Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Movie Review: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

I suppose the first thing that I should say about 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is that I never read the book. (I know, shame on me.) It just wasn't my thing. (Also, the reason I'd never seen the movie.) But, of all the movies on my list of 100 Classic Must-See Movies (That I've Somehow Never Seen), the one that Jay was most excited about my watching was 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea so...

Here we go.


20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a live-action Disney movie (the live-action bit was more important back in 1954 when the movie was released) based on the 1870 novel by Jules Verne. Disney and Verne. What a combination. I love that it starts with the raising of a curtain, followed by the opening of a book. I don't think there's a better way to start a collaboration from these two.

The thing you have to remember, when you watch an adaptation like this, is the time that it was written in, and the time that it was made. 20,000 Leagues carries a lot of built-in prejudices that (should) make our modern sensibilities go through the roof. Take, for instance, the fact that there are almost no women in the film and the (very) few women who were present didn't utter a word between them. Hard to swallow, if you happen to be a feminist.

Then, there's also the whole savage cannibals thing -- I mean, come on. Really? Because every indigenous person around the world who doesn't know which fork to use first at a table must be a shield-wielding, bone-wearing cannibal. *eyeroll*


If you can get past those minor annoyances, 20,000 Leagues is a fantastic film. It's action-adventure on a massive Disney-infused scale. One of the things that I enjoyed most about 20,000 Leagues is that it's set on the waves but is less swashbuckling and more steampunk. I don't know much about steampunk myself but, watching this, I'd have to say that Verne must have been one of the pioneers of the sub-culture.

I had certain expections going into this one. Because of it's age, I thought 20,000 Leagues would be painfully hokey and difficult to watch. It didn't take long for me to realize how wrong I'd been. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea holds up remarkably well, especially considering how futuristic is was at the time of its creation. (Usually, the more futuristic a movie is, the easier it dates. We can argue about that any time you want.)

Jay says that 20,000 Leagues both was and wasn't futuristic. He says that it's a difficult one because it's set before the advent of submarines but made at a time in which submarines were being used. He makes a really good point. Either way, it's as easy to watch as any modern Disney movie.

This has to be, in part, due to the sets. They're so well done that they're absolutely convincing. The Nautilus looks real, like you could actually walk on board and take it for a spin. The sets/props in things like Star Trek and Doctor Who, which came almost a decade after 20,000 Leagues, came nowhere near being this good. In fact, the sets were so good that they later became a Disneyland attraction that tourists could walk through.

The enduring popularity of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is evident in the number of times Disneyland and/or Disneyworld brought the Nautilus back. In fact, you can visit Les Mystères du Nautilus at Disneyland France now. (Something that quickly made its way on to my bucket list.) The history of the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea attractions at Disney is fascinating. If you want to know more, check out this terrific article.

With the sets being so well done and so much of the film being filmed on location in the Carribean, it's no wonder that this 4.3 million dollar movie went massively over-budget. Suppose it's not that bad, though, when you consider it brought in 28.2 million and won two Academy Awards.


Speaking of awards, can we all acknowledge that Ned Land's (Kirk Douglas) striped sailor shirt deserves an award of its own? I mean... that is one helluva shirt. Ned Land is beyond camp. Kirk's performance is cheeky, flamboyant, and just plain fun. He brings the comedy to what would have been a terrifyingly dark film without it. It's all toothy-grins, swagger, and the odd sing-a-long with a sea lion.

Okay, so when Ned started singing "Whale of a Tale" on board the American ship, I may have squealed happily and exclaimed, "I didn't know this was a musical!" Jay quickly corrected me, of course, which just made me sad. How amazing would 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea have been if it were a musical?! I'm 100% behind that. "Whale of a Tale" is fun, though, so watch that if you haven't seen it.


And, as for Esmeralda the sea lion... yeah. I'm gonna need a sea lion, thanks. She's the real star of the show, you know. Her tricks are amazing, especially when Ned tells her to cover up so she doesn't get cold and she pulls her blanket over her -- which the comical harpooner immediately imitates. (I do hope that those tricks were achieved without any sort of abuse by her trainers.)

