Let’s say you wrote a script for some big-time Hollywood studio to make into a movie. It’s got everything and you’re pretty proud, especially since you got a big-time studio executive to read it. But even better, they love it! They want to green light it right away….with a caveat. They want you to make the script more “mature”. Do that and you got yourself a multi-million dollar deal, baby!
So…what do you do? How do you make a script more “mature”? From what I’ve seen, it’s either the executives or the writers who fall into a perilous trap here and add jokes and/or references to sex, bodily functions, drugs, alcohol, or swearing. You know, stuff kids shouldn’t be hearing. But the problem is it’s a lazy approach. Anyone can make a joke punctuated by a fart. But what makes a great writer is writing a story that is appropriate for children, devoid of these uncouth references, but still appealing to adults. Very few movies out there exist like this, but 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is one such movie.
There’s a lot of reasons why this movie is renowned in the Disney canon. It was directed by Richard Fleischer, who was the son of Max Fleischer. Max was the guy who created characters like Popeye and Betty Boop, so Richard was understandably cautious in taking the job offer, but his father was more than happy to see his son direct a Disney film. The movie was a blockbuster hit for Disney and inspired the Submarine Voyage ride at Disneyland, but it’s more accurate spiritual successor is the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ride at Walt Disney World that lasted from 1971 to 1994. Today, the Nautilus submarine is one of the most iconic images of Disney live actions films. And it was the first time Disney managed to hire such prolific stars as James Mason, Peter Lorre, and Kirk Douglas. It had the makings of something epic.
So dive deep and dredge this Disney diamond for a delightfully drenched destination!
The plot: In 1868, reports of ships getting destroyed lead to rumors of a sea monster in the Pacific. Professor Aronnax (Paul Lukas) and his assistant Conseil (Lorre) are given an offer by the U.S. government to ride aboard a ship to scour the ocean for the supposed monster. The “monster” indeed strikes, and everyone onboard dies, save for the Professor, Conseil, and harpooner Ned Land (Douglas). The three find the monster is actually a nuclear-powered iron submarine, the Nautilus, piloted by the mysteriously charismatic Captain Nemo (Mason). Nemo holds them hostage, but his rapport with the Professor gets stronger with every passing moment. When it turns out out Nemo has been intentionally sinking the ships in the name of saving humanity from itself, Conseil and Ned have to put aside their differences and find a way to get rescued…and save the Professor from himself.
How’s the writing?: The story is pretty solid, most things considered. The movie’s primary focus is on Nemo and Aronnax’s relationship, and the one between Ned and Conseil. At the core, it’s about three men who are held as both guests aboard the submarine and prisoners, so the movie just allows the four men to work off each other. None of them really trust the other, so it becomes a bit of a mystery who you should be rooting for. Aronnax’s journal entries do partial narration, while everything is in Nemo’s domain. Conseil just wants to save the Professor, and Ned just wants to get out. In each of the situations, from the squid attack to the cannibal invasion, each main character acts as you expect them to.
The movie does drag a lot, though. There are some scenes that drag on, particularly the one where Nemo’s crew gets food. We are given a several minute scene of men in vintage diving suits corralling crabs and sea turtles, but it’s intended to play out as a showcase of the underwater world. Even the side plot in that scene of Ned and Conseil looting for sunken treasure and dodging a shark feels unwieldy, partly because it doesn’t advance the story, and partly because it moves too slowly to be interesting. Especially since you know Nemo wouldn’t tolerate them going off to search for gold.
Does it give the feels?: Not really, no. But a huge part of the movie hinges on Nemo himself and his backstory.
Nemo shows the Professor an island full of slaves filling up a warship and tells him he was once one of those slaves, and his wife and only child were killed at the hands of the men who drove them. He had escaped and several fellow slaves followed, and thus he sought not only to live in a serene life of solitude, devoid of humanity’s cruelty, but also destroy man’s means of creating war, even if innocents have to die.
While Mason is an incredible actor, demonstrating authority and intensity, he fails at accessing the more vulnerable parts of his character. Also, since his story is told through expositional dialogue, it’s hard to get truly involved. Even when they go ashore and we are shown the slaves, they’re shown in long shot only, so we lose the intimacy of the moment.
Who makes it worth it?: Like I said, the four main actors all bring their all into this. Consider in 1954, Disney had only done a handful of live action movies, so not only was it impressive to bring in the likes of Douglas, Lorre, and Mason, but that they were taking it as seriously as they would any movie from a studio that wasn’t known for making cartoons.
