20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA
So let's see what happens when you take the travelogue, the anti-imperial themes, and the breathless enthusiasm for made-up science out of Jules Verne's anti-imperialist science-fiction travelogue. Is it still good? Surprisingly, very slightly yes, but not much.
Directed by Richard Fleischer
Written by Earl Felton (based on the novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne)
Spoiler alert: moderate
Throughout the 1940s, Walt Disney had worried about the future of his company, and it's no mystery why, given the financial disasters he had already faced at the advent of the studio's worst decade. By the mid-1940s, it was not even clear that animation, at least the only way he ever wanted to do animation, was still even anything the public wanted, let alone something he could still afford. It was with this in mind that, in 1946, Walt started Disney down a different, parallel path. Song of the South became the company's first decisive step in diversifying its ouput—that's not, of course, meant to be a pun—the first Disney film that was more live-action than cartoon. (I think, anyhow: I haven't actually timed The Reluctant Dragon.) Song of the South is remembered as a commercial success, amongst other things, but it wasn't too much of one. Perhaps even because it still had cartoons in it, driving up its cost. The next effort was 1948's So Dear To My Heart, which isn't remembered at all, and every time I think I may have to mention it, I literally have to look up what it was called. It barely had any animation, and I suppose it made a profit. By the late 1940s, the worm had turned, and Walt had authorized a whole new slate of animated features, starting with Cinderella. But something had changed. He wasn't nearly as interested in the day-to-day details. Moreover, he no longer trusted his evaluation of the public appetite for animation—which is to say, for possibly the very first time, he actually made a responsible decision as a businessman. Alongside Cinderella would come Treasure Island.
And, by rights, if this animation-centered retrospective is to treat with a representative case from Disney's forays into live-action, which it must, because it is such a crucial stage in their development as a company, then Treasure Island would be the obvious film to review. It was the first wholly live-action Disney film. As such, it was perhaps the second-most important film in the company's history, after Cinderella, which had turned out to be an enormous hit, and which would fund all of Walt's wackiest bullshit for the remainder of the decade to come. But I didn't feel like doing Treasure Island. I specifically wanted to do 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea instead. Released in 1954, it wasn't even the second Disney live-action film—they were produced year-on-year after Treasure Island, making it the fifth—though I daresay it's the second that holds any sway six decades down the line. If I'm wrong, which is your favorite, The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men, The Sword and the Rose, or Rob Roy, the Highland Rogue?
For whatever reason, Walt had found himself fixated on Britain, and on Europe generally, and on period pieces for his live-actioners. (It took till the sixth, 1955's Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier, before an American subject was centered.) As for the European focus, it could be because Walt spent part of the early 50s living half the year in Europe, "overseeing" the live-action productions, though there are some intimations that he didn't have a ton of input into them, and he spent so much time there just because he was sick of Burbank. As for the preference for period pieces, I think that's almost self-evident. Even as Disney transformed itself into a live-action film studio that simply happened to have an animation division, I expect that Walt was still most inspired by distant times and far-off places and by fantasy; and period pieces are, of course, only fantasies of the past, imagined by the present. Still, there's certain limits placed upon you by the historical record. And so perhaps 20,000 Leagues really is the most appropriate choice we could've made after all, for science fiction and fantasy encompass virtually every live-action Disney film made over the next sixty-five years that ever resonated. It doesn't hurt that 20,000 Leagues likely had significantly greater use for Joshua Meador and John Hench's special effects, in the zaps of electricity from the Nautilus's area denial system and in the mushroom cloud that closes out the film, the skill that produced these images having been honed by many years of Disney effects animation for both those men.
