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20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Kirk Douglas, James Mason, Paul Lukas, Peter Lorre
Director:  Richard Fleischer
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.55:1
Studio:  Walt Disney
Features:  See Review
Length:  127 Minutes
Release Date:  May 20, 2003

“Do you know the meaning of love, Professor?”

“I believe I do.”

“What you fail to understand is the power of hate.”

Film ***

At long last, Walt Disney’s most heralded live action adventure is available in original widescreen format!  But more on that further down…

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was, by far, the most expensive production ever attempted at the time in 1954, with a final cost of around $9 million.  Toward the end of production, moneys were being diverted from Walt’s dream project of Disneyland and other films in progress, until cash ran out leaving Walt and his vision at the mercy of the bankers.  The picture was considered by everyone in the business to be a tremendous risk.

Fortunately, Disney was a man used to taking risks and having them pay off.  20,000 Leagues was a triumph of storytelling and imagination, with a great cast, wondrous worlds to explore and amazing Oscar winning special effects and set design.  It was a monster hit for the studio, and remains one of their most beloved offerings ever.

Unfortunately for me, even the imagination of Disney couldn’t quite compare with that of a young boy who loved the Jules Verne novel with vigor.  No movie adaptation could ever equal the worlds created in my head by Verne’s original text.  I’ve seen the Disney film many times over the years, and each time, I appreciate it more and more…but my overall reaction is still a bit of quiet dissatisfaction. 

Verne’s tale was simply wider in scope and range…a collection of adventurous vignettes that could almost stand apart from each other, yet each one inspiring awe and imagination, even in our modern world where submarines are no longer a fantasy.  Every time I think of the passage in the book where the professor and Captain Nemo, in their underwater suits, overlook the ruins of a city on the ocean floor and Nemo uses his finger to write “Atlantis” in the sand, I think the Disney film missed an opportunity or two.

Yet I can’t blame the studio for the fact that I cherished the book so much.  Frankly, I’ve never found a suitable screen adaptation of The Three Musketeers either.  So, while admitting my own imaginative prejudices against it, keeping in mind the historical perspective and achievement, and mostly, for finally seeing the picture in its true 2.55:1 ratio which lent a greater appreciation for the visuals, I arrive at a three star rating.

When a menacing sea monster seems to be destroying warships and supply ships, many sailors become reluctant to take to the sea.  But for one Professor Arronax (Lukas) and his assistant Conseil (Lorre), the attraction is too great to resist, especially when they are invited onto a vessel to explore the myth.

Their vessel sinks as well, leaving only Arronax, Conseil and salty harpooner Ned Land (Douglas) alive and adrift, when they make the discovery of a lifetime…the sea monster is in fact a brilliantly designed and powerful underwater craft!

The Nautilus, commanded by the reclusive Captain Nemo (the superb Mason), is indeed a ship of wonders.  With the three men as Nemo’s reluctant guests (Ned would say prisoners), the captain takes them on an underwater adventure with plenty of surprises in store, including a sea bottom hunting and gathering expedition, a look at a slave labor island that holds the key to Nemo’s past, a secret base where the Nautilus repowers, and more.

But while the professor marvels at the discoveries and inventions that could better all humanity, he finds little cooperation from Nemo, who has withdrawn from a society he deems cruel and barbaric.  He’s made it a personal mission to thwart mankind’s attempts at war, and has no intention of releasing the secrets of his submarine that would only become another instrument of destruction in the wrong hands.  Ironic, because that’s just what the Nautilus becomes from time to time in Nemo’s hands.

All of this cumulates in the legendary battle with the giant sea squid (and how appropriate to see this film again now, after recent scientific discoveries have proven the existence of such creatures!), which is dated just a tad, but still holds up better than most science fiction monster combat scenes of the era.  But that isn’t the finale…that comes only when Nemo discovers his private world has been invaded by land dwellers, and he decides that he, his ship, his crew and guests must all perish for the sake of keeping his knowledge out of the hands of humanity!

