestly though, who’s to call causation? At the end of the day, whatever may have contributed to their mediocre box office performance, Atlantis got a straight-to-video sequel in 2003, Atlantis: Milo’s Return and cancelled plans for a waterpark at Disney while Treasure Planet got a cancelled sequel. Not all Disney movies can be winners.

Works Cited

“Atlantis: The Lost Empire.” Disney Wiki, 20 June 2018, http://disney.wikia.com/wiki/Atlantis:_The_Lost_Empire

“Disney Dark Age.” Disney Wiki, 20 June 2018, http://disney.wikia.com/wiki/Disney_Dark_Age

“Disney Golden Age.” Disney Wiki, 20 June 2018, http://disney.wikia.com/wiki/Disney_Golden_Age

“Disney Renaissance.” Disney Wiki, 20 June 2018, http://disney.wikia.com/wiki/Disney_Renaissance

Ness, Mari. “An Expensive Adventure: Atlantis: The Lost Empire.” Tor, 20 June 2018, https://www.tor.com/2016/10/20/an-expensive-adventure-atlantis-the-lost-empire/

Sahota, Shalimar. “What Went Wrong: Treasure Planet.” BOXOFFICEPROPHETS, 20 June 2018, http://www.boxofficeprophets.com/column/index.cfm?columnID=14406&columnpage=2

“Treasure Planet.” Disney Wiki, 20 June 2018, http://disney.wikia.com/wiki/Treasure_Planet

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. People who like Disney, space, or animation may approve of this article. I am one of them. Great job!

  2. I’m not a fan of the early-2000s trope of putting CGI animation over standard animation.

  3. Treasure planet is defiantly a different film from Disney’s past films. For one, it’s very modern from others. Where something like Romeo + Juliet (1996) was a modern version of Romeo and Juliet, Treasure Planet is a modern spin on Treasure Island.

  4. For some reason that I can’t figure out Atlantis was heavily bashed by critics when it was first released. I recall going to see this movie when I was 7 at a drive-in theater. I found this movie to fun and enthralling. Now 17 years later I find to still be a thrilling adventure, one that does not deserve the negativity it has received from some.

  5. Once again I discover Disney movies that makes me surprised I haven’t heard of them before. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Rosann Polk

    The only things that I’m not a huge fan of in Treasure Planet are Morph and B.E.N. Both characters can be very annoying at times, especially B.E.N. (no offense Martin Short…)

  7. Browder

    Disney does a superstellar take on the classic pirate treasure movie, my 4 and 7 year old both loved this action packed fun adventure.

  8. Disney is my least favorite movie company, and hardly any of their movies are good. But Treasure Planet was awesome! And it gives me the vibe of Titan AE, another good movie! (This and Titan are like star wars, except for the part that they are actually good movies) and everything about this movie is awesome! I am surprised that such a good movie as Treasure was made by Disney, which is, like, the worst movie company ever in my opinion. And even better, video games! The games that spawned off of this movie were just as awesome. You need to see the movie and play the games. Some say this is a rip off of Titan. It has a lot in common, but it is not a rip off. They are both some of the best movies ever. I guess I like Titan more. Idk.

  9. These movies succeeds with me for the same reason it failed at the box office. ´They are creative, different, and do not follow the safety rails of a typical Disney movie, they do way more and I applaud them for that.

  10. Treasure Planet was one of the very first movies I completely fell in love with when I was younger. I must’ve watched it at least 20 times in the timespan of like a year back then. I planned on rewatching it for a long time but just never really got around to it. And so finally, 10+ years later, here we are. Thank you so much for the nostalgia.

  11. darling.dar

    Animated movies that involve the science fiction genre tend to do poorly at the box office. I’m not sure what exact reasons audiences at the time ignored it, but I have a good guess.

    • While the idea of mixing pirate culture from centuries past with futuristic technology does give the movie a unique look and feel, all the same it feels kind of weird. That’s not to say that the movie lacks interest.

  12. There have been many animated Disney movies that have come and gone, and most of them had cutesy characters and memorable songs. Not with these though.

  13. Freebird

    Atlantis is a really boring movie with some decent animation. The characters are all idiots, and the plot is really dumb.

  14. My thoughts after watching these are: “This can’t be Disney, it’s far too good.”

  15. Kriszti

    You need to loose all the extra sentences you put in there, your rambles, because I have been reading for 5 minutes, and still only found out about a Disney Dark Age. The bespectacled part, where you wrote about 3 sentences that should have been a half. The ramble about the children/Madonna comparison. It makes it hard to stick to your article. I care about the answers to the questions you raised in your title, but I might not stick around if I need to read for 10 minutes when it could probably be summed up in one sentence.
    But Good job on pointing out these excellent movies to audiences who might not be familiar with them.

    • Kriszti

      Okay, got through the whole thing. About 10% is interesting,factual information, the rest is rambling, raising more questions without answering them, and cringey humor.
      For future articles, try to stay on point more, and actually answer the question you raise in your title and first paragraph.