Naturally, though, I mostly chose it because I remembered Disney's adaptation of Jules Verne's novel as giving me great pleasure as a child. And yet, as sometimes happens, I found it gave me significantly less pleasure as an adult, its particular fantasy having grown especially wan in the twenty-plus years since I saw it last. It's a pretty odd thing: 20,000 Leagues was spectacularly successful in its day, and is often acknowledged as a little classic, even the definitive version (which may even be objectively true), but upon returning to it, it's hard to see precisely how it achieved such success, or why it's so fondly-recalled, because as far as sci-fi in the 1950s goes, it's really just kind of average in a lot of ways, and frankly seems logey and lumbering in comparison to so many of its faster, cheaper competitors. It even feels smaller in its horizons, which is the most damning thing I can say about a film that came from a novel that promised—and delivered on—a whole twenty thousand leagues' worth of stuff. There's something downright stodgy about it, maybe because it carried the borrowed prestige of Verne (truly, I do not know if Verne was considered "literary" in 1954, or if he's even considered "literary" now), but whatever it was, it resulted in 127 not-very-urgent minutes of sitting with a reasonably handsome production that always feels cheaper than it was, because it's mostly just the same three or four Goddamn rooms on a submarine.
The plot, you'll recall, concerns a pair of Frenchmen, Prof. Aronnax (Paul Lukas) and his intern, Conseil (given the small but important changes the film makes to the character, a radically miscast Peter Lorre, only ten years Lukas's junior and looking ten years his senior; he's also not, y'know, evil or anything). The two scientists have been engaged by the U.S. Navy to help them investigate the reports of a "monster" that's been terrorizing the South Seas. The year, we're told, is 1868, a change of two years from the book that is best explained by "somebody wrote it down wrong." (The set decoration, however, indicates it's actually during or immediately after the American Civil War, and this is best explained by somebody deciding "we don't want a painting of that piece of shit Andrew Johnson in our movie.") Along for the ride is the slayer of whales, the best harpoon-handler in the Pacific, Ned Land (Kirk Douglas), nominally to kill the beast when it's found. But mostly Ned's here to provide a contrast to Aronnax's firm but gentle intellectualism with his fiercely independent, man's-man swagger, and also to sing a catchy faux sea shanty about having intercourse with loose women that I assume was at least a minor hit.
The "monster," needless to say, is the Nautilus, captained by one Nemo (a not-very-South-Asian James Mason), and the instant our heroes find it, it tries to kill them. Of the dozens of souls aboard the USN frigate, only the named characters survive, clinging to flotsam and, upon discovery of the loitering submarine, deciding they have few better options but to go aboard. They are shortly taken prisoner, and Nemo takes them on a voyage of some number of leagues, during which they witness Nemo's scientific marvels as well as his personal vendettas, while Aronnax equivocates, Ned schemes escape, and Conseil is caught between the two polar opposites.
It sounds more exciting than it is, and the enduring nostalgia for 20,000 Leagues probably has a lot to do with failure to remember the drawn-out parts in favor of the legitimate dreamstuff: the angular, riveted-together Victorian wonder of the Nautilus; the image of the mysterious war machine, glowing beneath the waves as it prepares to slam into the frigate; a shockingly well-woven piece of concealing editing that involves stock footage of a bloodthirsty shark in some shots, and a rubber model on wires in others; a kinda racist but initially-thrilling bit with Ned and some cannibals; an extremely technically impressive battle with a giant squid wire puppet and its friend, an enormous giant squid animatronic puppet, that's so rad you're apt to forgive it immediately for being totally fucking arbitrary and stupid.
Oh no, the squid is attacking our... nuclear submarine? Well, let's get out of the sub, it'll be much more plausibly threatening then!
And that's certainly part of the appeal, too: 20,000 Leagues might be the very first piece of steampunk fiction ever made, depending on your definition. Verne, naturally, could only be writing sci-fi in 1869. The Disney adaptation, with the benefit of being made nine years after Trinity, enhances Nemo's super-scientific c.v. with the implication that he's split the atom almost a century ahead of schedule, which theoretically makes it all the more tragic that its secrets die with him.
Or it could be in the performances: Lukas is a non-entity and Lorre seems ill, but Douglas is certainly intermittent fun. Virtually every line he reads is a lunge, and to the extent 20,000 Leagues has a heart, I guess it's in Douglas's barrel chest: he almost makes the film's frivolous ur-Disney comedy work—but it probably says something that his most important screen partner is Nemo's pet seal Esmerelda (sadly, history does not record her performer's name). But you are doubtless wondering when I'll get to Mason, whose Nemo pretty much made the mold for the character, despite it being problematic in ways that very much go hand-in-hand with the way screenwriter Earl Felton sanded Nemo down into a featureless madman. There are nice things to say about Mason: for starters, I personally think he's much more handsome with a beard. But he also brings a gravitas and dignity to Nemo that's the first thing we think about when we think about Verne's most celebrated creation, the greatest of all his many crazy scientists with super-weapons—as well as a madness, an unbearable guilt, and an overweening narcissism. Though I suspect Mason's at his best when he's just throwing classy insults at his inferiors.
