20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was Walt Disney’s first attempt at a big-budget live action feature film. It was a triumph at the time, and a triumph it remains.
It was certainly an ambitious venture. There had been big-budget science fiction movies before this, such as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Woman in the Moon back in the 20s, but this was really the first time the idea had been tried in Hollywood. And the budget was enormous. It was in fact the most expensive movie ever made up to that time. But then Walt Disney was always willing to back his judgment and take a risk and his judgment proved to be sound. The film was a major hit and established Disney as a force to be reckoned with in the world of non-animated movies.
Jules Verne’s rather rambling novel is condensed into an exciting two hour adventure. French scientist Professor Aronnax (Paul Lukas) and his assistant Conseil (Peter Lorre) are on board a US warship that is searching for a mysterious sea monster than has been menacing shipping. Many ships have been lost. They will soon discover that this is no monster. It is a submarine, and the warship becomes its latest victim. The Professor and Conseil along with square-jawed sailor Ned Land (Kirk Douglas) survive and are taken aboard the submarine.
The submarine, the Nautilus, is commanded by Captain Nemo (James Mason). His family having been killed in a war Nemo has turned against humanity and is conducting a kind of one-man war against the world. After various adventures the career of Nemo climaxes in a final showdown with the world’s navies.
If you’re expecting a simple kids’ movie or a heart-warming family movie you’ll be in for something of a surprise. It’s unexpectedly dark. Captain Nemo is an anti-hero, a man of genius and a visionary but also a man of violence. Hate is his motivation. He’s also a complex character. He’s not a mere villain, he’s more a hero who has taken a wrong turning. The movie does not try to gloss over Nemo’s violence - this is a man who has been responsible for countless deaths.
James Mason was a superb choice for the role of Nemo, giving the character not just depth but gravity and dignity.
This movie is certainly not perfect. Its biggest weakness is Kirk Douglas’s overblown and hammy performance, while Peter Lorre is sadly under-utilised. The addition of comic elements is perhaps forgivable but the decision to have Kirk Douglas sing is completely unforgivable. Adding a loveable trained seal to the cast is less of a problem. At least the seal doesn’t sing, and its performance is more convincing and less annoying than Douglas’s.
Where the movie really scores is in the visuals. It’s not just spectacular by 1954 standards, it’s spectacular by any standards. The special effects still work. The miniatures work remains breath-taking. There are images that pack a remarkable emotional resonance, such as the underwater funeral. The sets are magnificent. The Nautilus, designed by Harper Goff, is one of the most memorable technical creations in movie history.
That’s really staggering is that this movie created the steampunk aesthetic. It might have taken decades before it became fashionable but the entire steampunk aesthetic is here in this 1954 film. The production team realised that if you blended futuristic with retro the result would be unbelievably cool. And it is. The Nautilus is gloriously Victorian, but just like the latest 1950s cars it has tail fins!
In the book the Nautilus was powered by electricity, this being the latest marvel of the age in 1869. In the movie it is also powered by electricity, but the electricity is generated by what is clearly an 1869-vintage nuclear reactor. Again the mixing of retro and futuristic works.
Disney’s DVD looks stunning and includes a swag of extras, and there’s also a two-disc special edition with even more extras. Disney obviously realise this movie is one of their jewels.
The concept of family entertainment has become rather depressing but in 1954 Disney knew how to do it properly. This is a movie that doesn’t insult its audience’s intelligence and it doesn’t talk down to them. It’s a movie you can see when you’re 12 years old and you’ll love it and you can see it again 30 years later and you’ll still love it.