One of Esmeralda's favourite treats in 20,000 Leagues was Captain Nemo's seaweed cigar. The cigars were a great source of amusement here at Castle Vanian. Jay and I both had to agree that we've probably smoked worse in our lifetimes. (Remember those clove cigarettes that were so popular amongst angsty teens in the Nineties? Yuck.) Where 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is concerned, we don't agree on much else.


Jay and I have very different views on Captain Nemo. For me, Captain Nemo (James Mason) is the movie's antagonist. Though he has a mesmerizing voice that I could listen to for hours, Mason's portrayal of the Nautilus's captain is cold and aloof. There's just nothing likeable about him. He's full of dark passion, which is evident in the way he plays the organ that dominates his quarters but that doesn't make him good.

Captain Nemo reveals his troubled past (which, I'm sure, is meant to make us care about him) then reveals his plans for a better future world. I know that we're supposed to view Nemo as some sort of idealist but I don't buy it. For me, he's just some guy who's been hurt and is caring around this massive, deadly chip on his shoulder. Get over it, dude. We all have baggage.

Jay doesn't agree with me at all. He views Captain Nemo as an anti-hero. A slave, rather than a prisoner, Jay sees Nemo as having been unforgivably wronged and, therefore, totally justified in his extreme actions. Jay reminds me that Nemo only attacked war ships. He tells me that trying to end the world's wars is a noble act, one to be admired. Guess this is one of those things we're going to agree to disagree on. (There are plenty of those!)


Professor Aronnax is just as unlikable, if you ask me. (You're still reading, so I'm going to assume that you did.) He's basically just Nemo Lite. Aronnax turns his back on Conseil (Peter Lorre) and Ned for... what? What drives him? Come to think of it, what drives any of the characters?

My biggest criticism of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is that the characters don't have any real depth. Ned is fun but has no backstory. Why does Coneil blindly follow Aronnax? What does he get out of it? Give me something, man. Tell me about these people. And, hey, maybe give the Nautilus's crew some personality. Those guys (again, GUYS) could be robots, for all the individuality they possess.

If you hadn't noticed, character development is kind of my thing.

In 20,000 Leagues, Ned is the one with the most developed character - and even his is lacking. Ned is revealed as the movie's hero (for me, anyway) when he saves Nemo from the giant squid, even though the captain tried to kill him. Captain Nemo blindly kills thousands, just because they're unlucky enough to be on ships, while Ned puts his life on the line for someone who would happily toss it away. That's a hero.

Since we're talking about the giant squid... everyone raves about the giant squid attack on the Nautilus but I was underwhelmed. I guess I expected it to be bigger. (A lot bigger, actually.) I was expecting, I dunno... something kind of kraken-y. The best scene with the "giant" squid was when they were on the deck of the ship, duking it out in the middle of a gale. The wildly swirling waves and flayling tentacles make for an impressive display.

To be fair, the whole film was a visual treat, in gorgeous technicolor brillance. It really is stunning. Even the underwater scenes, with schools of fish swimming past the camera, would be at home in a nature documentary. (Though, there could have been more of those scenes, I thought.) The soundtrack, on the other hand, is deeply rooted in the 50s. It just sounds like a 50's movie. (Nothing wrong with that, just saying.)


Although the giant squid isn't as impressive as I thought it would be, the movie can be quite dark in places -- frightening, even, for tykes. That first glimpse of the Nautilus, when you see it coming out of the darkness, "eyes" glowing, cutting across the sea, is eerie. The underwater funeral was just as bad, in a totally different way. That bit even creeped me out. There's just something so unnatural about seeing a funeral where the mourners are all wearing scuba suits. *shudder*

I'm glad Jay convinced me to start with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I was kind of dreading tackling this list because so many of the movies on it are just not my thing but 20,000 Leagues proves that a good movie is a good movie, even if it's not the sort of movie you usually enjoy. What are your thoughts on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea? Let me know!

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