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20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (Special Edition) Print E-mail
Tuesday, 20 May 2003

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea: Special Edition

Buena Vista Home Entertainment
MPAA rating: G
starring: Kirk Douglas, James Mason, Paul Lukas, Peter Lorre
release year: 1954 – DVD remastered 2003
film rating: Four Stars
sound/picture: Three Stars
reviewed by: Mel Odom

Just the mention of Jules Verne’s name evokes worlds. Those worlds took shape in his mind, but they were very real all the same. At least, they were real in the world that was then known. The author used the real world as a steppingstone and branched out into unknown realms such as the center of the earth, the moon, and beneath the vast oceans, based on what current science knew of those areas.

One of Verne’s most compelling characters was Captain Nemo. The mysterious and moody captain first appeared in Verne’s novel “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” in 1870. In 1954, Walt Disney Productions brought Captain Nemo and his great submarine Nautilus to cinematic life. The movie was a pioneering effort for Walt Disney as well: the very first all-live-action movie the studio made on its own lot. Stage 3 was built with a water tank to shoot the film, and at the time it was the largest water tank stage ever constructed.

Chapter 1 opens on a steamship powering across the open sea. Two green lights flare to life in the depths of the sea and rise to the surface. The first glimpse of Nautilus shows that the submarine actually resembles a great beast of the sea, whale-sized but having definite shark-like and crocodile-like lines. Swiftly and without warning, Nautilus cuts through the water and slams into the steamship. A shower of blazing sparks explodes up into the air and the steamship sinks like a rock.

The story shifts to the streets of San Francisco, where the various shipping companies offer double wages for sailors to go out onto the open seas. With a strange “beast” out on the loose and behaving in such a bloodthirsty manner, none of the sailors want to brave the ocean. The background of this sequence is amazingly true to life. Ships’ masts stand out in the distance, giving the impression of a harbor crowded with sailing vessels. Ned Land (Kirk Douglas) puts in his first appearance during the argument that shapes up on the streets. Ned has a saloon girl under each arm. A fight breaks out. Professor Pierre Arronax (Paul Lukas) is stranded with his aide-de-camp Conseil (Peter Lorre) in San Francisco. The professor is trying to get back to France to study new information in his field of oceanography. Interviewed by the San Francisco reporters looking for a sensational story, Arronax is deliberately misquoted. The American military approaches Arronax and makes an offer to take the professor home to France if he will accompany a ship that’s going in search of the monster. Pulled by his own curiosity, Arronax agrees. Arronax and Captain Farragut search for the monster for three-and-a-half months, but find no sign of it. However, several other sea creatures show up, revealing Disney’s interests in the real world. Toward the end of the chapter, Ned Land shows up with a guitar and sings to entertain the ship’s crew, revealing Disney’s interest in combining music with feature films.

Nautilus puts in another appearance in Chapter 3, attacking a ship and leaving it to burn to the waterline. While Ned is still singing, the ship’s crew spots Nautilus and they immediately attack the “creature” with cannon fire. The sound of the drums beating fills the deck, then the explosions of the cannon fire roll through the surround sound system. Unfortunately, the surround sound is a later addition to the film’s audio track and never quite rises to today’s quality. The speakers do split and broadcast the sound, but not to an impressive degree. Nautilus slams into the ship and causes it to sink. During the action, Arronax and Ned are thrown overboard. Conseil throws himself overboard after the professor. A thick fog covers the sea as Arronax and Conseil find Nautilus. They crawl aboard the submarine and discover the mysteries as well as the impressive technology (for its era) of the boat. The burial at sea of one of Nemo’s men is otherworldly as they march along the sea floor with the casket, exactly as the scene was intended to be. During the burial, Nemo (James Mason) and his men spot Arronax aboard Nautilus and set out to return quickly to the submarine.

Chapter 4 shows the capture of Arronax, Ned, and Conseil. The clank of the metal shoes and the hiss of water echo through the submarine as they come aboard. Nemo is familiar with Arronax’s work and they talk. Nemo puts Ned and Conseil outside the submarine with the intention of drowning them when Nautilus goes down, then offers Arronax the opportunity to stay with the crew. Arronax chooses to stay with his friends and is nearly drowned, but Nemo brings them all back in. Later in the chapter, Esmeralda the seal puts in an appearance as Nemo’s pet. The banquet feast is humorous as the newest arrivals to Nautilus find out the true nature of the meal they enjoy.

