Treasure Planet, Women’s Restrooms and Keanu Reeves

So, another Disney film we’ve recently watched is Treasure Planet, because in order to appropriate some sunshine, you need some rainy days.

No, actually, we watched it because Treasure Planet is one of two Disney films that has science fiction-y elements, and we have some rough plans for science fictiony things maybe.

And, Treasure Planet is… well, it’s one of the weaker Disney films.  It’s not, say, Dinosaur bad, but it’s not particularly good either.  It tanked really hard and it is up to us to figure out why!

I haven’t read the source material for Treasure Planet (the novel Treasure Island) in a very long time.  That being said, I want to say that this is one of the most spot on adaptations of a Disney film.  There are scenes lifted from the novel and transplanted directly into the film.  I’m pretty sure the romance between the good doctor (whose name I can’t remember) and the captain (whose name I can’t remember) was added on, but that’d be about it.

So, it is pretty accurate as far as adaptations go (Disney has strayed far further away from source material).  It also looks beautiful.  The space port reveal shot is animated scenery porn, and not the bargain bin brand either.  The world the story takes place in is actually rather awesome.  I like space pirates, the way they travel through the galaxy is cool.  The score is… acceptable (it’s not obtrusive, at any rate).

So, where does the movie go wrong?  Well, lets talk for one more second about where the movie goes right, before we break into it’s glaring flaws, which really all stem from one pivotal problem.

The supporting cast is (for the most part) decent.  I can’t remember names, because I suck with names, but the captain, the doctor, the cyborg– all of these people have personality.  They have quirks, flaws, conflicts– I’d go drinking with them.  They aren’t phenomenal characters, but they have enough personality to sell me.  I can believe in them.  They even have some character growth– falling in love, or realizing they have a soft side, etc.

The same can not be said about our protagonist, Jim.  But that’s because Jim is supposed to be me, or rather I’m supposed to project myself unto Jim and become Jim.  What I’m trying to say is that Jim is the Keanu Reeves of animation, and Keanu Reeves is the uncanny valley of acting.

That paragraph made no sense, I’m gonna take a few steps back.  And to do that, we need look at a graphic novel called Understanding Comics, or alternatively, a Cracked After Hours episode.  Another alternative reading would be Revealing Phantasms, depending on how into academic reading you are.

The basic idea is that we can rate all art on a scale.  On one end is the Mona Lisa, on the other end is the women’s bathroom sign.  Both these ends have merit, because they both represent characters.

The Mona Lisa is a fully-fleshed out character.  People have written comics featuring her (The Far Side comes to mind), we’ve written fan fiction on her backstory (I’m assuming that it exists on the Internet), academics have done historical research into who she was.  However, despite her personality, there is something that the Mona Lisa can’t do– she can’t be you.

Which is something the sign on the woman’s bathroom totally does.  It’s because the sign is so generic– any female (ok, ok: female in the society/culture in which the bathroom sign exists.  Don’t send me hate mail) intrinsically knows that the little stick person in a dress is her.  That sign means that she can go in the special room.  And that stick person in a dress does this for hundreds of millions of people, every day, all the time.

That little stick person has no character.  She has no personality.  Her face is a neutral mask; she’s a hollow shell of a character, which sounds like another protagonist I saw recently–


No wait, I mean–


Outside of the cheapshot on Keanu, what he’s doing makes some sense.  It’s the same strategy that Twilight took– and one of the reasons Twilight got so popular.  Bella doesn’t have a personality, she’s a hollow shell that we’re supposed to project ourselves into so we can live out whatever vampire fantasies we happen to have.

Neo is playing the same role, but the fantasy we’re supposed to live out is different.  In The Matrix, the fantasy is all about being special, about having some unique knowledge and ability that no one else has.  Keanu is bland and emotionless because we, as viewers, are supposed to treat his emotions like a fill in the blank problem.  How do you feel when fighting your robot overlords?  Great, that’s how Neo feels.

And, I think, that’s what Treasure Planet  was going for with Jim.  Jim doesn’t get a lot of dialogue, really.  He rarely talks about himself or his backstory.  His one point of character development is during a montage with the Goo Goo Dolls, in which the main chorus is something along the lines of “Yeah, I’m still here”.  Whelp.

Jim’s backstory can be summed up with “shit happened, but I’m still kicking”, which is probably the most genetic backstory ever.  Anyone, even someone who is rich beyond belief, can identify with that.

Jim’s minimal character arc is basically him discovering that he’s awesome.  But, twist, he was awesome the entire time.  Just like you, random viewer!  You’re awesome.  And you know it. Go you.

