Thursday, December 13, 2018

Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

Kirk Douglas as Ned Land.
It's a whale of a tale...I swear by my tattoo. Well, truth be told, I'm not a tattoo kind of guy, but Walt Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is still an impressive achievement 64 years after its original release. However, a recent viewing reminded me that it's more a movie for adults than children.

The plot, a fairly faithful adaptation of Jules Verne's 1870 novel, opens with the U.S. government launching a search for a "sea monster" that has been destroying warships. The expedition includes a famous French scholar, Professor Aronnax (Paul Lukas), his assistant (Peter Lorre), and a harpooner named Ned Land (Kirk Douglas). When their ship is attacked, the trio fall overboard and are later rescued by the "monster"--which turns out to be a technologically advanced submarine called the Nautilus.

Captain Nemo's submarine, the Nautilus.
The submarine's commander is Captain Nemo (James Mason), who has turned his back on mankind and retreated to a world beneath the oceans. Nemo is thrilled to discuss his discoveries with a fellow scientist, Aronnax, so he spares the lives of his three new passengers. Yet, as their undersea voyages continue, the professor gradually realizes that Nemo is consumed by revenge. Meanwhile, the restless Ned Land plots his escape--hopefully with some of the treasure stored aboard the Nautilus.

Cannibal tries to board the submarine.
With whole sequences that play like a documentary narrated by Paul Lukas and a running time just over two hours, one would expect 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to be a leisurely affair. However, director Richard Fleischer spaces the three best action scenes with precision. Just as an underwater expedition starts to turn dull, Douglas and Lorre are attached by a shark. A quick visit to a seemingly deserted island gets enlivened by a tribe of cannibals chasing after Douglas. And, as Nemo's near-madness begins to take center stage, Fleischer inserts the film's showstopper: an attack by a giant squid amid a ferocious storm.

James Mason as Captain Nemo.
Douglas, Lukas, and Lorre acquit themselves capably, but the standout performance belongs to James Mason. He captures Nemo's excitement at discovering the wonders of the deep, but also the Captain's depression over the death of his family and his hatred toward the human race that he holds accountable.

Of course, one could argue that the true star of 20,000 Leagues is the Nautilus. From the submarine's exterior design to the observation cone in the captain's quarters, it presents one wonder after another. It should come as no surprise that the film won Oscars for Best Art Direction - Color and Best Special Effects.

The giant squid attack at sunset.
Part of the justification for the latter award was no doubt the famous squid battle. It was originally filmed at sunset, but then reshot because it lacked drama (and some of the wires were visible). Although the scene was believed to be lost, 16mm footage was later discovered and the sequence edited for a "special edition" DVD. It looks pretty good, although the sunset looks like a painted backdrop. The reality is that the storm added immeasurably to the suspense.

Watch it for the thrilling giant squid. Watch it for another fine James Mason performance. Or watch it for the impressive art direction. Whatever the reason, if you haven't watched 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea recently, it's probably time to see it again.


  1. It's true what you say about it being more a movie for adults than for kids. The genius is that kids (I remember that first viewing!) can enjoy it as well as adults. Critics love pointing out when a movie accomplishes the reverse (a kid's movie grownups can enjoy!). James Mason broke my heart then and he can do it now.

  2. Noted, a great film tradition that carries on in "Leagues": that of an actors' offspring continuing on in their parents' footsteps. Examples: Walter Huston/John; Harry Carey/Jr. Here, the younger squid following in his daddy's suckerprints, the cephalopod from "Wake of the Red Witch."

    I've always considered Mason's "Nemo" the definitive version (as definitive as Connery/Bond), though Herbert Lom is quite good in "Mysterious Island."

  3. Like you said, the action sequences are perfectly spaced apart so the film never seems to drag. Also: The Nautilus itself almost steals the show.

    It's been a few years since I've seen this, and it really is time to see it again!

  4. ...or watch it for Kirk Douglas serenading a seal. Oh yes. :)

  5. Thanks for writing about one of my all time favorite Disney films. James Mason is indisputably the best screen Nemo. I remember watching this on "The Wonderful World of Disney" as a kid. They used to break it up into two parts, so you had to wait a week to see the second half of the movie! Ah, the good old days.