20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: Review
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was the first live action film produced by the Walt Disney Studios. With a story based on a Jules Verne novel, lots of seafaring excitement, and Kirk Douglas, Disney obviously intended to make a bold impression upon a public used to the famed animation studio presenting cartoon interpretations of fantastical tales. As it turns out the impression was more than bold, it was magical.
Of course, it took the imagination of a cinematic pioneer like Walt Disney to even think of pairing the squeaky clean studio with the mischievously charming Douglas. After all, when one thinks of good family fare in the movies, one naturally turns to Disney. Kirk Douglas on the other hand is not a name that usually springs to mind. In fact, with such recent (at the time) roguish roles in Billy Wilder’s, Ace in the Hole, and Vincente Minnelli’s, The Bad and the Beautiful one might conclude that the two cinema icons would have been considered mutually exclusive. However, Disney had built a reputation for providing the public with what they liked, and at this time they liked Kirk Douglas. With both Disney and Douglas at the top of their game in 1954, a pairing between the two just made good business sense.
Actually, other than a few early Film-Noirs, Douglas never portrayed truly evil characters completely beyond redemption. If anything, he specialized in playing the disarming, devil-may-care man, who due to circumstances must choose between the conflicting forces within him and emerges as a better person in the end. And that’s exactly what Douglas’ Ned Land does in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Ned (one of Douglas’ own favorite roles) is a rough and rugged whaler who likes the ladies and loves a good fight. He has little concern for the superstitions of his fellow sailors who report the sightings of a mysterious sea monster, or the patience for a man of science in the form of Academy Award winner Paul Lukas (he beat out Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca for his role in Watch on the Rhine). It is only after surviving a horrific shipwreck with Lukas and his assistant that the mismatched companions are forced by circumstance to get to know each other.
The rest of the impressive cast includes the always enjoyable Peter Lorre (Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon) as Lukas’ assistant, and the debonair James Mason (A Star is Born, North by Northwest) as Captain Nemo, the man who devised and commands The Nautilus, the most impressive sea vessel the world has ever known. Lorre provides many comic moments particularly when paired with Douglas for a brief, although harrowing, adventure on an uncharted island. Mason on the other hand is undoubtedly the villain of the film. For all his intellect and gentlemanly ways, Nemo has been eliminating all other ships that cross the path of The Nautilus, sending hundreds of men to their deaths due to a superiority complex and misdirected revenge on a world that has done him wrong. Therefore, Douglas’ carefree Ned regards Nemo as a murderer and a menace, even though Lukas’ professor respects the man as a brilliant scientist. It is the conflict between these two perspectives that drives the story. Unfortunately for all of them, Nemo has underestimated yet another main character: the sea itself.
One of the most exciting sequences in the film is when the Nautilus comes under attack by a giant squid. It sounds terribly cheesy, but thanks to the ingenuity of the film’s Academy Award winning Special Effects and Art Direction the exciting climactic battle remains impressive even by today’s computer enhanced standards. Initially, director Richard Fleischer (The Narrow Margin, Soylent Green) had problems making the desperate fight for life look believable, let alone not laughable. Apparently the wires and gears needed to operate the squid were all too visible. Everyone was unsatisfied with the look of the scene until Walt Disney and screenwriter Earl Felton suggested setting the action amidst a ragging storm, thus hiding the unwanted elements from the immediate eye of the camera. FX and Art were able to successfully mask the behind-the-scenes mechanics, and the result is the magical movie moment we know today.
I had the great opportunity of seeing this film at the 2012 Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Festival, and its truly amazing how great the film looks on a screen the size of the one at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Even more impressive was getting to see the film’s star, Kirk Douglas in person. Kirk may not look the same as he did fifty-eight years ago, but he’s just as full of energy as he ever was. He happily recalled to screening host, Ben Mankiewicz that 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was one of his all time favorite working experiences. One reason was that he married his wife of nearly 60 years during the filming, and another was the opportunity to sing for his first and only time on screen. It was a nice little sea chantey called A Whale of a Tale, which he sang on the spot with out missing a word. It was a wonderfully charming moment that no one in that theater is likely to forget anytime soon.
Whether or not Kirk Douglas personally sings you the song he used to serenade a sea lion, you’re bond to enjoy Disney’s first live action feature, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. This family friendly film is truly entertaining for young an old alike without pandering to, or boring either. That seems to be an aspect of production most family films can’t quite manage to accomplish now a days. Obviously Disney knew the secret. All you have to do is provide a fantastic tale of action and adventure and let the imagination of the audience do the rest. Genius.