But what all this glosses over is that it's an adaptation of Twenty Thousand Leagues that kind of doesn't get the novel, and possibly can't: it functions rather soullessly, devoid of both the spectacle and the grace notes of the book, cutting most everything from the vistas of Atlantis to Nemo's gift of a lifetime's supply of pearls to a poor pearl diver, just because, in a fit of empathy and self-aggrandizing generosity, he realized he could. (It also hurts that while Verne could ignore a secondary cast in prose and get away with it, the undeniable physical presence of Nemo's crew on screen means you wonder if the captain has invented robots to go along with his nuclear sub.) The undersea realm is given surprisingly short shrift: there was only so much stock nature footage that even existed in 1954, I suppose, but ironically the footage of real animals is the part of the movie that's aged the worst, because it doesn't come off as charming or old-school but merely as underwhelming nature photography that doesn't begin to compare to any given BBC documentary I could be watching instead. The stagebound underwater principal photography isn't any better, though, and it's not even clear what business 20,000 Leagues has being in Technicolor, as it commits very soon and very thoroughly to a monotonous blue murk, so that virtually the only colors represented throughout at least 80% of the film are the grayish aqua and the Nautilus's burgundy rust.
There ought to be a persevering dramatic throughline to the thing, and technically there is. Hell, there's even two: Ned's search for escape and Aronnax's growing disenchantment with his host. Unfortunately, the latter just kind of floats above the story and seems more notional than anything else. The former is more concrete, but winds up about as tense as a super-senior tormenting a long-suffering college dean, and, inevitably, Douglas's silly gold-hungry moron and Mason's visionary messiah never quite manage to be appropriate foils for one another. Obviously, it does the story few favors to remove Nemo's Indian ethnicity—but hell, they removed any ethnicity. (If you needed a white Nemo, and it's naive to think this need was not perceived, then at least returning to Verne's original idea of "vengeful Polish nationalist," nixed in 1869 by an editor worried about damaging Franco-Russian relations, might have been justifiable, given the state of things in 1954.) Nemo's crusade against the world order arises now out of his grudge against a group of unidentified and unidentifiable white slavers, leaving us with little to really chew on. (Possibly the best thing about it is the reference to "Rura Penthe" in Star Trek VI.) The final images—that mushroom cloud—do have some resonance, as does Nemo's terror that if civilization discovers what he's discovered, then humankind will have found its doom. But since only Nemo and the audience have the slightest idea of what power he's really dealing with, and since Aronnax has none, Nemo's apocalyptic pessimism doesn't even quite figure into the narrative.
I mean, yeah: the episodic, and-then-this-happened plot is ineradicable from the Verne original; but when Verne did then-this-happened, I at least remember something actually happening, and even if it didn't, at least there were bitchin' Victorian pen-and-ink illustrations to go along with it. (It's just whining at this point, but I really wish Disney animation had had a place for this; it's almost inarguable that a cartoon would've done a better job of it, and nothing Disney feature animation produced between 1951 and 1958 is anything I'd feel bad about losing.) Apparently possessing no idea what to do with it, director Richard Fleischer (selling out the family name!) does little to move the small amounts of story we do have along, sometimes managing to find some neat geometry in the infrastructure of the Nautilus, but often just killing time till the squid arrives. It's slow without even being stately, let alone contemplative; ultimately, Max's son would do a much better version of a slow movie about a submarine doing cool shit, in Fantastic Voyage.
Even so, there is a touch of magic to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and I somewhat suspect that in another few years, once again all I'll remember are the wonders it did manage to bring, rather than the texturelessness of the experience and the interstitial boring parts that go nowhere. And, if absolutely nothing else, almighty God, it's better Verne than the next year's Around the World In 80 Days, which, you know, was done in real time.