20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
U.S.A. / 1954
Directed by Richard Fleischer
Kirk Douglas
James Mason
Peter Lorre
Color / 127 Minutes / G
Format: DVD (R1 - NTSC / 2-disc set)
Disney DVD
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Review by
Brian Lindsey
    10   10 = Highest Rating  
I've already waxed nostalgic about my childhood love of all things Nemo and Nautilus in my November 2002 review of Columbia's Mysterious Island DVD. Needless to say I was utterly thrilled to finally see Disney's greatest live-action film, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, arrive on DVD in an absolutely superb two-disc set. It's pretty much everything I could've hoped for and more.
    Jules Verne's famous story needs but a brief summary. Shortly after the American Civil War, ships are being rammed and sunk on the high seas by a huge underwater "monster". The warship U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln is dispatched to investigate. The American government asks marine biologist Prof. Arronax, an eminent French scientist traveling in the United States, to join the expedition. Accompanied by his assistant Conseil, the professor takes ship aboard the Lincoln on a cruise through the South Pacific. Also onboard is merchant seaman Ned Land, hired for his skill as a master harpooner. The monster is eventually encountered; the Lincoln is attacked and disabled by the beast. Only the beast isn't an animal at all, but rather a fabulous submarine boat more than a century ahead of its time. This exciting discovery is made by Arronax, Conseil and Ned, who, after being thrown into the sea by the collision, find themselves 'guests' of the submarine's commander, the enigmatic Captain Nemo. Because he cannot allow them to return to civilization and reveal his secrets, Nemo takes the castaways on a cruise beneath the world's oceans in the Nautilus, a technological marvel sprung entirely from his own tortured genius. Nemo, for very personal reasons, hates the very concept of war. He uses the Nautilus as an engine of destruction, making war on war sinking the warships of the world's navies and cargo vessels carrying munitions. Arronax temporarily puts aside questions of morality in order to learn all he can from the brilliant Nemo, but the professor's companions have a different agenda: escape.
    While Verne's original novel is essentially an oceanography lesson partially disguised as a ripping yarn, the 1954 Disney film version focuses squarely on exactly what a sci-fi/fantasy adventure movie needs to: thrills and spectacle. (No dissertations on the mating habits of Mediterranean starfish here!) The special effects absolute state-of-the-art in their time still hold up wonderfully today, even the battle with the animatronic giant squid. (A sequence costing over $250,000 to shoot a half century ago, it'd run in the millions today.) The production design of unsung genius Harper Goff is superb; his steam-punk vision of Victorian futurism results in the coolest-looking submarine to ever sail across the silver screen. James Mason, as Captain Nemo, made Verne's conflicted anti-hero an enduring icon of fantasy cinema, while Paul Lukas (Prof. Arronax) and Peter Lorre (Conceil) lend solid support.
    Then there's Kirk Douglas as Ned Land.
    It's the most common criticism of the film... Many people tend to pooh-pooh the deliberate hamminess of Douglas' gregarious performance. Actually, I think it works rather well in contrast to the stern, stoic character of Nemo and the scientific reserve of Arronax. He brings needed energy and humor to the proceedings. Douglas is simply being Douglas here, not even allowing a trained seal to upstage him in the film's 'kiddie' moments.
    Today's kids (those 12 and under) will likely be bored stiff by 20,000 Leagues. It'll prove too slow and too talky, with special effects that aren't 'special' enough. No CGI, no quick-cut, MTV style edits to satiate their ADD-addled brains. What a shame. As a youngster I saw the film at a Memphis theater during a revival run in the early 1970s. Enthralled, I was glued to my seat for every minute of the two hour-plus picture. It filled me with awe and wonder, sparking my fertile young imagination.
    Over three decades later, for me and for the 8-year old boy still inside me 20,000 Leagues stands as one of the absolute pinnacles of fantasy entertainment.

First and foremost, the new DVD is the way to see this movie other than in an actual theater. After years of only being available on home video via fullframe, pan and scan VHS the film can finally be enjoyed in all its widescreen Cinemascope glory. Very widescreen in fact... A note to those with 27-inch TVs or smaller: Forget it. Either that, or sit really close. This is a film with a large canvas; director Richard Fleischer (The Vikings) utilizes the 2.55:1 aspect ratio to the full. In the old VHS edition the Nautilus would glide across the width of the screen and you couldn't see the entirety of the vessel in a single shot. Now we get to see it all. Beautiful! The same adjective will serve to describe the actual transfer. The film looks magnificent it can't have looked this good since the first prints ran in theaters in 1954. There's practically no print damage to speak of and colors are astounding. (Some grain is occasionally noticeable; nothing unusual for a flick this old.) Sound quality, too, is absolutely first rate, with the audio track remastered to THX specifications. This is a 50-year old film with the A/V specs of a modern day blockbuster, or at least as close as one can get. Kudos to Disney on this glorious restoration.
    More kudos are earned for the excellent, all-encompassing bonus features packed into the two-disc set. In addition to the main feature, Disc 1 offers a full-length audio commentary with Fleischer and film historian Rudy Behlmer. It's a congenial chat, loaded with anecdotes both technical and personal about the production, but is often rendered moot if you've seen the "Making Of" featurette included on the second disc (see below). Disc 1 also offers viewers the chance to see the original Donald Duck cartoon, Grand Canyonscope, that played with 20,000 Leagues on its initial theatrical run.
    Disc 2 is crammed full of so much stuff I can only really catalogue it here given the limited space at hand. The crown jewel is the 90-minute documentary The Making of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. This fascinating, comprehensive featurette packed with stills, film clips and behind-the-scenes footage covers all major aspects of the film's production, and is constructed around interviews with Fleischer, Behlmer, Kirk Douglas, Roy Disney (brother of Walt and company vice chairman), the late Harper Goff (via archival footage), matte artist Peter Ellsenshaw, frogmen Bill Stropahl and Al Hansen (who participated in the underwater diving scenes), and others. Even memorabilia collector extraordinaire Bob Burns gets to weigh in, which is a nice touch.
    Still want more? Well, here's what you get... Five additional featurettes: Jules Verne and Walt Disney: Explorers of the Imagination (16 min.), comparing how the two visionaries came to enthrall the public in the 19th and 20th centuries respectively; The Musical Legacy of Paul Smith (11 min.), a tribute to the film's composer and his work on other Disney projects; Monsters of the Deep (7 min.), a bit of promotional ballyhoo put together by Disney to tout the film prior to release; The Humbolt Squid: A Real Sea Monster (7 min.), featuring a marine biologist discussing and showing video clips of this particularly aggressive aquatic creature; and Movie Merchandise (9 min.), an inspection of 20,000 Leagues collectibles. Additional goodies: Touring the Nautilus, which uses computer animation, photos, and clips from the film to showcase the main compartments of Nemo's submarine; image galleries loaded with stills and promotional art; a split-screen storyboard-to-film comparison; animation clips that were created for the movie but never used; a script excerpt ("Nemo's Death"); some brief outtakes ("Trims"); talent bios; and a selection of audio-only extras (radio spots, Captain Nemo's organ music, and a recording of a post-production dialog looping session with Peter Lorre). Oh, and you get the original theatrical trailer, too.
    But I'm still not finished! Of special interest is a 3-minute video clip entitled Lost Treasure: The Sunset Squid. For the first time the public is able to get a glimpse of the disastrous original staging of the famous giant squid sequence. Fortunately good sense intervened; money was raised to completely reshoot it after a major rewrite. Fans of the film should find this 'lost' footage fascinating. 5/26/03