The problem is that we don’t watch Disney movies for the the same reason we watch Fast and Furious XVI.  (My years of playing Final Fantasy have trained me to always use roman numerals when referring to sequels.)  Disney probably took the neutral mask protagonist approch because they were adapting a swashbuckling, action story.  But we don’t watch Disney movies for that– we watch Disney movies because of the characters.  Why has Frozen done so well?  Elsa is a brilliant character (also, the soundtrack).  The Little Mermaid?  I’d hope you aren’t projecting onto Ariel, because Ariel is kinda dumb.  However, being optimistically dumb is a pretty strong character trait (and it even makes sense in context, considering Ariel’s privileged upbringing).

Not all Disney movies have done this, some of them have used the blank mask (Snow White I’m looking at you).  But, when you look at the most successful Disney movies (from a make all the money perspective), none of them have had a blank mask protagonist.  Fairy Tales in general do not have blank mask protagonists– they don’t develop a lot of character (because they have like, three lines of text to do so), but fairy tale characters have their own sort of charm.  They’re a bit absurd.

Also, writing a blank face protagonist doesn’t sound fun.

So, safe to say, this is not a tactic we will be using.  Disney has used it (more often than you’d expect), but despite its usefulness, I’d like my Disney movie to be a bit more than the lady on bathroom doors.

I’m vain, whatup.


About relimited

Sup. I'm a computer science grad student out in California currently reading fairy tales rather than writing a strong testing framework.

4 thoughts on “Treasure Planet, Women’s Restrooms and Keanu Reeves

  1. Man, I kind of totally disagree with the characterization of both Neo and treasure planet hawkins here outside of the sort of generic “every protagonist is an audience stand in” kind of modernist attitude.

    Both characters do suffer from a degree of having the plot move along without them, but in Neo’s case this kind of thing was less of a product of Neo being a completely emotionless slate (remember he flips off the agents and demands a phone call, freaks out heavily during the ensuing scene, reacts quite a bit before he’s captured and so on) and much more a result of having suddenly been thrust into a completely alien world utterly different from the one he’d grown up in all his life and then told he was supposed to be some kind of savior, /then/ told he was really utterly unimportant to any kind of prophecy, driving him to make the decision to sacrifice himself. In a more functional behind the camera sense, the movie had a lot of future and a lot of philosophy to get through so it couldn’t really afford to waste time on a bunch of emotional drama shots or support the weight of an overly expressive character. The entire matrix film takes place over the course of like a week or something. Neo’s character wasn’t supposed to be about “suddenly finding out he’s special” as much as a way more buddhist idea of transcending all his links to the world and thus achieving transcendence. In many other ways his lack of outward expression is a reflection of this too, as emotions are another aspect of humanity to abandon.

    Hawkins is going through a similar thrust into an unfamiliar world, but in both treasure island and treasure planet he’s handed some huge importance to the central plot for no real good reason other than it’s a boy’s story (originally published in “young folks” magazine) and needs a boy involved otherwise it’s just a really unrealistic adult story. All the same he’s a spunky little kid who decides to leave his home and involve himself in a bunch of needlessly dangerous shit because it sounds fun. His backstory becomes largely irrelevant as it’s way more important for him to push the plot forward by doing stuff, something an audience stand-in won’t and can’t do because this is a movie and not a video game.

  2. Hi there,
    regarding the more academic reading “Revealing Phantasms” you mentioned … I couldn’t find any arcticle/book/essaye with that name by googling it. I’ve read “Understanding Comics” and loved it and I would like to read more about the whole “Protagonists as a reflection of oneself”-idea. Could you help me out? Where exactly may I be able to find “Revealing Phantasms”? The only thing I found that might be related to your reference is a book called “Phantasmal Media: An Approach to Imagination, Computation, and Expression” – could that be it? :-S

    btw I enjoyed your article 🙂

    1. It’s because I made a mistake. I meant to write “Phantasmal Media” in the post. I blame lack of sleep at the time– which is always probably true, because grad students don’t sleep. My apologies. Herp-derp.

      The book deals with revealing and finding ‘phantasms’ in the context of video games. Phantasms are “blends of cultural ideas and sensory imagination”. From the overview at MIT press, “These ubiquitous and often-unseen phantasms—cognitive phenomena that include sense of self, metaphors, social categories, narrative, and poetic thinking—influence almost all our everyday experiences.”

      (Both quotes are actually from the overview at MIT press).

      I like the book a lot, but like all academic writing, it tends to get wordy and, in trying to be as precise as possible with it’s language, obscure what it’s trying to say. Who doesn’t like a challenge, however?

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