I wish Disney still made live action, family films with the same quality that they did in the 1950’s and 1960’s. 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1954) is still considered a monumental achievement in filmmaking, as well as being a great adventure movie. Boasting some great actors and brilliant, cutting edge special effects, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea will always remain one of the best films produced by Walt Disney.
Loosely based on the Jules Verne novel, a giant sea monster has been attacking ships on their way to Asia from San Francisco. Professor Arounax (Paul Lukas) and his assistant, Conseil (Peter Lorre), have been stuck in San Francisco for some time, waiting for a ship willing to risk the perilous journey. The United States Government enlists him to go on a special voyage, trying to track down and kill the sea beast, and along with an expert harpooner named Ned (Kirk Douglas), the voyage begins.
They spend months at sea before finally giving up hope of seeing the creature. They are about to give up hope, but finally come across him and begin firing their cannons. The creature attacks and collides with the ship, sending Ned, Professor Arounax and Conseil overboard. The ship is damaged by the collision and it floats away without them. Later, all three men find that the sea monster is really a man made submersible ship made of metal. Professor Arounax goes inside the ship and is amazed by the advanced technology around him. He is able to see into the ocean where the occupants of the submersible are walking underwater, performing some kind of funeral. Before our heroes can get away, they are spotted and captured by Captain Nemo (James Mason). At first he thinks about killing them but he recognizes Professor Arounax and thinks he can be of value to his own life’s mission. The three men remain on board, but Ned is constantly looking for ways to escape because he thinks that Nemo has gone crazy, even though Professor Arounax is captivated by the genius of Nemo’s mind.
When I was a child I loved to watch movies like 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea because it made me feel as if I was watching a real, grown up movie. I find that today my children feel very much the same way. What amazes me now is that the story is so intense and the special effects so good that as an adult I am just as engrossed by this film today. Of course it doesn’t hurt to have four incredibly talented actors working together. James Mason gives an astonishing performance as Captain Nemo. There is no telling what this brilliant madman is capable of doing in the right (or wrong) circumstances. It is one of his greatest performances, and one that should be more remembered today. He has the same crazy look in his eyes that he has two years later in Bigger Than Life (1956), when he becomes the victim of a cortisone addiction.
When 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea was released it was the most expensive movie ever made. The underwater sequences proved to be extremely difficult and expensive. The camera work was done masterfully and still looks beautiful today, even after James Cameron has brought the art of underwater filming to an all time high. Everything worked out in the end, as the film went on to be the second highest grossing film of the year and earned three Academy Award nominations, winning for Art Direction and Special Effects.
Of all the live action movies Disney produced in their early days, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea was the first to star major Hollywood actors. This proved to be enormously popular with audiences, and would be something that Disney continued to do in their future films. Of course I think the highpoint in having these actors in a movie such as this is that we get to have Kirk Douglas singing “Whale Of A Tale”.
Recently there is a lot of Hollywood talk about director David Fincher teaming with Disney to make a new 20,000 Leagues under The Sea. I must say that my curiosity is peeked to see what type of film they could make today, almost 60 years later. There is word that David Fincher is even trying to get his favorite leading man, Brad Pitt, to be in the film. I only wonder if he might do some singing for us as well.