[box cover]

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: Special Edition

Buena Vista Home Entertainment

Starring James Mason, Kirk Douglas, Paul Lukas, Peter Lorre

Written by Earl Felton, from the novel by Jules Verne

Directed by Richard Fleischer


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Review by Mark Bourne                    


As Disney's first big-budget live-action movie, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is an adventure film of the grand school, the kind they don't make 'em like anymore. Especially nowadays when the term "family picture" evokes images of weary-eyed parents flipping a coin to see who loads up the tykes and plunks down seven-dollars-per for The Wild Thornberrys or The Lizzie McGuire Movie plus de rigeuer Burger King drinkware, this thoughtful and picturesque opus from 1954 looks so magnificent and is so layered that wondering why Disney doesn't produce more movies like this is as vexing as asking why NASA stopped going to the moon in 1972.

For years now the Mouse House has refurbished itself with impressive animated musical extravaganzas such as Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, and on smart collaborative gems like the Toy Story movies. But apparently gone are the days when an A-list historical literary adaptation bursting with lavish special effects and boasting top-drawer screen stars — James Mason, Kirk Douglas, and Peter Lorre — could be nothing other than a Disney feature.

Disney's interpretation of Jules Verne's 1870 novel is only a superficial treatment of the source material, though all the changes to Verne's plot, characters, and themes serve the greater good of the movie. The narrative is a string of visually spectacular set-pieces, including a funeral on the ocean floor, the glowing-eyed "sea monster" knifing through the hulls of tall sea vessels, and the famous hand-to-tentacle battle with a giant squid. Its Oscar-winning special effects and art direction play out in such rich Technicolor and wall-to-wall CinemaScope that seeing 20,000 Leagues in one of the Eisenhower era's grand dame widescreen movie palaces must have been close to overwhelming.

Fifty years later it's still a rare specimen, a stylishly crafted G-rated movie that refuses to aim low or condescend with cutesy pop-culture references. The script is a simple yet intelligent and purposeful straight line. The undersea photography brims with exotica, the banshee-scream of the Nautilus dynamos as the super-sub attacks warships will repeat in your dreams, and the beautiful Nautilus itself, from its ridged spine to Nemo's palatial Victorian furnishings, is exactly what a submarine is supposed to look like. The pacing doesn't vary as much as it arguably should, but director Richard Fleischer (son of animation pioneer Max) keeps the story moving forward with stately grandeur, dipping into the thrill-ride toolbox only for the Giant Squid attack near the end.

*          *          *

James Mason, five years before playing the memorable heavy in North By Northwest, cuts a striking figure as the haunted ex-slave and technological genius Captain Nemo. "I am not what is called a civilized man," he tells our narrator, world-renowned scientist Prof. Pierre Arronax (Paul Lukas), after the professor — with his middle-aged apprentice Conseil (Lorre) and seadog Ned Land (Douglas) — are tossed into the sea, their ship sunk by Nemo's Nautilus. Open-minded but wary of the suspicious and demonstrably cruel captain, Arronax earns Nemo's trust as a fellow scientist and it's through him that we filter the transcendent possibilities Nemo's genius reveals.

Granted, Disney wanted a movie that kids would embrace, so there are moments that relentlessly remind us of that. Kirk Douglas (a youthful 38, more than 20 years younger than son Michael is now) is rock-ribbed harpooner Land. In a movie refreshingly populated with no youngsters whatsoever, Land is our kid-surrogate. Strumming a tortoise-shell guitar to sing the ditty "Whale of a Tale" and befriending Nemo's pet seal Esmerelda, Land is the impulsive, mouthy, adventure-hungry, endearing go-getter that every boy wants to be. Douglas's lantern-jawed good looks, complete with a dimple like the Marianas Trench, and cartoonish portrayal could leap directly into a modern animated musical version with absolutely no changes required. (Correction: he rolls Stogies from dried seaweed, enjoys a high old time guzzling improvised hooch, and is unrepentant about trying to loot the treasure of jewels and gold Nemo uses for ballast, character flaws that would spasm today's script editors into punching the Delete key in a second.)

Peter Lorre's Conseil is on board chiefly as Douglas's comic-relief partner and to squeal when nosed in the butt by Esmerelda, something of a down-shift for an actor famous for his turns in Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, and Fritz Lang's M.

While the movie has aged well and remains an impressive piece of work in every department, a few of its floorboards creak now. The pleasure of scenes such as Nemo's sea-farmed feast for his visitors, topped by his own dessert recipe for "sauté of unborn octopus," can't entirely offset the attack by stereotypical black native island cannibals who could have just walked off the set from 1933's King Kong.

*          *          *

More revealing, though, are the ideas here. For starters: our main character, sympathetically drawn, is an anti-war activist who destroys manned ships, in international waters, with a wholly successful Weapon of Mass Destruction. That wouldn't survive the first draft in these hypersensitive times.

