A scientist is nearly assassinated. In order to save him, a submarine is shrunken to microscopic size and injected into his blood stream with a small crew. Problems arise almost as soon as they enter the bloodstream.
The oceans during the late 1860-92s are no longer safe; many ships have been lost. Sailors have returned to port with stories of a vicious narwhal (a giant whale with a long horn) which sinks their ships. A naturalist, Professor (Pierre) Aronnax, his assistant, Conseil, and a professional whaler, Ned Land, join an US expedition which attempts to unravel the mystery. Written by
Murray Chapman <firstname.lastname@example.org>
The world's first functional replica of Captain Nemo's diving helmet, built by Pat Regan of Vulcania Submarine, Hawaii, is on display in the Florida Keys History of Diving Museum in Islamorada, along with items from the film. He also restored an authentic Disney "Crowntop" crewman's diving helmet to operational condition and dived it in Hawaii, 2008; making it the only piece of 20,000 Leagues diving gear returned to service since 1954. See more »
When Ned sees the giant squid starting to sink and taking Nemo with it, he draws his knife from his belt and dives in to save Nemo. Arriving at Nemo's position, the knife is back in his belt and needs to be drawn again. See more »
A parable, an exemplary sci fi story, a classic tragedy
This is by far the most literate, the most moving, and the most cinematically sophisticated film Disney has ever made. Those of the reviewers at this (IMDb) site who dismiss it as a kiddie movie, or who sneer at the special effects ("time has not been kind" to this film, one of them says; according to another, "the thrill is gone") seem simply prejudiced, rather like those who automatically deride any film that features Charlton Heston or deals with a biblical theme. It is indeed quite amazing that any special effects filmed in 1954 would continue to stack up so well. (I suppose Lucas or Spielberg could improve on the giant squid today, but so what?)
The acting is almost uniformily superb, although I seem to be in the minority in my opinion that Kirk Douglas' yo-ho-ho cliché sailor is rather wooden. (v. following paragraph) James Mason portrays Captain Nemo as a tragic hero in the classic sense, neither "byronic" nor a "mad scientist": a man so far ahead of his time that the world can only see his invention as a monster to be hunted with harpoons---and yet he is so tragically wounded by the whose malice and envy of lesser men that he has indeed become, in some ways, a monster. Paul Lucas is equally heartrending as Professor Arronax, the good-hearted bourgeois academician who truly believes that anyone can be made to "see reason" and become, in effect, a nice guy. Between these huge opposites are the robust common man of action, Ned Land ("Nemo's cracked", "I want to escape!"), the Professor's worry-wart servant, Conseil (Peter Lorre), and Nemo's equally devoted, spookily laconic First Mate (Robert J. Wilkes).
(I may as well say at the outset that to my mind the characterization of Ned Land, along with Kirk Douglas' stiff and utterly unnuanced portrayal, remains the major fault of the film. I would have liked to have seen an attempt at capturing Verne's taciturn Ned, half-mad from the tension between his enforced submarine claustrophobia and his romantic longing to once again swab a deck, reef a sail, or entrust himself to winds and currents; indeed, according to the novel's Aronnax, Ned's recitals of his adventures are worthy of a "Homer of the North". Most unfortunately, the wisecracking, womanizing Ned of the film seems to reflect Douglas' momentary screen persona more than Verne's character, since it bears so little resemblance to the latter. Also, the fact that Douglas out-bills Mason in credits and advertisements is as weird as the ubiquitous poster art in which Douglas' head is two sizes larger than Mason's.)
Leaving aside my pet peeve (i.e., Douglas), there are many Shakespearean qualities here in addition to the tragedy of Nemo. For one thing, much of the action takes place inside the characters' heads: First Arronax, Conseil and Land analyze Nemo, assaying a most dangerous attempt to ferret out his motivations. Then Nemo analyzes Aronnax who, almost in retaliation, develops his own analysis of Nemo. Then Conseil and Land analyze Aronnax analyzing Nemo. Meanwhile, the claustrophobia of the submarine boat acts on their minds like an amphetamine drug, causing the latter to function more and more frantically for good or ill.
Also like Shakespeare, the dialog (and it is wonderful dialog, grave but also lively with repartee and wordplay--just see the digest of quotes preceding these reviews!) alternates with comic relief and action scenes. As to the former, worry-wart Conseil is extremely funny, one of my favorite lines being his dismissal of Ned's message-in-a-bottle idea: "That went out with Robinson Crusoe! This is the nineteenth century!" And action scenes, as the famous fight with the giant squid, serve the same purpose as the ghosts, sword fights, etc. that the Bard provided for the groundlings---so that it is indeed "family entertainment"; people of all ages can watch this film with pleasure.
Masterfully, the film contains almost precisely the necessary updating to make the story meaningful to modern audiences. The common notion that Verne foresaw atomic power is certainly apocryphal; the Vulcania scenes are adapted from Verne's novel Facing the Flag, even if his super-nitroglycerine "Fulminator" is replaced here by nuclear fission. Nonetheless, Verne's speculations on power do make a good symbolic match with the notion of atomic energy, birthing a very credible meditation on the nineteenth century in the light of its successor. The somber and frighteningly beautiful finale causes us to wonder just at what point before 1900 this or that fateful corner was turned.
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