The year 1866 was signalised by a remarkable incident, a mysterious and puzzling phenomenon, which doubtless no one has yet forgotten. Not to mention rumours which agitated the maritime population and excited the public mind, even in the interior of continents, seafaring men were particularly excited. Merchants, common sailors, captains of vessels, skippers, both of Europe and America, naval officers of all countries, and the Governments of several States on the two continents, were deeply interested in the matter.
For some time past vessels had been met by "an enormous thing," a long object, spindle-shaped, occasionally phosphorescent, and infinitely larger and more rapid in its movements than a whale…
-- the opening passage of Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea
In its day, the most expensive and technically innovative motion picture ever made, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea remains the greatest live-action adventure produced by the Walt Disney Studios. Director Richard Fleischer's magnum opus featured pioneering underwater staging, cutting-edge widescreen cinematography, a costly animatronic sequence that had to be completely scrapped and reshot, and an international cast of screen legends including Academy Award winner Paul Lukas (forever a trivia answer as the man whose performance in 1943's Watch on the Rhine snagged the statuette over Humphrey Bogart's immortal turn in Casablanca), a pair of three-time Oscar nominees in Kirk Douglas and James Mason, and one of the cinema's finest character actors, Peter Lorre.
Half a century and hundreds of computer-generated special effects extravaganzas later, do Captain Nemo and company still have the juice to dazzle jaded modern audiences? In the words of Lukas' Professor Arronax, "There is great genius behind all this."
Facts of the Case
Visiting French naturalist Pierre Arronax (Paul Lukas, The Lady Vanishes) is commissioned by the United States government to investigate reports of a ship-destroying sea monster prowling the Pacific depths. Professor Arronax and his assistant Conseil (Peter Lorre, who teamed with Lukas previously in the Clark Gable/Joan Crawford oddity Strange Cargo) pursue their quarry aboard a sailing ship whose notable personality is a harpoon-slinging, chantey-bellowing scalawag named Ned Land (Kirk Douglas, Lust for Life, Spartacus).
After weeks of fruitless searching, our intrepid explorers are the sole survivors of an attack at sea—not by a sea monster, but by a submersible craft called Nautilus, commanded by the dour and mysterious Captain Nemo (James Mason, A Star is Born, The Verdict). Taken aboard the vessel as the Captain's unenthusiastic guests, Professor Arronax, Conseil, and Ned are at once suspicious of their urbane host, and awed by the wealth (the Nautilus's hold overflows with gold and gemstones Nemo dismisses as "ballast") and technology (including electrical and nuclear power) at his disposal.
Before long, Nemo's hatred of civilization and his bitter craving for vengeance against land-based society become disturbingly clear, leaving Professor Arronax and his companions with two burning questions:
One: How can we thwart the destructive schemes of a madman who wields power beyond our wildest imaginations?
And two: Did anyone here know calamari grew this big?
The first question any modern film fan will ask about any special effects-laden blockbuster approaching its golden anniversary is this: Does it still work? In the case of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the answer is, for the most part, yes. One advantage 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea enjoys over some of its early-1950s contemporaries, such as George Pal's once awe-inspiring but now embarrassingly dated When Worlds Collide and War of the Worlds, is its period atmosphere. Set nearly a century before its filming, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea effectively trades the predictive and fantastical—the sure kiss of death for most science fiction movies as they age—for the quaint, charming, and allegorical, all of which are eminently more sustainable over time. Rather than recasting the story of Captain Nemo in a 20th century world in which submarines were already old hat, Disney lends a touch of undying magic to the picture by retaining the whimsy and wonder of Jules Verne's 19th century. That perfect decision keeps 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea topical and fresh even today.
Without doubt, the film stands on the gloriously imagined foundation of Harper Goff's production design. The Nautilus as Goff created it is still breathtakingly realistic—in its copper-sheathed, wind-up toy sort of way—as it appeared half a century ago. What's truly remarkable is realizing how much science fiction architecture over the past 50 years has been influenced by Goff's approach. Hints and echoes of the Nautilus can be spotted in everything from the various Star Trek incarnations to George Lucas's Star Wars saga to Luc Besson's The Fifth Element. Disney's 1990s renovation of Tomorrowland in Anaheim's Disneyland rips page after page straight from the Harper Goff sketchbook. These stellar artistic creations could hardly look more vivid and glorious than they do through the deft lens of master cinematographer Franz Planer, the man behind the camera for such classics as Roman Holiday, The Caine Mutiny, and Breakfast at Tiffany's.
