20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

Kirk Douglas, James Mason, Paul Lucas, Peter Lorre. Directed by Richard Fleischer. Aspect ratio: 2.55:1 (anamorphic). Two discs. Dolby Digital 5.1, THX. 127 minutes. 1954. Walt Disney Home Video 27853. G. $29.99.

Picture ***
Sound **
Film ***

20,000 Leagues Under the Seawas the first feature-length live-action film from Walt Disney Studios. It was also, according to Disney, the most expensive film made up to that time, and Disney's future was riding on its success. Fortunately, it was an immediate hit with both the critics and public on its release just before Christmas 1954.

But Jules Verne's classic novel about the late-1800s undersea adventures of the submarine Nautilus wasn't easy to adapt for the screen. The novel is episodic and rambling, and the filmmakers took a lot of liberties in fashioning a coherent, linear plot. The result is good yarn, but it lacks a rich story line, character development, and back story. We'd like to know more, for instance, of Captain Nemo's origins. His hatred of man's inhumanity to man, war, and the imprisonment that may have led him to those attitudes are depicted, but only in brief outline (his tortured soul is revealed most vividly not by words, but when we see him playing Bach's somber Toccata and Fugue in D Minor on the ship's organ), and come nowhere near suggesting why he terrorizes the high seas by sinking ships, seemingly at random.

The cast is fine, but only James Mason's Captain Nemo lingers in the memory. Paul Lucas seems stiff as Professor Arronax, and has little of importance to do except draw out from Nemo those sketchy background details. Peter Lorre is amusing as Conseil, but it wasn't the most challenging part he played in his distinguished career. Kirk Douglas has fun, though, as the roguish but good-natured Ned Land. For the first (and, I believe, only) time in his career, he gets to sing, and get drunk with a seal. But not both at the same time.

My story complaints aside, 20,000 Leagues Under the Seahas become something of classic. It was apparently made with younger audiences in mind, but, thanks to its vivid and detailed production design (the Victorian look of the Nautilus, inside and out, is brilliantly conceived), it's still enjoyable for adults. The special effects look a bit dated now, but few other science-fiction productions of the 1950s (notably George Pal's The War of the Worlds, still the champ of the era in that department) did better. The squid-attack sequence is still impressive.

How the squid attack was staged, as well as a treasure-chest full of other details concerning the production, are included on disc 2. In fact, even if you're not a big fan of the movie, you'll enjoy the extended "Making of" feature, narrated by John Rhys-Davies. There's also an extended look at the career of Disney composer Paul Smith and the music he wrote for this film and others. Disc 1 also includes a commentary track from director Richard Fleischer.

The most interesting feature, however, is the complete squid-attack sequence as originally shot. The "Making of" feature describes in detail why this first effort failed and had to be redone, and when you see the entire sequence, it's vividly apparent how badly it went wrong. It's a hoot; had the film been released with the first squid fight, it would have been laughed off the screen. But the filmmakers recognized the problem immediately and invested a huge sum (for the day) to reconceive and reshoot the whole thing.

The transfer looks good for a 1954 production, vividly reflecting the original Technicolor photography. The only limitation is that it looks just a little soft throughout. The original CinemaScope production was shot in an extremely wide ratio of 2.55:1 (2.35:1 is about the widest used in modern productions); you'll notice this immediately in the wider-than-normal black bars on your screen.

The original 4-track stereo has been reformatted here for Dolby Digital 5.1. The audio is limited in dynamic range and frequency response, and don't expect to hear much in the way of surrounds or deep bass. It sounds modern—to a degree—only when Nemo plays the organ. But the sound is easy on the ears and never actively irritating. After a few minutes, you simply accept it as part of the film's classic look and sound.

20,000 Leagues Under the Seawas never a great movie, but it is a good one. Disney has put together an impressive package here that's easy to recommend.—TJN