In the mid-1950s, Walt stunned the Hollywood community with an ambitious diversification of his empire. A decade earlier, the studio had undertaken the duties of producing training films for the U.S. government. With war’s end, Walt re-entered the animation market to great critical acclaim. He also dove headlong into the fledgling new medium of television and succeeded there where other studios had miserably failed. Furthermore, Walt was nearing completion on his most ambitious project to date – the theme park; Disneyland.
Indeed, the Disney name seemed to be everywhere – its marketability and longevity sustained by the kindly words and wisdom of a visionary who continued to lay the responsibility for the whole massive enterprise squarely on the diminutive shoulders of a mouse named Mickey.
So, perhaps in hindsight, it only seems natural that Walt would also eventually get around to tackling live action movies. His earlier efforts in combining live action and animation (Song of the South 1946, So Dear To My Heart 1948) had been met with sustained enthusiasm. Yet, he longed to make a more adult film.
With director Richard Fleischer’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1954) Disney achieved that goal with a grandly amusing revision on Jules Verne’s classic futurist novel. The book presents a series of disjointed vignettes in undersea adventure, but without a narrative thread to link them all together.
In re-conceptualizing Verne for the movies, screenwriter Earl Felton introduced a trio of unlikely comrades who would serve as the constant travelers in the filmic journey; harpooner Ned Land (Kirk Douglas), marine biologist, Prof. Pierre Arronax (Paul Lukas) and his associate, Conseil (Peter Lorre).
Fascinated by tales of a sea monster reeking havoc on merchant vessels, Arronax, Land and Conseil survive their own brush with death when their ship is struck broadside. They later realize that the creature responsible for their ship’s destruction is actually a submersible iron and steel creation built by isolationist Captain Nemo (James Mason). The prodigal reject of tortuous experiences in a salt mine, Nemo is determined that man’s corruption and inhumanity on land shall not conquer the sea. To this end, he has set himself and his crew on a path in which the most telling casualty has been his own soul.
At first, Nemo is perfectly content to let Ned and Conseil drown. However, he rethinks his murderous act and instead opens his home – the Nautilus submarine – to Arronax, whom he respects as a scientist, and his compatriots. The three men are taken below as Nemo’s forced guests, Ned resenting the captain almost from the start and plotting an escape at every opportunity. Eventually, the men learn to regard one another with more than mere contempt – a sobering acceptance that humanizes Nemo, but ultimately leads to his own demise.
Well aware that his reputation as a purveyor of legitimate live action drama was at stake, Walt chose to populate his feature with intense dramatic talents. Mason is superb as the embattled tragic figure lost at sea even as his ship has afforded him a God-like autonomy from the rest of the world. Douglas and Lorre have a genuine chemistry that provides much needed humor to lighten the mood and tone of the story. Lukas is perhaps the least engaging of the film’s stars – his private battle with memory loss leading to many a troubled moment on set throughout the production.
In an era of big scale grand entertainments, Walt realized that 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea could not merely be large scale to compete – it had to be ‘epic.’ As his own studio facilities were not large enough to house the project, work progressed with an ambitious location shoot in the tropics. Disney further hedged his bets by renting stages at 20th Century Fox and by constructing a special sound stage at the Disney Studio with an ‘effects lab’ to orchestrate and coordinate the climactic squid battle.
This spectacular attack by a giant octopus that threatens life and limb of the crew of the Nautilus is one of the finest SFX achievements ever put on film. Yet, bringing it to life proved problematic to near impossible. After an unconvincing first attempt set against a picturesque fiery sunset, the Disney artisans restaged the entire sequence at great expense during a violent storm at sea, with rain and wind effects concealing many of the shortcomings inherent in the uncooperative mechanical apparatus.
Director Fleischer, the son of Disney’s early rival in animation, Max Fleischer, was at first apprehensive about accepting the assignment. He was convinced by his father to take the job and the result remains one of the Disney’s most satisfying undertakings in the realm of live action. As Disney’s ambitious caprice, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea became the most expensive film ever made by a major Hollywood studio – topping the production costs on David O. Selznick’s Gone With The Wind (1939). It would continue to hold that dubious distinction until Fox’s Cleopatra (1963).
WHY ISN'T THIS ON BLU-RAY YET?
Disney DVD delivers the goods on a 2-disc Special Edition. The anamorphic Cinemascope image is breathtaking with vibrant, beautifully saturated colors, perfectly balanced contrast levels and fine details fully realized throughout. Occasionally, a hint of edge enhancement intrudes on an otherwise near flawless visual presentation that will surely NOT disappoint.
The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital of the original six track magnetic stereo and, despite inherent shortcomings, provides a very visceral fidelity that is both engaging and enveloping.Extras on disc 2 include an extensive retrospective documentary with a ship full of extra footage included aborted first attempts at the squid sequence, as well as interviews with surviving cast and crew.
There’s also several vintage featurettes, short subjects, a ‘juke box’ selection of musical cues, press and promo junket materials and the film’s original theatrical trailer to sink into. This effort from the Disney stable comes highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)