The pitch for John Musker and Rob Clements' 2002 animated feature "Treasure Planet" couldn't be simpler: "Treasure Island" in space. Made on a sizable budget of $140 million, "Treasure Planet" transformed the three-masted maritime sailing ships of Robert Louis Stevenson's 1882 novel into cosmos-dwelling, frigate-shaped spacecraft that soar on solar sails. In an effort to "hip up" the joint, Jim Hawkins (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) was turned into a rebellious, solar surfing teen, and Long John Silver (Brian Murray) didn't just have a peg leg, but multiple bionic body parts. A talking parrot became a small, shapeshifting blob. Captain Smollett was transformed into the feline humanoid Captain Amelia (Emma Thompson), and the stranded Ben Gunn was turned into a malfunctioning robot named B.E.N. (Martin Short). The treasure was still treasure.

The changes were clever enough, and the designers working on "Treasure Planet" skewed heavily into steampunk, a sub-genre of sci-fi that imagined futuristic devices as if they had been invented in Victorian England. Despite the film's aesthetic triumphs, audiences stayed away. "Treasure Planet" bombed, earning only $38 million domestically. It marked the start of a dark decade for Disney animated features that were released to low success and little fanfare. "Planet" was followed by the flops "Brother Bear" and "Home on the Range" and the immediate declaration by Disney that hand-drawn cel animation would be a thing of the past. They continued to flop with "Chicken Little," "Meet the Robinsons," and "Bolt."

Wait 20 years on any Disney animated feature, though, and the kids who managed to watch it in its initial run will begin piping up in its defense. Call it the "Hercules" Phenomenon. On the film's 20th anniversary, "Treasure Planet" now has a handful of adult defenders, and new spate of enthused retrospectives with the involved filmmakers.

The Gong Show

In one such retrospective, on "The Tammy Tuckey Show," Musker and Clements recalled the genesis of the project, pitched to Disney some 18 years prior to the film's actual release. They describe the writers' room where the studio's decision-makers would elect their next big-budget projects and revealed that then-CEO of Disney, Michael Eisner, had taken his approval process directly from Chuck Barris-hosted 1976 game show "The Gong Show." On "The Gong Show," contestants would perform unusual entertainment acts for a panel of celebrity judges. If the judges found the act to be intolerable, they could strike a gong up on the wall and end the act immediately. Only acts that made it to the end received a score.

Eisner was evidently a fan of "The Gong Show," and would listen to a litany of ideas from his writers. If it didn't immediately grab him, it was "gonged." Whether or not Eisner actually hit a gong remains unclear. At first, Clements revealed that one of Disney's eventual blockbusters was initially passed up prior to striking on "Treasure Planet." He described the process like this:

"Michael Eisner was very new at Disney, and he had this brainstorm technique called 'The Gong Show' where … he wanted us to go out and come back with five new ideas for animated features. And I did. And when we came back and reconvened, he said, 'I only want you to say your best idea.' And when he came to me, I said my best idea, and that was 'The Little Mermaid.' Which actually got gonged! It got 'un-gonged' very soon, but at the time it got gonged. And it was Jeffrey Katzenberg, actually, who gonged it."

Star Trek: The Treasure Generation

Once gonged, Clements continued with his second-best idea. That too was gonged, only this time for a specific reason: "Star Trek" might have beaten them to it. He said:

"But then he said, 'Okay, what's your second-best idea?' My second-best idea was 'Treasure Island In Space'. And I had written up two-page treatments on both those things, and it also got gonged at the time. And I think there again, I think Jeffrey gonged it." But the reason they gonged it was they had just come over [from] Paramount Studios, and they were very involved with the 'Star Trek' movies, and they said that the plot of the next Star Trek movie that was going to come out was 'Treasure Island In Space.'"

This all occurred in the mid-1980s, after the release of "Star Trek III: The Search for Spock." It seems that "Star Trek: Treasure Island" was eventually going to mutate into "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home," a film about traveling back in time to 1986 to save a pair of humpback whales, extinct in Trek's future time. That is, an astute reader might note, quite a far cry from the story of "Treasure Island."

Clements and Musker describe how "Treasure Planet" was put onto the back burner regardless. Sadly, it stayed there for many years, through the eventual "un-gonged" production of "The Little Mermaid" and "Aladdin." Katzenberg would eventually leave Disney to form his own company, DreamWorks, shortly after production began on the 1998 feature "Hercules." Eisner, who remained CEO until 2005, seemed to fear facing off against an old co-worker. As Musker put it, Eisner wanted to assure the Disney creative team didn't jump ship and go to DreamWorks as well. "Treasure Planet" was his favor.

Please Don't Leave

Musker said:

"Eisner was desperate when Jeffrey left to keep the talent at Disney, he was afraid of losing people to DreamWorks. And so I think he conspired somewhat with [producer] Peter Schneider to say "These various talented people, what can we do to keep them here?" And Peter knew of our passion for that project and he said, 'Well, if we make Treasure Planet, they're going to want to stay and do that.' So Michael Eisner suddenly was gung-ho to do 'Treasure Planet,' which he knew relatively little about, but he knew a little about it, but he was like, "Let's go! Let's do it! Let's get it out there!'"

"Treasure Planet" was made, and the rest lives in infamy. Despite its commercial failure, it was nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards. (It lost to "Spirited Away.") Disney went through a low period, and DreamWorks ran high.

Incidentally, neither Musker nor Clements ever left Disney. The pair worked on "The Princess and the Frog" and "Moana." They will, however, evidently move to Warner Bros. to work on an animated film of the Metal Men, a team of DC superheroes.

That one seems to be on pace. Unless one of the Metal Men resembles Data from "Star Trek: The Next Generation," there shouldn't be any production delays.

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