Douglas's Whale of a Tale
Up until recently I had never watched "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" all the way through, catching bits of it here and there when ever it got shown on TV. But finally I have watched this epic Disney production from beginning to end and I have to say in many ways I was impressed not least by the fact that despite being over 50 years old it still looked impressive with great set designs and moments of action. It is by no means perfect and at times it borders on the cheesy but it is also entertaining. And whilst never having read Jules Verne's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" I would say that Disney have done it justice, probably altering things along the way but only to make it a better movie.
The year is 1868 and sailors are filled with terror at going out to sea after reports of mysterious sea monster sinking several ships. Persuaded to try and discover the truth professor Aronnax (Paul Lukas - Fun in Acapulco), his apprentice Conseil (Peter Lorre) and harpooner Ned Land (Kirk Douglas - The Bad and the Beautiful) head out to sea on a research mission but end up coming a cropper when their boat is also sunk by this monster. Having survived the sinking they discover that there is no monster but a submarine called the Nautilus which is controlled by hard nosed Captain Nemo (James Mason - North Sea Hijack). Taken aboard the Nautilus Aronnax becomes fascinated by the world Nemo has created for himself and crew to live in whilst Ned Land fears that they will never escape.
At its heart "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" is an adventure movie which takes us deep beneath the waves and aboard the Nautilus captained by Nemo a man who has given up on humanity to live life his way, by his rules and away from any interference, sounds quite nice to me. That probably sounds a little deeper than what "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" ends up being because the profound depths of the story are for the most skimmed over in favour of delivering action and a touch of comedy. But it works because this adventure story is gripping from the way we hear about a mythical one eyed monster which sinks ships through to the battles aboard the Nautilus as Professor Aronnax and his fellow shipwreck survivors struggle with Nemo's controlling ways. It basically means that whilst "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" has a storyline which sees these survivors trying to escape from Nemo it is basically one set piece action scene after another.
But what is staggering is that for a movie which is over 50 years old the action still works remarkably well. Yes the effects occasionally look dated but the memorable battle with the giant squid still is as impressive as ever with a real energy and danger about it which doesn't always show up in CGI soaked movies. And if the action doesn't impress Disney's lavish sets will, setting the benchmark incredibly high with their interpretation of what it looks like aboard the Nautilus. It is one of those impressive things about "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" that despite being an old movie still take your breath away be it the giant organ which Nemo plays through to the glass domes they look out of. And it's not just the big sets as impressive as the underwater footage is just as stunning.
Whilst "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" is an adventure movie it is also a family movie and this is where I do have issues as in order to be a family movie it does often border on the cheesy. One of the worst elements for me is that Kirk Douglas's character of Ned Land enjoys singing and treats us to various renditions of "A Whale of a Tale" be it on a guitar or an adhoc instrument he crafts from a turtle shell. Now it has to be said that Douglas can hold down a tune and fills these musical moments with comedy and energy but it is so cheesy especially with the big grin plastered across his face when he sings. And whilst that is the stand out corny moment there are others such as when the survivors get their first dose of an underwater menu. It ends up spoiling the movie slightly and whilst it probably was amusing when "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" was released in the 50s unfortunately dates the movie quite badly.
Whilst Kirk Douglas ends up providing the movie with some of the corniest moments he is great fun as basically the hero of the movie Ned Land who is constantly rubbing Nemo up the wrong way. What makes it so good is that Douglas is at home playing this sort of action role and so it flows so naturally when he does something a little swashbuckling such as battling the giant squid. But he also links well with Peter Lorre who plays Conseil, lurking around with a touch of ominous comedy as he is basically ends up the go between for the various characters. And sealing it off are two enjoyable performances from Paul Lukas as Professor Aronnax and James Mason as Captain Nemo, with Mason impressing by making Nemo a nasty character who is willing to kill but also one who we are fascinated by.
What this all boils down to is that whilst certain elements of "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" are dated and corny it is still an impressive movie which keeps you entertained from start to finish. Being a Disney family movie the social depths of the story are for the most skimmed over in favour of action set pieces but it works. And with a set design which even now impresses "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" is still a wonderful movie to watch.