Monday, July 29, 2013

Movie – 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)

In the early 1950s when Walt Disney (the man, not the studio) saw some footage his photographers had shot of underwater scenes in anamorphic widescreen he decided to make an entire live action film to take advantage of the stunning presentation – a first for his studio.  And what better story to film for this than the classic 1870 Jules Verne novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea?  Two prior versions had been filmed, but both were in the early 1900s so they were limited in what they could show.  Disney’s version would be the first to take advantage of what studios could do with modern technology.  This was only Disney’s fifth live action movie ever yet it is still remembered today as one of the best produced by the studio.

In addition to the widescreen presentation it was also notable at the time for starring big name actors in a Disney film – Kirk Douglas, James Mason, Peter Lorre, and Paul Lukas.  Lukas’ star had perhaps started to fade by 1954, but he had been big in the 1940s, including winning a Best Actor Oscar for 1943’s Watch on the Rhine.  Douglas had two Best Actor Oscar nominations of his own already and Mason was soon to be nominated for his work in another 1954 film – A Star is Born.  Although no acting nominations would be received by 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, it did win two Oscars for Best Color Set Design and Best Special Effects, and it was nominated for Best Editing.

It’s also interesting to note that Walt Disney went out and hired Richard Fleischer to direct.  Richard was the son of Max Fleischer, the founder and head of Fleischer studios – one of Walt Disney’s biggest rivals in the animation business.  They created the characters of Betty Boop and Popeye the Sailor, among many others.  In fact, Richard’s uncle (Max’s brother) Dave Fleischer had directed an animated short titled 20 Legs Under the Sea for Max in the 1930s.  Richard actually checked with his father to see if it was okay with him to work for his rival and Max gave him his blessing.  Richard Fleischer would go on to direct other such films as The Vikings (1958), Barabbas (1961), Fantastic Voyage (1966) - you can read my review of that here, Doctor Doolittle (1967), Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), and Soylent Green (1973).

As you might expect, this film version of the story changes and condenses things from the novel.  The movie opens in 1869 in the Pacific with a sailing ship being attacked and destroyed by a mysterious black beast with glowing eyes.  Many other ships share the same fate.  It gets so bad that Captains refuse to take to sea.  Caught by this in San Francisco are noted professor Pierre Aronnax (Lukas) and his aide Conseil (Lorre).  In order to hopefully get to where he wants to be Aronnax agrees to join an expedition to the South Seas to try to find this beast.  Aronnax sees it as an excellent chance for scientific study.  The expedition’s real goal, though, is to kill the beast, so they also have onboard master harpoonist Ned Land (Douglas).

It doesn’t take long for their ship to be attacked and sunk.  Aronnax, Conseil, and Land are tossed overboard and find themselves on the “skin” of the beast.  They discover that it is metal and that the “eyes” are portholes.  They realize they must be on some incredible metal ship that can submerge and travel under the water.  They are captured by Captain Nemo (Mason) and his crew.  Nemo knows of Aronnax and feels that the two are peers.  He sees Aronnax as someone worthy of saving, but Conseil and Land are consigned to drown when Nemo’s ship, the Nautilus, submerges.  Aronnax insists on drowning with them if they are not to be saved.  Nemo relents and brings all three onboard.  Aronnax is giving preferred guest status, while Land and Conseil are made part of the crew.  There is a catch, though – none of them can ever leave because Nemo does not want the world to find out the truth of his existence.

It turns out that Nemo is an “ends justify the means” kind of guy.  He and his family were captured by slavers on a Pacific island.  His wife and child were tortured to death to get him to reveal his scientific secrets to them, but he managed to escape.  He then swore off all allegiance to any land based nation.  He leveraged his knowledge to build the Nautilus and he is using it to try to keep those nations on their land and to leave his beloved sea alone.  He fears that they will despoil it just as they have the land.

Aronnax actually admires Nemo’s intelligence and is torn by his disapproval of some of Nemo’s actions.  For a Disney movie of any era, and especially one from the 1950s, having a bad guy who has so many shades of grey to him is remarkable.  In fact, hothead Ned Land, who is chafing at having to be part of the crew, causes no end of troubles for Nemo.  Even though he understandably wants his freedom, he goes about it in a way that almost seems to make him the bad guy in some situations.

Most people didn’t watch this film for its political and scientific overtones, though; they watched it for all the grand adventures.  See the crew leave the ship and move around underwater.  See a shark get too close for comfort (real, unplanned footage that was captured while filming.)  See Nemo try to get his revenge on the slavers who murdered his family.  See Land and Conseil encounter cannibals.  See the Nautilus and its crew battle a giant squid during a big storm (perhaps the most famous image from the film.)  And this is Disney so there is a scene where Land fashions a guitar out of a turtle shell and sings a song to the pet seal that Nemo has.

One note on the title: when I was little I got the impression that it meant “really deep”.  When I got older I learned that a league was three miles and I knew that you couldn’t remotely get 60,000 miles below the surface, especially considering that the Earth is less than 8,000 miles in diameter.  I figured it was just bad scientific knowledge in the 1800s that led to this.  I finally learned somewhere along the way that the 20,000 leagues in the title refers to distance traveled while under water, which finally made sense to me.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is an entertaining adventure story.  Even if you want nothing more from a film then you should still be satisfied with that.  If you want to dig a little deeper, though, some of the moral arguments put forward in this film from both sides can inspire debate.  It’s also interesting to think about how they would have been interpreted in 1870 when the novel was written, in 1954 when this film was released, and then how they play today.  If these things sound interesting then I recommend you give this film a try.

Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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  1. I haven't seen this movie in many many years, but I remember seeing it when I was very young, and it was suitably fun and enjoyable. It's one of those movies that as I got older and looked back, I was staggered at the talent that was involved in "a kid's movie."

    Plus Kirk Douglas singing. Always and forever.

    1. I didn't see it until only a couple of years ago. I was going to review it for my Movies By the Numbers category, but after doing 50 or so movie reviews (getting to the number 50) I grew tired of it and shut it down.

      "It's one of those movies that as I got older and looked back, I was staggered at the talent that was involved in a kid's movie."

      You know which one surprised me? Escape to Witch Mountain. I had seen it when I was little, but never again. A few years ago I was visiting someone with little kids and they owned it. I borrowed it to relive part of my childhood. It didn't take me long to say "Hey, that's Ray Milland!"

  2. I love this film. It's definitely fun to watch as it was a film I loved watching when I was a kid and I'm still amazed by some of the effects made.

    Say, have you ever seen the SNL sketch starring Kelsey Grammer as Capt. Nemo and Phil Hartman as Ned?

    1. "Say, have you ever seen the SNL sketch starring Kelsey Grammer as Capt. Nemo and Phil Hartman as Ned?"

      No, I haven't. Do you have a link for it? If not, I can do a search.

    2. Unfortunately, I don't have a Hulu account and YouTube doesn't show SNL sketches. It's a pretty funny sketch that involves Ned pestering Nemo about the concept of leagues.

    3. I find that interesting about Youtube and SNL considering that the first time Youtube ever came to anyone's attention was when an SNL skit with guys rapping about the Chronicles of Narnia went viral.

  3. That sounds pretty cool Chip, I have never seen this film. Which is sort of strange as I have been watching a ton of Disney stuff lately. I am fairly certain that my little man would love to check this out. Did you purchase this film or was it available for streaming?

    1. I got it from Netflix on DVD. I just checked and Netflix does not have it on Instant Viewing; it's DVD only. Amazon does have it instantly for 2.99 - I have a link to it above. You can also buy it from Amazon for less than 10.00 - also with a link above.