The adventure story fares nearly as well. Always a straight-ahead, no-frills director, Richard Fleischer was never much of a risk taking stylist or flashy innovator. Indeed, many Hollywood insiders were baffled when Walt Disney handed the journeyman filmmaker this monumental project, given that Fleischer's résumé at the time mostly consisted of several competent films-noir (The Narrow Margin, The Clay Pigeon, Trapped) and a well-received satiric comedy (The Happy Time), but nothing on the epic scale of 20,000 Leagues. But Fleischer's workmanlike approach fits perfectly here—he doesn't try to push the envelope too far, but he successfully corrals a series of logistically complex set pieces and a group of notoriously individualistic actors (especially Paul Lukas, who by all accounts made life on the set miserable for his collaborators) and keeps the narrative forging ahead (a mite slowly for 21st century tastes, perhaps, but in a manner appropriate to the material) without getting unduly bogged down by either the philosophy or the technology.
What doesn't coalesce quite as effectively are the performances, which—with the singular exception of Kirk Douglas's earthy and comically ebullient Ned Land, who at times seems as though he dropped in from a different movie entirely—feel uniformly measured and stagy. In the case of James Mason's Nemo, this is a good thing, because his complicated, fascinating sociopath cries out for a certain larger-than-life theatricality, which Mason delivers in spades. But Paul Lukas's Arronax, the character intended to serve as avatar for the audience, is too rigid and off-putting for us to identify with, and the usually chilling Peter Lorre is shoehorned into the ill-fitting role of chief buffoon and bottle-washer.
In Fleischer's hands (and with Walt Disney's firmly gripping his shoulders at all times), Earl Felton's sly screenplay delivers a timeless, yet remarkably prescient, Cold War metaphor, colored subtly by the rise of anti-Communist paranoia and nuclear terror that gripped America in the early 1950s. It's no accident that the Nautilus, a sleek and featureless vessel with an ambiguously defined power source in Verne's novel, becomes a clockwork nuclear device in Disney's film, nor that the dark and frightening Nemo of the book is portrayed here as a more sophisticated, reasonable, and human figure—we have, after all, seen the enemy, and "he is us," as Walt Kelly's Pogo used to say.
Although it doesn't bear the prestigious stamp of Disney's Platinum Edition DVD series—which the Mouse House reserves for such animated blockbuster classics as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and the upcoming The Lion King—this dual-disc package of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea comes stuffed with more supplemental goodness than a Thanksgiving gobbler. (The menus reflect the motif of the "Vault Disney" releases, a series discontinued before this set hit the streets.) Before we delve into the extras, we are treated to a spectacularly rich anamorphic transfer, recast in an eye-popping 2.55:1 aspect ratio that expands the screen to its maximum horizons. (A standard TV loses some of the benefit of the ultra-wide presentation, rendering an image of similar dimension to the more common 2:35:1 ratio. However, Disney's technical team does an excellent job—with only occasional minor flaws—of balancing the image so the viewer never feels claustrophobic.) Unlike some of Disney's earliest DVD efforts, the Technicolor here is beautifully realized and naturalistic. A hint of softness crops up in some sequences, particularly those outside the Nautilus, and brighter scenes reveal the inherent grain in the source print. But this is, all told, as terrific as a film celebrating its golden anniversary has any right to look.
A newly remastered, THX-enhanced Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack lends a powerful (sometimes too powerful) new dimension to the film. The modernization affords the track an encompassing soundstage with teeth-rattling bottom end. Dialogue is well-placed and crystal clear. The musical score feels a little compressed in comparison with the other sonic elements, but not to any problematic degree.
Now for the good stuff. Disney accompanies the film with an audio commentary featuring director Richard Fleischer and film historian Rudy Behlmer. It's actually more an extended interview than a true commentary, as Fleischer responds to questions from Behlmer that occasionally do, and often do not, have to do with what's taking place onscreen. Fleischer has a tendency to ramble a little, and Behlmer does a nice job of pulling him back on track now and again. We learn a considerable amount about the film and the people who made it. It's gratifying that Mr. Fleischer's reflections were documented and preserved while the octogenarian director is still with us.
Also on Disc One, we find the seven-minute Donald Duck cartoon Grand Canyonscape, which accompanied 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea during its original theatrical release. Beautifully restored, with vibrant color and minimal print flaws, the short recounts the famous waterfowl's tour of the Grand Canyon. It's marred by some instances of blurriness, jitter, and compression noise, but overall looks great for its age. What the cartoon lacks in ethnic sensitivity toward Native Americans, it mostly makes up by being otherwise fun and entertaining.
