Director: Richard Fleischer
Writer: Earl Felton
Professor Arronax: Paul Lukas
Ned Land: Kirk Douglas
Conseil: Peter Lorre
Captain Nemo: James Mason
Based on the novel by Jules Verne.
Walt Disney studios had won Academy Awards for their animated work by the 1950s, but Walt felt they did not have the respect of Hollywood. So, while in the middle of building Disneyland, he commisioned their first full-length, live-action feature film. Their adaptation of the Jules Verne adventure-- long a favourite of Disney's-- would have famous actors, impressive special effects, and multiple locations. Indeed, it would be the most expensive Hollywood production ever at that point, nearly sinking the studio, and probably the most impressive live-action film that Disney would make until the 1980s.
The plot follows Verne fairly closely. A ship investigates claims that a monster is sinking ships in the south seas. Two French academics and a rowdy harpooner discover the truth when they are taken aboard a futuristic submarine captained by the enigmatic, tortured Captain Nemo.
Designer Harper Goff created the definitive pop-culture images for Jules Verne’s novel, capturing perfectly a Victorian furturistic sensibility. The Nautilus (interior and exterior) and the deep-sea suits (actually functional) remain as indelible as images as Boris Karloff/Jack Pierce’s Frankenstein Monster. The effects used to realize these designs look good, even a half-century later.
Obviously, special effects have improved since 1954, but Fleischer and his crew did a good job. Only the rear-projection effects now look really bad. The underwater scenes (filmed in a studio tank and off the Bahamas, in the same location as the 1916 adaptation), remain impressive.
The matte paintings generally blend very well. Of particular note is the opening scene, which shows a forest of masts in San Francisco Bay.
The most famous effects sequence involves the fight with the giant squid. The battle was filmed twice, and signficantly hiked the film's cost.
Everyone knew this sequence would be a highlight. The first attempt, shot with a rather unconvincing robo-squid against a tropical sunset, looks idiotic. Disney himself compared the actions of Nemo's crew in this take to a scene from the Keystone Kops. Wires are painfully visible, while the background colours actually create a peaceful mood. The squid itself, with its blubbery pink flesh, looks like something one might hallucinate after one too many fruity tropical drinks at Club Hedonism. The "Special Edition" DVD of the film, released in 2003, includes this original version of the scene as one of the many "extras."
The final cut, with a new, fairly convincing squid and a raging storm still works. Yes, it’s a giant mechanical puppet, but some contemporary CGI effects don’t work as well.
Of course, the film's human actors receive more time onscreen than the sea monsters.
James Mason plays Nemo in an understated manner which remains powerful. Regrettably, the script does not permit us to see further into his dark soul. Douglas and Lorre were obviously enjoying themselves. The treatment of Ned Land as a sort of combination swashbuckler and buffoon, however, grows a little wearisome. Undoubtedly, certain aspects of his character will appeal more to younger children.
And we must remember that Disney, while trying to be taken seriously as a film-making studio, never lost sight of their family market. Despite the actual danger these characters face, and the genuine horror in Nemo’s past, we rarely get any real sense of such things. The script contains some horrific undertones, but the drama and conflict suffer somewhat because of the need to maintain a corporate reputation.
Other elements may annoy some viewers. They’ve given Nemo a cutesy pet seal, for phoque's sake, and Land (Douglas) gets a musical number. The brief appearance by a Hollywood-variety cannibal tribe may also give one pause, though the Jamaicans who played them reportedly found the experience supremely amusing.
To really enjoy this film, you have to accept it for what it is: a 1950s Disney adaptation of a swashbuckling Victorian SF adventure story. Viewed in this light, it’s an enjoyable film.
The DVD “Special Edition,” released in 2003, features:
Remastered version of the film
Audio commentary with director Richard Fleischer and film historian Rudy Behlmer
Animated short: "Grand Canyonscope"
Documentary: "The Making Of '20,000 Leagues Under The Sea'"
Jules Verne and Walt Disney: Explorers of the Imagination
The Humboldt Squid: A Real Sea Monster
The "Sunset Squid" Sequence
1954 Disney Studio Album
The Musical Legacy of Paul Smith
Tour of the Nautilus
Monsters Of The Deep
Unused animated sequence
Biographies: Kirk Douglas, Peter Lorre, James Mason, Paul Lucas, Richard Fleischer
Advertising: Lobby Cards, Posters and Merchandise
Screenplay Excerpt: Nemo's Death
Audio: "Whale of a Tale."
Portions of this review first appeared at www.bureau42.com, in a review by this writer.