Chapter 5 contains more fantastic underwater scenery. The hiss and bubbling of the air tanks are a nice touch, adding depth and reality to the environment. The sunken ship scene where Ned and Conseil find the treasure chest hits an adventurous stride, especially with the shark swimming around. Chapter 6 features Ned in an attempt to steal some of the treasure Nemo has aboard the sub. To cover his larceny, he ends up singing to Esmeralda the seal, and the scene switches instantly from suspenseful to comic as Ned and the seal play so well together.

Chapter 7’s battle between Nautilus and a ship is excellent, especially by the standards of the time at which “20,000 Leagues” was made. Miniatures took the place of the ship and the submarine, but the effects look real, with debris floating from the ship into the heartless depths of the sea. The attack also spurs conflict between Ned and Arronax as they become divided over what kind of person Captain Nemo really is. Chapter 10 contains striking and scary scenes where water floods into the submarine. In no time, Nautilus continues on toward on the bottom of the sea while the boat continues to take on water. The crushing weight of the sea closes in.

The famous fight with the gigantic squid takes place in Chapter 10 as well. The initial shoot was a disaster, as revealed in the interview with director Richard Fleischer. Walt Disney stepped into the arena and had a new squid built, and the scene was rewritten to take place in a storm. Reshooting the new scene cost a million dollars, which was not in the budget.

The bonus material included on the two-disc set is amazing. Director Fleischer’s commentary about the film is insightful, discussing the difficulties in shooting it, what was going on at Walt Disney Productions at the time, and the rivalry that went on between Walt and Fleischer’s father, animator Max Fleischer, who also had a studio featuring animated projects, including the Superman cartoons. Years later, Richard Fleischer directed another “underwater” SF classic called “Fantastic Voyage,” albeit this time, the vast sea and unknown world became a journey through the human body in a miniaturized sub.

“The Sunset Squid Sequence” features the squid fight near the end of the movie that had to be shot again and pushed the picture way over budget. After watching the sequence, the viewer will immediately know why the scene was changed. The “Touring The Nautilus” featurette is a nice piece of work, splicing diagrams with sets and with actual footage from the finished movie.

The documentary on the Humboldt squid, the model for the movie’s beast, is interesting and dynamic. “Jules Verne & Walt Disney: Explorers of the Imagination” is an excellent piece on these two pioneers of entertainment. Several science fiction writers offer their views on both the book and film versions of “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea.” After viewing the movie, film aficionados interested in all things cinematic should definitely take the time to watch “The Making of ‘20,0000 Leagues Under The Sea.’” Walt Disney actually risked the empire he was building by investing in the film so heavily. At the time, “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea” was the most expensive film ever made, surpassing even “Gone With The Wind,” and the underwater scenes had more people filmed underwater than had even been done by the United States Navy.

“20,000 Leagues Under The Sea” is a fascinating movie. Unfortunately, the film is almost 50 years old and much of the technology in the movie has been surpassed these days. Present-day audiences probably won’t be as awed by it as the theater audiences in 1954, but the story and the acting are still compelling. The additional features make the two-disc a must-have for movie fans, and the movie is a great addition to the family film collection.

more details
sound format:
English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound; THX Certified
aspect ratio(s):
2.55:1, Enhanced for 16x9 Televisions
special features: All-New Audio Commentaries With Director Richard Fleischer And Classic Film Historian/Author Rudy Behlmer; Radio Spots (original radio spots from 1954 feature); Peter Lorre’s ADR Tracks (gives the listener a glimpse into the process of dialogue replacement for the scenes before they were trimmed and edited into the feature film); Captain Nemo’s Organ Music; The Making of “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea” Featurette; Jules Verne & Walt Disney—Explorers Of The Imagination Behind-The-Scenes Featurette; The Humbolt Squid: A Real Sea Monster!; The Musical Legacy Of Paul Smith; Touring the Nautilus; Lost Treasure: The Sunset Squid Sequence; Disney Studio Album; Monsters Of The Deep; Script Excerpt: Nemo’s Death; Production Gallery; Trims; Movie Merchandise; Themed Cartoon (theatrical animated short “Grand Canyonscape,” which was presented as part of the theatrical release); Theatrical Trailer; English Closed-Captioning
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reference system
DVD player: Pioneer DV-C302D
receiver: RCA RT2280
main speakers: RCA RT2280
center speaker: RCA RT2280
rear speakers: RCA RT2280
subwoofer: RCA RT2280
monitor: 42-inch Toshiba

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