And that's where we put a finger on a subtext humming just beneath the hull-plating of 20,000 Leagues, something that to cynical modern sensibilities now seems almost quaint in genre films from the 1950s. Disney's deep-sea masterpiece is so much about ideas that it leaves us wistful for an epoch when a popular "all ages" movie could be built on more than a tired cookie-cutter "hero's quest" plot punctuated by fart jokes and a Top 40 teen hit. There's a sense of wonder — in Nature, in Science, in Mankind's potential peaceful mastery of creation — that surfaces time and again throughout the movie. That sense of wonder is given such stirring visual reinforcement that it's almost a protagonist itself. "A strange twilight world opened up before me," Arronax intones, "and I felt as the first man to set foot on another planet, an intruder in this mystic garden of the deep."

When Arronax, our surrogate, sides full-sail with Nemo's point of view, if not his methods, we are meant to as well. Nemo embodies the movie's theme of Science as the tool that, if applied with wisdom, can bring about Mankind's salvation. Never mind that we've also witnessed Nemo acting as an anarchist ("I have done with society for reasons that seem good to me; therefore, I do not obey its laws"), and as a terrorist whose shock-and-awe tactics betray no regard for the sailors he has murdered. Maddened by a tragic event in his past, Nemo is a maniacally obsessed "avenger" and a "monster" driven by his sour view of a society he has utterly divorced himself from. Nonetheless, Mason makes him so distinguished and coolly rational a romantic anti-hero, with good reason for his depredations, that we can't help but sympathize with the pitiable genius's ironic one-man war against humanity's darker nature.

Soon after the visceral pitch of the Giant Squid battle and an ambush by a phalanx of warships from the "nameless nation" hunting down Nemo, the movie peaks on a startlingly heady note. It's a benediction from Nemo, who is dying within the heart of his technological sanctuary. "There is hope for the future," he says and there's no question that we should believe him. "When the world is ready for a new and better life, all this will someday come to pass, in God's good time." Then the mortally crippled Nautilus upends and slides beneath the waves while Nemo's island fortress, filled with all of the bountiful secrets and wonders he hoped to bestow to the people of the world, goes up in a mushroom cloud.

Throughout the Cold War-rattled 1950s you couldn't find a more potent and discomfiting image than that cloud. The idea that Mankind wasn't yet mature enough for our new WMD technology found its most direct expression in 1951's The Day the Earth Stood Still. In '54, co-existing alongside 20,000 Leagues was Them!, the radiation-mutated-monsters classic that gave deadly form to Atomic Age anxieties, a whole new subgenre that began just the year before with The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (no relation). In '56, Nemo's closing benediction was echoed almost to the letter in the denoument of MGM's big-budget science fiction thriller, Forbidden Planet. (The Nautilus's blazing power generators, which Nemo tells an amazed Arronax harness "the veritable dynamic power of the universe," also bear physical and dramatic resemblance to Forbidden Planet's Krell fusion furnaces.)

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is something more than the sum of its parts — not just its elaborate special effects and art direction, the faultless performances (especially Mason's), and unbeatable deep-sea adventure storytelling. It's a sober-minded reverie that's one part guarded optimism and two parts uplifting, idealistic wonder. They really don't make 'em like that anymore. And that's a crying shame.

The DVD

With Disney's two-disc DVD for 20,000 Leagues Under Sea, we get one of the finest filled-to-bursting Special Editions ever assembled for a movie not championed by the Cahiers du Cinéma set. The movie itself looks and sounds gorgeous. As for supplements, it appears that someone at Disney overturned a pirate's chest of new and archival material about the film, then scooped up every frame of related marginalia, ephemera, fragments, oddments, dryer lint, and floor sweepings, then had the whole stash translated directly into pixels.

At an unusually broad CinemaScope aspect ratio of 2.55:1 (anamorphic), the painstakingly restored image is so panoramic and seems so deep that no matter how big your home screen is you're going to wish you had a bigger one. Other than a typical amount of slight grain, the source print is clean and fresh-looking as if it were minted yesterday. Contrast, definition and especially color — this is a film that strokes you with its color — are all excellent, and the digital transfer presents no problems.

Likewise, the clean and distortion-free "THX certified" Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is terrific, though you won't be showcasing your home theater system with it. The sound-spread stays focused on the front speakers with some nice stereo effects. Surround activity opens up for the musical score and some ambient sounds, and the .1 low-end range rumbles to good effect for explosions and the thrum of the Nautlius's engines.

Although the animated menus, especially Disc Two's "Vault Disney" screens, are over-produced and Disc One front-loads a seemingly endless barrage of promos for new Disney releases, patience rewards you with more supplements than you can shake a sea cucumber at:

—Mark Bourne



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