20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 07/03/06 12:00:16
For decades, Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” remained on the list of movies Walt Disney had wanted to make but never did. As with most Disney projects, development would start and stop in odd spurts, until things would finally begin to click and real production would finally begin. But “Leagues” would be Disney’s biggest gamble to date, as it was soon decided to make the feature the company’s very first live-action film.As if this were not a challenge enough for Disney and his company - could a studio which had until then only produced animation handle a live-action movie? - it was also decided to shoot the production in CinemaScope, which at the time was still in the experimental stages. The movie would also become the studio’s costliest, with Disney’s desire to create a grand spectacle left him spending, spending, spending. Oh, and the whole thing would be put in the hands of a director who usually handled low budget B movie thrillers: Richard Fleischer, son of animation giant (and Disney rival) Max Fleischer, and helmer of such works as “The Narrow Margin” and “The Clay Pigeon.”
And somehow, the gamble paid off in spades. Disney’s “Leagues” remains one of the grandest adventure movies of them all, a ripping actioner that’s true to the spirit of the Verne novel, even if plenty of the usual Disney-ish alterations have been made. (For starters, the movie’s Nemo is British, not Indian, and there’s a too-cute seal on board who shows up whenever the kids in the audience need a laugh.)
As the film opens, it’s the late 19th century, and there’s a hubbub in the ports of San Francisco regarding the existence of a ravenous sea monster who’s destroying ships and swallowing sailors. This arouses the imagination of famed French scientist Pierre Arronax (Paul Lukas) and his apprentice Conseil (Peter Lorre), who understand that the deep blue sea contains many creatures yet undiscovered. Meanwhile, easy-going, big-chinned seaman Ned Land (Kirk Douglas) is certain the monster talk is nothing but a bunch of hooey.
The Frenchmen are invited aboard a vessel bound for Saigon by way of the South Pacific, where they hope to investigate the monster claims; Ned is also on board as a deck hand. After a nifty musical interlude (Douglas sings “Whale of a Tale” in a scene many find at best unnecessary and at worst downright ridiculous, yet the song makes me grin every time), our heroes witness the mysterious destruction of a warship - and what looks to be the sea monster. Our heroes’ ship fires on the beast, the beast sinks the ship, and now the trio is set adrift in the ocean.
Of course it’s not a sea monster, but a submarine called the Nautilus, captained by the enigmatic, broodish Nemo (James Mason). Nemo, seeing Arronax as an intellectual equal, lets the three survivors live, which is fine for the professor, who’s eager to learn about Nemo’s strange, new invention, but it’s not so fine with Ned and Conseil, who see themselves less as guests and more as prisoners.
The screenplay (from Earl Felton, who had previously worked with Fleischer on the excellent “Narrow Margin”) saves its biggest thrills for the later scenes, highlighted by the now-classic battle with a giant squid, as gripping and as awe-inspiring an action sequence as you’ll ever find. It’s this scene for which “Leagues” is most famous, and it’s the first scene that often comes to mind when you ask someone about the movie.
But it’s not the only good scene, even if it’s the only truly “action” scene in the film. Fleischer and Felton are content to let the story build ever so slowly over its two hours, allowing us to get swept up in Nemo’s strange world. And so we get long, fascinating shots of underwater exploration, beautiful widescreen footage of the ocean floor that plays like an engaging travelogue.
The screenplay slowly lets the tension build little by little over each scene, as Nemo’s true intentions are revealed. He claims to be sinking warships for the better of humanity, but it seems he’s willing to kill anyone who crosses his path, purposely or otherwise. Ned and Conseil see him as a madman; Arronax is more conflicted, as how could such a great mind be so evil?
Despite the dark themes surrounding its central character, however, “Leagues” is never a menacing work. It remains mostly a lighthearted affair, with comic relief coming from Ned and Conseil’s growing friendship (the chiseled Douglas and the frumpy Lorre make a great contrasting pair) and Ned’s desire to escape. (The best of these gags comes from a brilliantly edited bit in which Ned finds himself running from a horde of cannibals.) Even in the later scenes, with Nemo in full rampage mode, resigned to suicide if need be, the film never gets overwhelmed with its darker side. Yes, it has at its heart a grim killer, but efforts are made to keep this a rollicking, breezy high seas adventure.It’s an interesting mix, but it works beautifully. “Leagues” is one of those action yarns that I’ll watch any time I need a lift, a chance to revert to boyhood dreams of sailors and sea monsters. It truly is a whale of a tale, jumpstarting Disney into a brave, new direction from which it never looked back. This is one of Disney’s best, and one of the all-time adventure greats. And that, I swear by my tattoo.
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