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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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
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