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 <email@example.com>
The Walt Disney film of 1954, "20,000 Leagues Under The Sea" is nothing short of a masterpiece within its genre. While comparing it to "Gone With The Wind" or "Citizen Kane" might be done by others in calling "Leagues" a 'masterpiece', it would be comparing apples to oranges, for this epic, while not overlong as are most masterpieces, it is completely contained to tell a gripping story with wonder acting, production values and the special effects of the day.
It is had to know where to begin to list the wonderful achievements here, especially in adapting a book of almost a thousand pages, much of it filled with endless lists of the fish and fauna of the sea, of which Jules Verne was especially fond. Such was unfilmable, of course, and the script writer, Earl Felton, was wise in paring down the verbosity of the novel, which, of course, was the usual for the prolix Victorian style of Verne's day. From that wonderful opening of the titles shown against lush drapery illuminated by rippling water reflections of the undersea cast upon it, to the beginning of the inspired, majestic score by Paul J. Smith, one is transported to a fantastic time and place and the artistry to come is well intoned. Customarily, the Director is given the lion's share of the credit for a film's success, but here it is an almost perfect melding of the story, the acting and the visuals as well as the music that combine with seeming effortlessness to entertain.
James Mason as Capt. Nemo is superb, with his wonderful bearing and diction lending the aura of both contained madness and yet sympathetic grace to a character who could have been so easily overplayed. Disney wisely selected Kirk Douglas and Peter Lorre as the physical foils of Nemo and to provide the comic and action relief. Had this not been done, the intellectual bearings of Nemo and Paul Lukas' Professor Arronax would have overloaded and stilted the film, rather the way they do in the novel. Some take exception to the device of "Esmeralda" the seal, but that too is a needed counterpoint to the otherwise dark theme of the implied mission of the Nautilus: the destruction of warships that spread "man's inhumanity to man." Such is the skill of the spare dialogue in the film that one never is hit over the head with the sermon of the hopelessness and wickedness of war and the nations that sponsor it. This film carries the message of the novel, but it never looses sight of its first purpose, which is to entertain. Even the implied nuclear destruction is not trumpeted, but only alluded to, since such energy source was unknown to Jules Verne in the 19th Century, of course, but was highly topical in the 1950s.
One of the glories of the movie is the marked artistry in all the careful details in the film. It was just then that the USA was planning its first nuclear submarines, the first of which was even named the "Nautilus" in memory of this immensely popular film. But the art director, John Meehan, the production designer, Harper Goff, and the set decorator, Emile Kuri, were never carried away by allusions to then modern technology, but kept faith with the setting of the day, by making the ship a wonderful creature-like form, the interiors a skillful blend of needed science for function, coupled with a lush decor that bespoke not only the Victorian times, but also the sensitivity of man of its genius of design. Look at the touches: the electric iris covering the massive bubble window, the fountain in the captain's drawing room, complete with an artistic pipe organ properly intoning Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D-minor, as most appropriate. Even the uniforms and upholstery are embroidered with the 'N' of Nemo's monogram as are the galloons on the edges of the draperies. The inventiveness of the electric charge upon the hull is also one of the clever devices to invoke the future, yet help make the existence of the undersea ship believable.
Everyone who sees this epic will always remember, the night scene of a hand-to-tentacle fight with a giant squid, as truly unforgettable and most appropriate again, for it was only a few years before that the first complete corpse of such a squid was found in complete form and thereby documented what others had only written of. This film exceeded its class in that day and age, yet even if equal actors could have been found for the earlier versions, they would have been too early to truly depict the vision of Jules Verne's technology of the future.
Some have criticized that the entire novel was not on film, but were the entire book to be filmed, it would exceed five hours, and Disney knows that even with the finest production, a film must be limited to approximately two hours in order to get both an audience willing to sit through it, as well as exhibitors willing to show it. In making a movie, the constraints are much more severe than in writing a novel; a movie is a collaboration of many people and many conflicting desires and egos must be assuaged. The flow of an entertaining story is paramount, since this was never to be a documentary. Each actor's agent works to try to get the maximum time on screen for his client, which gets maximum credit and fee for the actor. The limitations of filming such an imaginative novel also created large costs which the producers would try to show on screen to justify it all to the accountants, since a film is created with the aim of making a profit for the studio and its investors. We must agree that they succeeded in making one of the most interesting and visually spectacular films ever made, whereas the book contained a great deal of unfilmable ichthyology that was more of an excursus into the expertise of Jules Verne than any dramatic device. All in all, I think that were Jules Verne alive in 1954, he would have been well pleased with this celluloid version of his epic story.
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