A burgeoning cornucopia of supplements await the stalwart viewer on Disc Two. Leading the pack is a spectacular new 97-minute documentary, The Making of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. This amazing feature redefines the state of the art in behind-the-scenes filmmaking, covering nearly every conceivable aspect of the production with archive footage, and including interviews with as many of the surviving principals—notably Kirk Douglas, still vigorous despite a stroke that impaired his speech—as could be rounded up. This excellent document alone is worth the price of the set.
But wait! There's more! Five—count 'em, five—more documentary featurettes, in fact.
• Jules Verne and Walt Disney: Explorers of the Imagination (16:00) bridges the expanse between these two creative forces with interview clips starring numerous luminaries from the field of predictive fiction. Participants include award-winning science fiction novelists Samuel R. Delany and Gregory Benford, noted illustrator Vincent DiFate, and genre collectors Forrest J. Ackerman (founder of the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland) and Bob Burns. A bit self-serving on the part of the Disney folks—Uncle Walt's genius lay largely in hiring brilliant creative people and giving them the resources to work with, while Verne was a true visionary—but still interesting and informative.
• The Humboldt Squid: A Real Sea Monster (7:00) is a true-life nature documentary short developed and narrated by filmmaker and undersea explorer Scott Cassell. The piece focuses on the Humboldt squid, a little-known cephalopod nicknamed "the red demon" by seafaring folk, which grows up to several hundred pounds and can kill—and even eat—a human being. (I smell a concept. Where's Roger Corman when we need him?)
• Movie Merchandise showcases two brothers, Paul and Larry Brooks, avid (and insidiously competitive) collectors of movie memorabilia. In this nine-minute talkfest, Paul and Larry display and discuss a sizable number of 20,000 Leagues-related items from their respective collections. They also display their serious need to get a life. Or girlfriends. Or a dog. Or something.
• The Musical Legacy of Paul Smith (10:30) offers a well-documented overview of the career of the Oscar-winning (for Pinocchio) composer. This piece features dozens of clips from films and short subjects Smith scored during his lengthy career at the Walt Disney Studios.
• Monsters of the Deep (6:30) is a promotional segment from a 1955 Disney television program. It features Disney himself, along with some good-natured and spirited horseplay from the 20,000 Leagues set by Kirk Douglas and Peter Lorre.
An additional film clip of particular historic noteworthiness is the legendary Sunset Squid sequence, director Fleischer's first unsuccessful stab at bringing 20,000 Leagues' giant squid attack to life. In stark contrast to the completed scene, this sequence takes place at sunset on a calm sea. (In the finished film, the squid assault happens at night, during a violent storm. The darkness and thrashing water help cover the prehistoric animatronics and infuse the scene with a frightening edge.) All of the original 35mm footage of the Sunset Squid sequence was destroyed years ago, but this archival film—shot in 16mm for use in a possible "behind-the-scenes" segment on the Disney TV show—survived. The reclaimed footage has edited together based on the original storyboards to demonstrate how the scene, had it not been scrapped and reshot at Disney's request, would have appeared. In broad daylight against a lurid red-orange backdrop, the squid looks about as real as the one that formerly haunted the now-decommissioned submarine ride at Disneyland. A novel addition to the package, and a worthwhile artifact.
In addition to the above extras, the Mouse House tosses everything but the kitchen sink into the remaining bitspace on Disc Two. There are two galleries of production stills that can be played on continuous scroll, two storyboard-to-scene comparisons similar to those found on other top-line Disney DVDs, some unused undersea animation and other footage excised from the film's final cut, extensive static galleries of photographs and artwork, an archive of audio clips that includes Peter Lorre's original ADR tracks, bio/filmographies of the four principal actors and director Richard Fleischer, the film's theatrical trailer, and a 1954 "Disney Studio Album" showing highlights of other Mickeyville product from this watershed year.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
In this post-9/11 "war on terrorism" climate, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea takes on an eerie aura when viewed in retrospect. Its central figure is a charismatic, obsessive megalomaniac bent on avenging himself on the civilized world. He commands a crew of loyalists who will follow him anywhere, even to the death. He never hesitates to take innocent life when by doing so he can further his agenda of animus. He holds in his hands the ultimate weapon of mass destruction.
The movie is almost fifty years old. But does that sound like anyone you know?
As Kirk Douglas sings, this is truly "a whale of a tale." A classic of technical brilliance and solid storytelling that gets everything it deserves and more from the sometimes maddeningly inconsistent folks at the House of Big Ears. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and its outstanding DVD package of worthy extras, deserves a hallowed spot on every collector's shelf. Buy it quick before it goes back into Vault Disney.
Ahoy, lads! All charges summarily dismissed! Court stands in recess.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary Featuring Director Richard Fleischer and Film Historian Rudy Behlmer
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