There is plenty to love about this classic film, but a few complaints as well, my issues with the novel translation notwithstanding.  There are some places in the movie that move too slowly for my taste, though the action sequences usually make up for them.  It isn’t Walt’s fault, or Jules’ fault, or even the fault of director Richard Fleischer, but the undersea world isn’t quite as mysterious to us as it once was, especially for those of us who grew up with Jacques Cousteau and programs like Nova.  Though the oceans still hold many mysteries, deep sea diving is no longer a novelty to us.

Still, I don’t want to be too harsh, so I’ll give the movie my one compliment that has never wavered over the years:  James Mason is absolutely perfect as the enigmatic, intelligent and quietly pained Captain Nemo.  Every experience that led him to his rejection of mankind seems written on his troubled face.  His performance is elegant and eloquent.  Supporting cast members all turn in good work as well, from the nervous Peter Lorre to the do-whopping Kirk Douglas.  Strangely enough, the book’s most pivotal role (as a first person narrative) makes for the movie’s blandest character in Arronax, though that’s no fault of actor Paul Lukas.

For me, the entertainment value is enriched by the historical context of the film as Disney’s first major financial gamble with a live action picture and their first CinemaScope offering…in fact, the supplements indicate that this was only the second CinemaScope movie made after The Robe!  Though a bit dated by today’s standards, it’s easy to remember how marvelous an accomplishment the picture was in 1954.

All considerations put together, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea remains a big screen classic…even on the little screen.

BONUS TRIVIA:  Director Richard Fleischer is the son of animation pioneer Max Fleischer, who was one of Disney’s biggest rivals in the early days!

Video ***1/2

The 2.55:1 anamorphic offering is the biggest attraction here, but Disney’s DVD presentation is a visual treat in other respects as well.  The print is quite clean and free of specs and scratches…only a bit of dinginess can be noted in a few more monochromatic shots.  The Technicolor tones are rich and deep, with good containment and crispness throughout.  The Oscar winning sets are magnificent looking, with every detail showing distinction.  This is the only way to view this movie at home!  

Audio ***

The 5.1 remix is a welcome treat…the .1 channel keeps the Nautilus humming along, while a few action and storm sequences get the rear stage into the action.  For the most part, the film is dialogue, and therefore forward stage, oriented.  This isn’t one of the boldest remixes I’ve heard, but still well balanced, more than serviceable, and very enjoyable.

Features ****

This is a wonderfully loaded double disc edition, with plenty of features to satisfy the most insatiable of curiosities!

Disc One, in addition to the movie, contains a new commentary track with director Richard Fleischer and film historian Rudy Behlmer, who guides the session along with his questions.  It’s not always scene specific, but it’s still filled with interesting information and trivia.  There is also a cartoon short with Donald Duck that originally appeared theatrically with the film, “Grand Canyonscope”.  It was Disney’s first CinemaScope cartoon…I loved it when the ranger chided the tourists who were all bunched together in the center of the screen, “Spread out, folks…this is CinemaScope!”

Disc Two is set up with the Vault Disney menu screens, and the fun begins with a tremendous new documentary on the making of the film.  Lots of reflection, new interviews (including, I’m pleased to say, the legendary Kirk Douglas), and plenty of stories about yet another film that almost bankrupt the studio turning into a monster hit make this a wonderful and fascinating viewing experience. 

A featurette on Jules Verne and Walt Disney is also a treat, as is a real look at the Humbolt Squid that inspired the major action sequence…this thing really is a killer! 

A “Lost Treasure” segment shows the famous original “Sunset Squid” sequence that was scrapped.  There is also a tour of the Nautilus, a look at Paul Smith’s musical legacy, a studio album for 1954, production gallery, trims, a “monsters of the deep” special look, a script excerpt detailing the death of Nemo, a look at the film’s merchandise, unused animation, storyboards, audio outtakes of Peter Lorre doing post-dubbing, Captain Nemo’s organ music, trailer and radio spots.  I hope I didn’t leave anything out!

Summary:

Jules Verne and Walt Disney were men of remarkable imaginations whose visions helped shape the 20th century and beyond.  20,000 Leagues Under the Sea may not have aged well in all aspects, but remains one of the studio’s quintessential achievements and a viable piece of entertainment for families even five decades later.