20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
directed by Richard Fleischer
(Disney, 1954)

In 1868, ships are being sunk by a sea monster in the Pacific, and this is interfering with trade, research and diplomatic missions. A warship is sent out to dispel the myth of the sea monster -- or kill it, if there really is one.

After months of fruitless searching, the "sea monster" finds the warship and sinks it. There are three survivors: jolly, brash, outspoken harpooneer Ned Land (Kirk Douglas), studious, open-minded researcher Professor Arronax (Paul Lukas) and Arronax's aide and student, Conseil (Peter Lorre). The three climb aboard the monster and discover its true nature: the monster is a powerful submarine, with the intense and enigmatic Captain Nemo (James Mason) at the helm. How did Captain Nemo build this fantastic ship? What is he trying to accomplish? Will he let the "passengers" survive?

As the adventure proceeds, many marvels are encountered, and the questions of "how" and "why" are gradually revealed.

This film version of Jules Verne's novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea has few, if any flaws. It won Oscars for art direction and special effects (deservedly) and the performances (especially Mason and Douglas) were overlooked at Oscar time, probably because science fiction is often not taken seriously by the Academy.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was a favorite book of mine as a child, and the movie is true to the novel, with but a few modifications. Mason is perfect as Nemo, a rogue scientist/inventor/businessman who rejects the barbarity of the "civilized" world and mounts an undersea war against those who make war and ravage the sea. The only one who might have portrayed this part as well is Rex Harrison. Lukas plays Arronax, and he struggles with the dilemma of wanting to learn from Nemo versus objecting to some of the captain's methods. Lorre's Conseil is a perpetually frightened and bewildered man who wants to learn, but also wants to survive. The harpoonist, all-American boy Ned Land (Douglas), wants to escape and enjoy himself. The three are unsure of what to make of Nemo, who is obviously a genius and who is protesting barbarity, but who is also ruthless and secretive.

While the special effects are slightly dated at times, the Nautilus in the film was a marvel, and still is. And watch out for the giant squid!

Another wonderful aspect of the film (and the novel) was how imaginative Verne was. The story takes place right after the Civil War, but the submarine is nuclear-powered (Verne did not spell that out, but it is unclear what else it could be) and Nemo is engaged in underwater farming! This is a flawless translation of a wonderful science/adventure novel to film, and it's a perfect family movie, good for all but very young children. Enjoy!

As for the second disc, prepare to enjoy, but prepare even more to learn. The special features constitute nothing less than a class in how science-fiction movies should be made. While computers have now changed much, many of the lessons still hold, and the outdated aspects still provide a wonderful perspective on film-making history.

One of the most interesting things I learned was the similarity between, of all people, Walt Disney and Sylvester Stallone!

This, by the way, is my own interpretation. Both men gambled everything they had on the making of an amazing movie, and the two movies, 20,000 Leagues and Rocky made or solidified the careers of the two men who were the driving forces, respectively. Disney went way over budget on this film, which was his first live-action feature, to do justice to Verne's masterpiece, and to show the world that Disney was much more than a maker of great cartoons. The battle with the giant squid almost bankrupted the studio and, if 20,000 Leagues had foundered at the box office, all of Disney could have come grinding to a halt, including the nascent Disneyland.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea succeeded marvelously, and is still a great adventure, for anyone from about age 7 to 107.

review by
Chris McCallister

22 December 2007

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