Smith’s Verdict: ****
Reviewed by Tanner Smith
One of the great things about the late Walt Disney’s movies is that they’re suitable for all audiences. Disney has a reputation of being an important member of the family-movie circuit, as well as the richest. But that’s just it—they key word in that phrase is “family” movie, not “kid’s” movie. These are good-hearted movies for children and adults. If Disney’s animated movies, such as “Pinocchio,” can show that, then his live-action films certainly could. One that comes to mind is the 1954 film adaptation of Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”
“20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” is a delightful adventure movie—exciting, mysterious, thrilling, and when it needs to be, insightful. It’s great for kids, but also for adults, who I think arguably, might enjoy it more. It knows how to tell a story, it’s thought provoking, and visually thrilling.
It begins as something unknown continues to sink ships all over the ocean. Professor Arronax (Paul Lukas) has been invited to board an expedition to search for the supposed “monster.” But after an encounter with the thing, the Professor, his meek but loyal assistant Conseil (Peter Lorre), and sailor Ned Land (Kirk Douglas) are left shipwrecked, and they swim to find that the monster is not a monster at all. It is, in fact, a fully functional submarine.
The submarine is an amazing discovery for its time, and is captained by the megalomaniacal Captain Nemo (James Mason), a genius with a skill for invention, a hunger for freedom, and a grudge against humanity. Because he has read the Professor’s work and feels there’s more he can show him, he agrees to take him and his two companions aboard. The Professor is fascinated by Nemo’s invention(s) and free world, and unnerved by his resentment for society. Ned, however, would like nothing more than to escape.
Everything around the submarine is a visual treat. Showing how the contraption works and all of the neat little gadgets around it makes it interesting to watch. I feel that everything in this movie’s budget went into this submarine and it shows. And it’s captained by a particularly interesting character—Captain Nemo is one of the great villains in literature and is no exception in the movies, based on the performance by James Mason. Nemo is constantly wavering between insanity and intelligence, and has his own views of society that forces him to create a deadly crusade across the seven seas. James Mason is brilliant as Nemo—he makes us hate him one minute, and then care for him the next.
There are plenty of fun action sequences. Three come to mind—the first is, the shark attack underwater, as Ned and Conseil go hunting underwater (sporting diving suits and helmets) and attempt to steal buried treasure when they come across trouble; the second is, a chase by a cannibal tribe on a remote island which ends with another clever invention by Nemo; and last but definitely least is, a battle with a giant squid. Great creature effects are put into that last sequence, like giant tentacles wrapping around the crew, and the pacing is perfect as Ned attempts to break out of his prison room in order to save the day, making this a brilliantly formed action sequence.
Kirk Douglas is likable as the rambunctious scalawag Ned Land, who becomes the unlikely hero only after trying multiple times to escape. Paul Lukas does a nice job as the intellectual who is slowly descending to Nemo’s level, and Peter Lorre is fun as the meek one caught in the middle of all this.
There are also some nice light-hearted moments to go with the dark material, such as when Ned plays a catchy fun tune called “Whale of a Tale” on guitar, or when Nemo’s pet seal who apparently prefers cigars over seafood—though to be fair, I think those cigars were made of seaweed, since the food on that ship is entirely made of creatures from the sea. Would you believe that the supposed “cream” is actually milk from a giant sperm whale?
“20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” is a timeless classic in not only the Disney live-action group, but also the action-adventure genre. It provides characters to root for, a villain that can be both sympathetic and intimidating, great visual sets, sensational sequences, and a well-moving story.