When I think on the fictional crushes of my early adolescence, there's one in particular that comes to mind above the rest. It's not uncommon to see an animated character at the top of someone's list — and Jim Hawkins of "Treasure Planet" is undoubtedly on mine. He was my first exposure to the bad boys of the early aughts. And I know what you're probably thinking: "Seriously, him? Not Ethan Hawke in 'Reality Bites'? Jared Leto in 'My So-Called Life'?" Sorry, but I was a pretty sheltered kid, so it follows that Disney films informed many of my core experiences.
Jim wasn't the first bad boy by any means — not even for Disney — but his presence as the ostensible hero in their unsung masterpiece was a surprising choice for the times. Walt Disney Animation has never really been the place for nuance. Until "Treasure Planet" — and the handful of films that succeeded the Disney Renaissance of the '90s — Disney had been making a killing with cut-and-dry stories of good and evil. With the exception of a few charming rogues and kind-hearted vigilantes, Disney's heroes and princesses were cut from the same altruistic cloth. But with the '00s came a shift towards more mature storytelling, and heroes that could keep up with the grungy culture that spilled over from the '90s. That meant creating "cool" guys that didn't try too hard, and taking inspiration from some real-life cool guys in the process.
'You Felt The Pain And The Youthful Innocence'
"Treasure Planet" has been accurately described by many as "'Treasure Island' in space" — and aside from a few thematic changes, the story is pretty much the same. One of the biggest changes came with the age of the film's protagonist: Jim was aged up to a proper teenager in "Treasure Planet," a choice that really helped evoke the angsty vibe the animators were looking for. John Ripa, lead animator for Jim Hawkins, looked to well-known heartthrobs like Leonardo DiCaprio and River Phoenix, and even studied Mel Gisbon's performance in "Braveheart," to capture Jim's complex emotions.
"There are a lot of close-ups on characters in 'Braveheart' who are going through thought processes, just using their eyes," Ripa told Phase9. James Dean was another major inspiration for Ripa — though prior to boarding "Treasure Planet," he admitted that he didn't know much about the late actor. "He was just a guy on the side of a coffee mug," Ripa added. "I had not seen his films. It was John Musker who recommended I watch 'Rebel Without a Cause' and when I did I was blown away."
Dean's performances seemed to be a perfect reference for Jim's existential unease. Dean embodied the anguish, the confusion, and the impetuosity that comes with coming of age. "With James Dean there was a whole attitude, a posture," Ripa continued. "You felt the pain and the youthful innocence. I kept coming back to that as I was working on Jim."
A Mission (Somewhat) Accomplished
"Treasure Planet" was one of Disney's biggest box office failures, but the cult following that's grown up with the movie might be consolation enough (probably not, but who knows?). Jim Hawkins remains one of the most interesting, complex and crush-worthy characters in the Disney canon. Sure, he's just lines and color — with a voice provided by another aughts-era heartthrob, Joseph Gordon-Levitt — but his character resonated for a reason. For those who came of age in the early 2000s (and even those who grew up watching the film later), Jim was a character we could relate to, whose angst and confusion paralleled our own. He was more that just a troubled teen: he had intelligence, ambitions and wounds. Like so many in the generation that Disney was trying to appeal to, he just needed a bit of guidance, and a little affirmation.
It also didn't hurt that Gordon-Levitt had his own swagger that helped inform the role. "Treasure Planet" co-directors Ron Clements and Jon Musker spoke highly of the actor at the time. "He, for us, combined enough vulnerability and intelligence and a combination of youthfulness but incompleteness," Musker told Sci Fi. With so many gorgeous, layered performances informing one character, can you really blame me for crushing so hard?
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