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TREASURE PLANET *** 1/2 (Out of four)

Rated: PG

The voices of Emma Thompson, David Hyde Pierce, Roscoe Lee Browne and Patrick McGoohan in an animated space version of R.L. Stevenson's "Treasure Island." Directed by John Musker and Ron Clements.

Opening today in area theaters.

"Treasure Planet" is a huge kick. Even in a Thanksgiving Week where no fewer than 10 new films are opening locally for all possible cinematic tastes (lowbrow, highbrow, no brow at all), it stands out. And not just because Johnny Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls sings the title song, either. The film is kind of great, if you must know.

As all those with children know, there are two kinds of "family movie" appropriate for kids: the kind that most parents find about as enticing as a diaper pail and just about as watchable, and the kind that parents can swing right along with their kids - perhaps even chortling and cackling at things the kids, bless their hearts, are either too innocent or literal-minded to appreciate.

"Ice Age," anyone? "Aladdin"? "Shrek"?

Now let me tell you about "Treasure Planet." It's quite daft and I couldn't possibly mean that more as a compliment.

Someone walked into a Disney honcho's office at one point and must have said, "I know what we should do for our next big animated film - let's set Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island' in space." And then the big cheese on the other side of the desk, somewhat miraculously, said: "What the heck, why not?"

Why not indeed? You have no idea how important that swashbuckling corporate spirit is for moviemakers - and their audiences. Filmmakers John Musker and Ron Clements took that "why not?" and ran with it - many miles out of their way. They put together an altogether lunatic rendering of a "children's classic" that works on its own hilariously anachronistic terms.

It all happens in space, you see. You know that because the movie abounds in all manner of crazy little creatures. One villain, for instance, has six eyes - three on each side. One space creature speaks a gaseous language called Flatula, which is pretty much what it sounds like. (Sophisticated? Hardly. But it has a nice Mel Brooksian tang.) And, pirate Long John Silver's pet named Morph is a little blob of protoplasm that seems to be able to transform itself into anything.

The kind of macabre humor that only children and excessively merry adults seem to appreciate is much in evidence. At one point on board ship, cook Long John Silver is making a stew for the ship's crew. An eyeball suddenly floats to the surface. "It's from an old family recipe," explains Long John. "And that's part of the old family." Say what you want, but I have a feeling that old Robert Louis himself might have had a giggle at that one.

So, while all this intergalactic space stuff is going on, people are still dressing in 18th century duds and floating and sloshing through space in 18th century galleons.

Long John Silver is a pretty foul creature - much fouler even than Robert Newton, who played him in the classic live action Disneyfication of "Treasure Island." (Alfred Hitchcock, explaining Newton's scabrous screen personality as a character actor, said that it was like "a manure-smelling stable-hand.") Newton remains the definitive movie pirate of all time, I suppose. In this animated version, Long John is minus leg, arm, eye AND eye patch. And, of course, he's a born conspirator, too.

None of which phases the new cabin boy, Jim Hawkins (or "young Jim "Awkins" as Newton used to call him). He and his mother's crazy friend have gone into space to find the long-rumored Treasure Planet of Capt. Bones. The captain of this little expedition is a very un-Stevensonian woman - Capt. Amelia - voiced by Emma Thompson, whose presence in this movie should indicate to anyone right away that this is a good deal more delightful and audacious than the usual kiddie fodder from Mouseworld. David Hyde Pierce is the voice of Jim's old eccentric family friend Dr. Doppler and the redoubtable Rosco Lee Browne is marvelous as the ship's hulking, granite-jawed first mate, Mr. Arrow.

Martin Short doesn't show up until the final half-hour, but makes up for lost time as a robot named B.E.N.

Long John himself is played with splendid phony obsequiousness by Brian Murray.

By the time you get vast old galleons traveling through space at warp speed and dodging black holes, the sudden appearance of a Goo Goo Doll ballad on the soundtrack won't jar you a bit. Anachronism is the whole game plan here.

As I said, it's a kick. And during the course of it, no one anywhere is teaching anyone a social lesson about anything not that anyone would remember.

And, considering the recent Disney record, what a pleasure that is.


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