Part of me really wants to like Mason’s Nemo, but what stops me from really embracing him is he comes off as too cold and too arrogant. It’s the point of the character, sure, but Mason almost seems like he doesn’t care or he thinks he’s too good for the role. If I had my second pick, it’d be Ned. Ned, by far, has the clearest motivations. He seems to sign up on the voyage just for kicks, and he is fixed on one goal: getting off the Nautilus. He does get distracted by Nemo’s vault of treasure, and gets flummoxed at his arrogance, but he remains determined to find a way out, yet he’s able to make the most of his time when he has no choice but to sit around and wait. He even makes friends with Esmay, Nemo’s pet sea lion, that is all kinds of adorable.
My favorite scene of his is after the giant squid attack, Ned dives in and saves Nemo. Even the normally-composed Captain is astounded, and asks the lampooner why he did so. Ned himself replies he doesn’t know, given the two really don’t like each other. So he does what most adults do when they’re faced with troubling questions: they drink.
Best quality provided: The movie has an amazing tone. It’s mysterious, dark, and cold. For a Disney movie, it sure doesn’t feel like one.
This was also one of the earliest movies made in which the antagonist had motives that were understandable. Nowadays, we think of Thanos from Avengers: Infinity War as being a bad guy we get where he’s coming from. It doesn’t excuse him from wanting to eliminate half the universe for, but he’s doing it for good reasons. Nemo, similarly, wants to end war and hate by dismantling the very weapons and soldiers by any means necessary….again, by killing as many as he can. To him, mercy is useless and compassion is futile. He keeps Aronnax aboard to show him how the ship works and seems to enjoy having a fellow scientist on board.
In fact, the Aronnax plot is one of the best aspects of the movie. As a scientist, Aronnax believes he must keep an open mind about everything and he must learn all he can. It’s this good intention that gets him on the excursion in the first place, and when he spends time with Nemo, he absorbs all Nemo has to say. He says he denounces Nemo’s actions, but it’s clear he’s swayed, or at least making excuses for Nemo. He’s driven by a need to learn he can all about the sub, even though Nemo makes it clear he thinks such innovative technology would only be weaponized. As such, he is trusting only Aronnax and on a tight leash, at that. It makes for a fascinating character dynamic.
Lastly, the song “Whale of a Tale” is charming and fun. A classic Disney tune. A touch misogynistic, sure, but still fun.
What could have been improved: Despite its Oscar-winning effects, they don’t hold up particularly well. I truly loathe to state it, but it’s true. Especially when the film’s climactic fight with a giant squid had an incredibly poor initial run, the version in the final film looks like a an old school kaiju movie.
In the original cut, Nemo and the crew surfaced and took on the monstrous cephalopod during a clear and calm sunset. But because the setting only emphasized just how fake the squid looked, the decision was made to film the sequence during a storm to hide the wires. While certainly a step in the right direction, it couldn’t save the the fact the tentacles just kind of wiggle around. I know people love to scoff at CGI, claiming they couldn’t top practical effects, but c’mon. I totally buy the kraken in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest far more than I do the squid in this movie.
During the initial voyage, the movie falls into Davy Crockett territory, and has two scenes where the crew point excitedly over the railing…only to see a spliced clip from a blurry handheld camera of dolphins and a whale. It really takes you out of the moment. In addition, there are times you can tell where they used the in-house tank, particularly early in the movie, with the unusually calm water lapping up against the fog-shrouded submarine. What tickles me is Aronnax and Conseil step aboard the surfaced sub and when they go below, they find the crew performing a funeral…on the ocean floor!
There’s also a bizarre scene where Ned tries to escape into an island, only to be chased back to the sub by a tribe of cannibals. Nemo repels then with an electric charge, which works. But…how, exactly, when water conducts electricity? Am I missing something?
Lastly, Disney fans might be a bit bored at times. And not-Disney fans may still find this too corny at times. There’s cute stuff, like Ned playing with Esmay, or “Whale of a Tale”, but then there’s a lot of scenes of everyone talking, a lot of talk of trust and plotting and danger. It works well together, but the parts don’t always mesh well.
Verdict: This one is a classic to Disney fans for a reason. While I’m upset I never got a chance to ride the Magic Kingdom ride back in the day, I’m glad this movie is still around, even if the effects are kind of dated. Still, it’s nice to see a movie, a Disney movie, no less, taking on the heaviness of justice when it becomes questionable. I’d have been more interested if this were explored a bit deeper, but for depths it did go to (See what I did there?), it’s not bad. Definitely a solid six harpoons out of ten.
I swear by my tattoo.