You really just never know. I wasn’t looking forward to this, the first of four early 21st century Disney features that I’ve never seen. The reviews were not very good, it was maybe the biggest box-office bomb for Disney since Fantasia, and the whole concept of retelling Stevenson’s Treasure Island with sailing ships in outer space seemed more than a little loony. And in the end, I liked it a lot. So what went wrong? Why such a flop?
Maybe it was the sailing ships in space business, after all. And oddly enough, though I tend to prefer hard science stories, there is really nothing here conceptually that is as ridiculous as it sounds. There really are things called solar sails, and while of course they would look nothing like what is shown here—they would have to be much larger, would accelerate very slowly, and would be unlikely to be mounted on what look to be wooden ships—they are possible. And even the idea of them moving though a space that is breathable is not beyond the realm of reason. A star-sized Dyson sphere, or better yet a galactic-sized one, could have an atmosphere. True, you couldn’t movie through it very fast without encountering all the friction problems of hypersonic flight, but why quibble? There would be very little gravity, but we see them turn on the artificial gravity, and AG has been a staple of hard SF forever.
And, of course, if none of those explanations satisfy, there is the old stand-by of an alternate universe where different physical laws apply. Maybe we should just stick with that one.
It’s eight years old now, but the CGI holds up well even compared to the stuff we’re seeing currently. There is one awesome shot where we zoom in on a crescent moon, and as we get closer we realize it is a gigantic crescent-shaped spaceport bustling with activity. Cool! There are hundreds of well-imagined aliens, including one who speaks by farting out of about a dozen orifices. (“I speak Flatulan,” one character says to Jim.) Instead of having just a peg leg, John Silver has an artificial arm, too, a cyborg thing that sprouts any tool he needs. It’s true that Jim Hawkins is something of a stiff, but that’s in the nature of these stories, where the bad guys and the comic relief are always more interesting. Silver is a great character, as is Martin Short as a malfunctioning robot. The comic sidekick is a little pink blob called Morph, who can turn into anything, and takes the place of Silver’s parrot. Also great is Emma Thompson as the heroic, catlike captain of the treasure ship. So, again, what’s not to like?