20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) Dir. Richard Fleischer

Sunday afternoon I had the pleasure of seeing a terrific Disney classic on the big screen at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea”.  Next to Mary Poppins this may be my favorite live action Disney film.  It was funny for me when going into the theater to see this film because I hadn’t seen it in well over a year.  I completely forgot about the classic iconic moments from the film  until they came up, such as the Giant Squid attack.  Or the Cannibals sequence, or the incredible destruction of the island Volcania.  I suppose when you’re studying film, there comes a point where you put your nostalgia for the film aside and force yourself to study it as if you were seeing it during the time it was made for the very first time.  I found myself not caring about all the aspects that made the film memorable, I just went in hoping it would still be a great movie.  
Having changed a lot personally in the last few years, a part of me was wondering if it would still hold up.  In the first half of the movie, its pretty much everything you’d expect in a Disney film that are obviously silly now.  But for anyone who understands Disney movies, its still all part of the films charm.  For instance, it wouldn’t be a Disney film with a great song (“Whale of a Tale”).  Whale of a Tale is interesting because while in the beginning it seems like a silly sailor song for Ned Land (Kirk Douglas) to sing, the song becomes a music cue and Ned’s theme for the rest of the film, defining the kind of playful energy he brings to the story  (Walt should have given Peter Lorre a song to, I would have paid good money to see that 😉  ).  In turn, the song is actually important to the story.  The amusing silliness doesn’t stop there of course, as we get scenes of an underwater funeral (complete with a coral cross), and the infamous dinner in the captains quarters where the coffee cream is breast milk from a sperm whale (and the pudding is unborn octopus).  And don’t forget Captain Nemo’s pet seal Esmeralda, which I suppose would be the substitute animal sidekick character in any Disney cartoon! 
Like I said, this is a Disney film after all, so any amount of silliness seems appropriate.  But what’s interesting is that about half way through the film, it starts switching gears into something a little darker and more ominous than you’d expect.  Captain Nemo’s backstory is tragic, as his drive for revenge against humanity stems from Nemo’s wife and son being tortured to death in a slave camp.  James Mason is just spectacular as Nemo, and with the exception of a few humorous moments, he plays the part straight and serious as a torn man, consumed by hate.  
Captain Nemo isn’t so much a villain as he is a tragic figure.  He’s an incredible genius of course, with power far advanced than humanity has developed.  He keeps it for himself fearing that man would ultimately abuse that power to destroy the Earth if they ever got their hands on it.  Of course, in complete hypocritical sense, Nemo uses that power just as blindly when he destroys any passing ships to make sure mankind suffers for what was done to him.  It is interesting when you think about the fact that Disney in 1954 would actually make a family film that asks you to identify with a sociopath!  But I still found myself sympathizing with Nemo, to the point where even though I knew it was coming, I still did not want him to die.  His death scene is emotional, and beautifully shot  as he opens the visor to his cabin porthole with one last view of the ocean before he goes.  I find it interesting that Walt liked to make a lot of films about men with power…many times they were father figures, which became running themes in his movies.  So for a complex character like Captain Nemo to come along, its fascinating to see Walt take his own spin on the character.

The supporting characters are also memorable, with Paul Lukas as Professor Arronax, who becomes a kind of conscious for Nemo, but at times he can be just as flawed and arrogant.  His apprentice Conseil (Peter Lorre) even points out as the professor says “You’re life and mine mean nothing compared to all this”, he begins to sound just like Nemo.  Conseil is caught in the middle of course between the professor and Ned, because as much as he values scientific discovery, he’s not about to give up his life for it.  Which is why he feels forced to side with Ned.  But the problem with Ned is that while he also values his life, he doesn’t care about any of  the significance of what Nemo has accomplished and more or less will do anything in his power to get home.  The consequences of Neds actions however, put the crew in serious danger towards the end of the film, but even though everything Nemo had accomplished died with him, the professor admits to Ned afterward that the world may not yet have been ready for everything that Nemo had accomplished.  Another interesting note about the massive destruction of Volcania is that it could be compared to that of a nuclear explosion, which Nemo seemed to have discovered, and is possibly the kind of power (nuclear energy) he used to power his sub.  With the film only premiering about 10 years after the Hiroshima/ Nagasaki attacks is an interesting and fairly timely commentary.  None of this is really mentioned in the film, but I wonder how intentional it may have been if they were suggesting Nemo had discovered nuclear power).     

 Of course, as great a film as this is, how could I go into it without talking about the most famous sequence, the Giant Squid attack.  And I have to say, to finally watch this sequence on the big screen was an incredible experience.  The sequence is just as exciting and thrilling as ever, and for 1954, I still feel the squid is just as convincing.  Originally this sequence took place at sunset because that was supposed to be the time of day when the sub surfaced, but Walt was terribly annoyed when the footage came back and how cheesy and unrealistic fight looked.  So he had them change it to a storm sequence, which if you think about it doesn’t make much continuity sense (it was daylight out when the sub dived and shortly after it surfaces for the squid fight), but in the end Walt was right, and the audience never really noticed.  Walt as we know was a master of family storytelling, and just as much a master of giving children traumatizing nightmares!  The giant squid attack is just classic. 

I think 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a perfect film.  And yes, even with all of it’s silly moments, which is just part of what makes it a Disney film.  The silly side never interferes when it needs to get serious.  The film allows itself to go to some pretty dark places, which seems like a rarity in Disney films today.  There is always that deeper emotional current running under the surface.  And what I really like about this movie, and most Disney movies of this era, is that we don’t see the characters become completely different people by the end of the film.  There is change that affects them and gives them something to think about for the future.  But there’s no lesson the film tries to preach to call attention to itself.  We are with these characters and understand their personalities, and we’re taken on an experience.  The film never once preaches or talks down to its audience.  I know I may say that a lot when I look at these movies, but I think its important to note when characters should just be allowed to be who they are, without being forced to change to fit the needs of the story.

If you have never seen 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, it really is an incredible film, with strong themes that still hold up today.  See it for the first time, or see it again with a new set of eyes.  You won’t be disappointed!   

Shake that booty Kirk Douglas!

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