As the Walt Disney Co. salvages the shipwreck that the movie "Treasure Planet" has become, studio executives are mulling why the animated, set-in-space version of Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island" has foundered so badly that the company was forced to cut its earnings estimates for the year.
Theories abound, ranging from a badly timed release date to an unsympathetic lead character. Most intriguing, perhaps, is the idea that boys -- to whom the pirate adventure was marketed -- may be too distracted with louder, faster-paced entertainments to be interested in a stately, classically animated Disney epic.
The updated version of the classic adventure may feature a space-going, tall-masted clipper, but it performed more like a Cold War Soviet rocket -- exploding on takeoff and taking in only $16.7 million in its opening five days, beginning Nov. 27.
The initial damage was bad enough that Disney was forced to lower its 2002 pretax revenue estimate by $74 million, a step so dramatic that Disney studio head Richard Cook said he could not recall it happening before.
Even though "Treasure Planet" may do well in Europe and doubtless will rack up millions in VHS and DVD sales, Disney doubts it will ever break even. It cost $140 million to make and has brought in $23.7 million so far.
Critics were tepid on the film; it got an average grade of C+ from the 11 film critics who contribute to Entertainment Weekly's poll. Audiences were kinder: A survey of about 1,000 opening-night viewers done by CinemaScore Online Inc., a movie polling company, gave "Treasure Planet" an A-.
Given this, the film's poor performance raises several questions: Has Disney lost its touch with its core content, animation? Has the look of Disney's animated films become dated compared with computer-generated films, such as "Shrek"? Or was "Treasure Planet" a victim of bad timing in the kids market, hitting theaters in between the most recent "Harry Potter" installment and Disney's own "The Santa Clause 2"?
More pointedly, has Disney lost boy viewers to the likes of "Tony Hawk's Boom Boom HuckJam," a sensory-overload arena show featuring thrash music, choreographed skateboard tricks, motocross motorcycle jumping and BMX bike acrobatics? Another correlative possibility: that "Treasure Planet" was so long in production -- it was dreamed up 17 years ago and finally greenlighted in 1997 -- that it was bypassed by the explosion of turbocharged video games that didn't exist five years ago, which remain largely the province of boys.
"I think there's a lot more [boys entertainment] now than there was some years back and that the stuff that is available is a lot edgier and is a lot more advanced for the [age group] Disney was targeting," said Tom Wolzien, a media analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. "Let's say they were targeting 8- to 13-year-olds, hypothetically. Well, now your audience is reduced to single digits [in age] because by the time kids are 10, they're off doing something else" than watching Disney films.
Disney calls "Treasure Planet" an isolated dud and says larger conclusions cannot necessarily be drawn from its fizzle. But the company hasn't had a boy hit in some time. The last Disney animated film targeted at boys, June 2001's "Atlantis: The Lost Empire," opened at a disappointing $20.8 million, eventually racking up $84.1 million and breaking even.
The successful Disney animated films of recent history -- "Lilo & Stitch" and "Monsters, Inc." -- have targeted both boys and girls. Disney tried to make the main boy character in "Treasure Planet" appealing to boys in the "tween" age group; he flies about on a device that looks like a cross between a snowboard and a windsurfing board.
But he didn't click. "Cleary, when the lead characters are boys, its going to skew in that direction," Cook said. "Whatever it was, we didn't tap into the appeal of the character or the story or whatever. Whether that speaks to other issues or not, I'm not sure."
Some Disney officials think the potential boy audience for "Treasure Planet" was bled off by the most recent James Bond installment, "Die Another Day," which opened five days earlier.
Cook, who has headed Disney's live-action and animation studios since February, said "Treasure Planet" is not indicative of any larger problem with Disney animation.
"The simple answer is that none of the people we [marketed to] wanted to see it. It happens," Cook said. "You're going to have one of these once in a while. But I'll still keep our batting average."
A close look at Disney's animation average, however, might suggest the need for a few more swings in the batting cage.
"Lilo & Stitch," released in June, opened big, grossing $35.3 million in its first weekend. The film has gone on to be a box office hit, taking in $145.7 million. Likewise, "Monsters, Inc." has been a box office and DVD smash. But "Monsters, Inc." -- like hit films "Toy Story" and "A Bug's Life" -- was animated by Disney's partner, Pixar Animation Studios, and it has a different look than the films cranked out by Disney animators. Some say the look is fresher and the editing faster.
For movies done solely by Disney, the studio's batting average is down from its decade of dominance, from 1989 to 1999, when animated films such as "The Little Mermaid," "Aladdin," "The Lion King" and "Tarzan" routinely grossed more than $100 million each, often more.
More indicative of recent history was December 2000's "The Emperor's New Groove," which grossed only $9.8 million in its first weekend on its way to $89.3 million. Its relative failure remains a puzzle to Disney, whose setbacks have given traction to rival animators and their films, such as Fox's "Ice Age" and DreamWorks' "Shrek," which grossed $268 million in theaters.
Wolzien points out that kids may not feel an attachment to Disney because the company did not make its cable channel widely available as part of basic service until recently, while rival kids channel Nickelodeon has long enjoyed widespread distribution.
"Today's kids were raised by Viacom," Wolzien said, naming Nickelodeon's parent company, "not Disney."
At least one analyst said Disney's problems extend beyond an inability to connect with thrasher tween boys.
"I'm a little concerned that the Disney [animation] format has aged," said Jordan Rohan, a media analyst with SoundView Technology Group.
"I don't believe that people care to hear Elton John and Tim Rice anthems weaved into a movie anymore," Rohan said, referring to John's score for Disney's 1994 hit, "The Lion King." Sweeping scores have become a hallmark of Disney animation. "It's not fresh," he said.
Rohan contrasts "Treasure Planet's" dated -- or classic -- animation style and story with that of DreamWorks' "Shrek," which featured a breezier, computer-generated style and two hit songs by the pop group Smash Mouth.
Disney's animation studios are likely in for an overhaul anyway. Thomas Schumacher, the longtime head of Disney's animation division, is said to be moving to helm the company's Broadway division. Analysts will be watching Disney closely through the spring, as the company is set to release two more animated films, "The Jungle Book II" and "Piglet's Big Movie."
The punch line to "Treasure Planet's" initial flop, however, involves something more mundane than studio heads and analysts theorizing about what appeals to kids. It involves accounting. Because the film was released after the company estimated its 2002 earnings but before it filed its annual report on Form 10-K, accounting rules forced Disney to reduce its earnings estimate. Had "Treasure Planet" been released at almost any other time during the year, its drain on the company's finances might have been overlooked.