Friday, August 7, 2015

Disney Watch: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)

Dang.  Just got done watching 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), and that is one dark, morally ambiguous kids' movie.  And as much as I remembered loving that movie before, and as much as I really loved it as a kid - dang, does that movie hold up.

When I was about 6, my mom read me either the full book of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, or a kid's adaptation.  Neither of us remembers which, because I have asked.  But she did remember I was sort of bonkers for the book.

As a kid, I saw the movie several times, and I know I watched it at least once at school, because the whole cafeteria full of kids watching the movies kind of went bananas.

What's not to like?

If it's been a while -  The sea is full of stories of a sea monster that is ramming steamers and killing boatloads of people.   Two French scientists trying to make their way to "the Orient" are waylaid in San Francisco as ships will not sail, but the senior scientist is a well regarded expert on sea life.  He's recruited by the US Navy to join them as they seek out the monster.  They're joined by rakish harpooner, Ned Land (played by Kirk Douglas).

As they prepare to give up their search, they happen upon a ship in distress and realize it's been attacked by "the monster".  Professor Aronnax (Paul Lukas) is knocked overboard when their steamer is struck, and his assistant (Peter Lorre) jumps in to save him.  Meanwhile, Ned has been capsized in his harpoonist's skiff.

They're taken aboard The Nautilus where Arronax's sense of scientific wonderment is piqued, Ned's desire for freedom is ignited, and Peter Lorre's desire to just survive pulls him in many directions.  And, of course, they meet the mysterious Captain Nemo (James Mason being just plain epic).

There are a lot of great pieces to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), and character motivations in conflict gets placed right there, front and center.  That at the basis of this marvel of a visual spectacle what you really have is a scenario of people thrown together with conflicting viewpoints, all legitimate, all inflexible, takes this from a cool adventure film to a compelling tug-of-war.  Even if you forget the world of Nemo and his crew and the amazing world beneath the waves, or you get past the design or practical FX, there's a lot here to chew on.

(Spoilers: we learn Nemo is not mindlessly attacking ships, he's attacking the ships of slavers operating illegally, and we learn why in terrible detail.  It's not hard to see why his genius has been bent on murder.)

Disney, a futurist himself, may have really taken to Verne's concepts of how the sea could be exploited as food source and nourishment for man beyond simple fishing nets, and if you visited EPCOT during it's 80's hey-day as Walt's long-delayed dream of a prototype city of the future - The Living Seas and The Land fit neatly in with Verne's extrapolation for how we could turn to the oceans for a different way of life.

There's also adventure to be had beneath the surface, from a shark attack while looking for treasure, to, of course, the famous Giant Squid assault, a still very effective sequence, especially as you can feel the distress as real people are really blasted by waves and wind, no matter how artificially generated, and no matter how rubbery those squid arms might be.

And, finally, I really want to talk about The Nautilus, but I get kind of stopped at "oh my God, that is amazing".

This image isn't from the movie, but it is art of the Nautilus as it's presented in the film.

A 19th Century, nuclear-powered submersible built for ramming slave ships.  Not bad.

The interior, is just as intricately designed.  All Victorian-era metal scrolling, and the look of a somewhat cluttered drawing room with the world's most novel picture window.  And, of course, the pipe organ.

At the heart of the movie, a kids' movie no less, is the question of what is truly good?  Small, personal acts of kindness, tied invariably to mood and capriciousness?  Or steadfastness toward the greater good, no matter the appearance of horror in the small degrees of progress for that greater good?  Really, a question asked during every change in culture as the old gets questioned and pushed upon by the new.

I remember the complexity of the characters fascinating, even as a kid, and more so today.  It's certainly a movie I'd want to watch with my own kids to discuss the moral dilemmas of all the players (including the scientist who wants to do what he can to share Nemo's wonders).  And in a post-Hiroshima age, what the Nautilus and destruction of the island fortress must have meant was something pretty great.

Also, the seal is cute as hell.


RHPT said...

The book plays a small but crucial rose in Fant4tastic.

The League said...

You might as well spoil it and say how.

RHPT said...

Early in the movie, Reed mentions to Sue that 20K Leagues Under the Sea was one of his favorite books. Later when Sue is trying to track him down, she finds him by noticing that Richard named an email server "Cpt_N3m0" or (something like that). See how clever?

The League said...


I think I'm okay waiting til Cable on this one.

picky said...

Ooh, it's been much too long. I need to watch this. And wow, that's quite a boat.