  16. I thoroughly enjoyed Treasure Planet! The absolute best thing about this film is the relationship between Jim Hawkins and John Silver.

  17. Rae Suarez

    These are some of the most under-appreciated things Disney has ever done.

  18. Guillermina

    I don’t know how I never knew treasure planet movie existed but I just saw it and I really liked it! It’s a great coming of age film.

  19. Noriega

    I love to put my movie marathon on pause from time to time and watch some Disney cartoon like these.

  20. Integrated

    None of the titles mentioned, “The Phantom Menace” included, are science fiction. Putting pirates on space ships doesn’t make adventure stories science fiction.

    Science fiction tells us something (hopefully something new) about our society by showing how society might adapt (or not) to change of different kinds.

    And “Treasure Planet” was a lot of fun.

    • Treasure Planet was a lot of fun. And I get what you’re saying: works of science fiction can definitely transcend the genre, but both Treasure Planet and Atlantis were referred to as science fiction movies by their creators, audience members and critics alike. If you want to get specific, Atlantis was called a “science fantasy action adventure”, but even then, it was considered the first science fiction film in the Animated Canon.

  21. far too good

  22. I love the concept of this article, I just wish that it took itself a little more seriously. This feels really glib sometimes. You’re absolutely right to point out that these films are strange outliers at a strange transitional period in Disney’s history though.

  23. It is an interesting detour the studio took at the time. They just simply were experiments that faltered.

  24. I took my children to see both, Treasure Planet and Atlantis and they loved the movies. They are in the late 20”s now and they still watch the movies regularly. Personally, I thought it was a stroke of genius combining both Treasure Island with space pirates in the film Treasure Planet. I also had my animation students go to the theater to critique the film Treasure Planet and they enjoyed it.

    The film shots in the movie Atlantis was very nice as well as the story and color. I even went with some Disney people to see it at the theater. Now the sequel was gunk. I know that sounds blunt, but it was. What a great disappointment for a Disney film. Bad story, bad art, and bad execution.

    Regarding Disney’s Dark Age of animation, the author is correct. The Black Cauldron and Fox and the hound did very poorly in the box office. Not a good day for a young Disney animator Tim Burton. But he redeemed himself with the Nightmare Before Christmas. Even though that film did not do well in the Box office either, it later became an animation classic.

  25. I don’t think that Disney has failed in science fiction.

  26. I’m not such a huge fan of Atlantis, but I happen to love Treasure Planet! And I didn’t first learn of it from finding it in the bargain-bin DVD section either. I saw it in the theaters as a kid and thought it was so cool (and I still do). I also really resonated with Jim’s Theme (“I’m Still Here”). Even today, I still can’t fully comprehend why it didn’t take off in popularity like it should have. Well….I guess that’s other people’s loss.

  27. Joseph Cernik
    Joseph Cernik

    These movies might have done poorly at the box office, but I enjoyed watching them (usually more than once) with my children. Despite that, this was a good essay.

  28. While they may not have been the most popular, I don’t believe Disney completely failed. Numerous people my age consider Treasure Planet their favorite Disney film.

  29. CulturallyOpinionated

    Atlantis’ Milo and Stargate’s Daniel Jackson definitely were definitely who I wanted to grow up to be when I first saw these movies (and I was around 10): an expert in a field dealing with ancient and mythological subject matter, able to adapt to adversity and overcome their debilitating social awkwardness in a grand adventure with ancient powers and modern military… Not to mention the blonde hair and glasses we all shared. It’s a shame Atlantis didn’t get the treatment the Stargate series eventually did.

  30. Funnily enough, I’ve actually seen all the Disney movies mentioned in this article (I distinctly remember seeing Treasure Planet when it first came out in theatres). I remember enjoying them all at the time, although I was quite young then. Based on what other people have said, these weren’t necessarily bad movies–just commercial failures that came out at the wrong time and weren’t up to the standards expected from Disney.

  31. Daniel C. Hein

    Disney definitely tried to appeal to a young adult audience with these movies, and the science fiction/steampunk combination and heavy use of CGI reflect this. Obviously it failed commercially at the time, but judging from the cult following that Atlantis and Treasure Planet received afterwards, there is an undeniable appeal for some people.

  32. Disney should reboot atlantis for Disney +

  33. Loved this article. Despite the mixed reception both these movies got, I love them dearly to this day. While the plots may not have held the movies as strongly as in previous Disney ventures, the breadth of imagination provided great appeal

  34. It’s honestly a shame these films didn’t do as well as some of their predecessors and successors, as they were actually quite well made. Hopefully they will grow a bigger following over time.

  35. I really pisses me off that Altantis bombed and overrated shitty films like Finding Nemo and Cars 1 get the pass.

  36. I meant Atlantis. Sorry for the typo error.

  37. I remember watching “The Black Cauldron” as a little kid and being horrified…. such a sad dark scary world, (and from Disney?!) the world was not ready lol

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