"Do you really want to see this?" Carmen asked.
"Heck, yes." I said. It's been in the nineties. Also, I wanted to visit my schoolgirl crush.
I'd known about this movie since I was…about four or five, when my cousins dumped on me a huge selection of Little Nipper records, and a cheap record player. For those of you who are too young to remember, Little Nippers were a partnership between Disney and RCA, and featured cut-down versions of movies on four sides of 2 EP's on yellow vinyl. The idea was that you had a book, with colored illustrations from the movie, and sometimes dialogue and text, and every time a sound cue came up (typically a dog barking, though for this movie, Esmeè a seal) you turned the page. Pathetic, I know, but until VCR's came out (at $10,000) this was how you experienced movies at home, unless you were a rich kid and had a film projector. When RCA came up with a turntable with integrated slides, it felt like This Is The Future.
Sigh. I know. Pathetic.
The Nipper version was heavily bowdlerized: it begins with Ned Land telling how Arronax, Conseuil, and himself were out doing scientific stuff, and all of a sudden they get caught in a hurricane, and just when they've been washed off into the stormy Caribbean, a submarine pops up. It's Cap'n Nemo, and he's more than happy to have everyone aboard, giving them a tour of the ship, singing jolly sea chanteys with his crew and feasting them with his amazing all-seafood cuisine. Although he's decided to keep them permanent guests in order to keep his secrets, after a few adventures, he lets them off in a spot near a port, out of gratitude. It ends with Ned Land throwing a fish to Esmèe and singing "A whale of a tale and it's all true/I swear by my tattoo."
So it was with a good heart that I went to see this movie for the first time, expecting Verne's signature blend: a little adventure, some tall tale and speculation, and a lot of mid-19th century true science. Disney had re-released the film as part of the centennial of its publication…I was twelve, aspie, and imaginative, and game for anything even vaguely science fictional.
One of the delightful characteristics of classic Hollywood in general, and Disney in particular, is that the line between children's fare and adult-oriented films isn't always black and white: studios expected whole families to go to the movies together, and although you probably can't find a kid-friendly film noir or sexual innuendo in Sleeping Beauty, they do throw both sides a bone now and then. In this case, the adult bone in the kid's flick is Captain Nemo.
A less imaginative casting would have made Conseuil a more than slightly geeky teenage boy -- as a matter of fact, he comes across as kind of Aspie in the books, always referring to himself and others in the third person and suchlike and Arronax an absent-minded professor. (Between the two of them, you can always have someone ready to tell you what science you need to know.) Ned Land is mostly beefcake eye candy, 'cause sailors are cool, and Canadian/Americans are funny. This of course gives us Captain Nemo, a Mad Scientist par excellence, and since his big schtick is that no one knows what his deal is, he can be anything from pure evil to a scenery-chomping cartoon without too much trouble. Instead, we get Kirk Douglas, playing the brutish Ned Land in an outfit based on the American Flag, Peter Lorre, playing Conseuil the Nonentity, Paul Lukas as Arronax, the Suave European, and... James Mason.
When he's not in a diving suit, he slinks around in a series of unconstructed coats that give him an air somewhere between Hugh Hefner and Dr. Orpheus. (Hey, it's his boat…) He's not tall, but looks it, and speaks in a rapid, velvety purr similar to that of Tim Curry, with huge expressive dark eyes. He borderline-drowns the castaways, and picks up Arronax and the others at the last minute, observing that Arronax was trying to help the others. He dries them off and serves them an all-seafood meal that's intended to be gourmet queasine, but (to a contemporary viewer) merely sounds like classic fish-as-meat meeting classic Japanese. On the ship, he's got a cramped, though otherwise amazing proto-steampunk bachelor pad filled with books, scientific specimens, and a pipe organ on which he improvises now and then. He's got a Deep Dark Secret, and wears his world-weariness with great volupté...watching an incredible wargasm scene, you can see all that sublimated sex having its way with him as he stokes up playing Bach, and his eyes dance on the edge of madness as he rams the Nautilus into a steam schooner. (He does, however, kiss the seal, now and then.) As someone else said, he looks and acts as if he's in some other movie, one with more violence, an R rating and a much more clearly defined political message. (Considering his effect on a real-live 12-year old, I kind of wonder at Kubrick casting him as Humbert Humbert. All I can say is Lolita, you eediot! On the other hand, if you fear your preadolescent female will never appreciate any male fantasy more complex than Twilight or boy bands, I'd hand them this on DVD...and wait.)
Like the book, the movie is kind of episodic: Ned Land gets drunk/in a fistfight/sings every 20 minutes, and plots escape, there's a lot of nice underwater footage that resembles some of the photographs from Life Magazine at the time (though not as well documented as in the book, and, well, they just didn't have SCUBA), they encounter some cannibals, and fight them off, Arronax gets to see the power source (which is hinted as being atomic, instead of the hand waving "electricity" of the book), and, um, we get to see why Nemo's so angsty. (Colonialism.) Long story short, Ned and Nemo fight a giant squid and finally declare a truce, we see a glimpse of Nemo's super-seecret techno Utopia…and then, they get captured again, by the "good" guys.
Upon seeing it again, Peter Lorre looks shamefully underused. It could stand a lot less Ned Land, who gets annoying, after awhile, and a lot more science, whether mechanical or natural history. (Protip to would be adapters: There's a really good English writer of the period who you can plunder for details, if there isn't enough in Verne.) The crew all speak English (instead of either Uralic Polish or Bundeli/Kannada depending on what version of Captain Nemo you follow), and you never get to find out anything about them, other than they're True to the End. The sea lion looks really well trained. And, oh, yeah, the giant squid is fun to watch.
I gotta get out of these clothes….Hm. Dakkar. Isn't that where that temple is, with all those carvings of people doing…all that? It's really hot around here...