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Building Entertainment: The Animated Films of the Walt Disney Studio. Live-Action Edition. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

Welcome to my weekly discussion of the animated films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”

Title: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

Year: 1954

Source materials: the novel by Jules Verne

Budget: $5 million

Box office: $28.2 million

Plot: In 1868, rumors of a sea monster attacking ships in the Pacific Ocean have disrupted shipping lanes. The United States invites Professor Pierre M. Aronnax and his assistant, Conseil, onto a Navy expedition to prove the monster’s existence. On board with them is the cocky master harpooner Ned Land.


After months of searching, the “monster” is spotted shortly before it rams the warship. Ned and Aronnax are thrown overboard, and Conseil goes in after Aronnax. The helpless, crippled frigate drifts away, and no one aboard responds to the overboard passengers. The three find a strange-looking metal vessel, and realize the “monster” is a man-made “submerging boat” that appears deserted.


Aronnax finds a large viewport and witnesses an underwater funeral. Ned, Aronnax, and Conseil attempt to leave in their lifeboat, but the submarine crew stops the castaways. The captain introduces himself as Nemo, master of the Nautilus. He returns Ned and Conseil to the deck while offering Aronnax, whom he recognizes for his work, the chance to stay. After Aronnax proves willing to die with his companions, Nemo allows Ned and Conseil to remain.


Nemo takes them to the penal colony island of Rura Penthe. Nemo was a prisoner there, as were many of his crew. The prisoners are loading a munitions ship. The Nautilus rams it, destroying its cargo and killing the crew. An anguished Nemo tells Aronnax that his actions have saved thousands from death in war; he also discloses that this “hated nation” tortured his wife and son to death while attempting to force him to reveal the secrets of his work. Ned discovers the coordinates of Nemo’s secret island base, Vulcania, and releases messages in bottles, hoping somebody will find them.

Off the coast of New Guinea, the Nautilus becomes stranded on a reef. Ned is surprised when Nemo allows him to go ashore with Conseil, ostensibly to collect specimens, while strictly admonishing them to stay on the beach. Ned goes off alone to explore avenues of escape. While drinking from a pool, he sees human skulls on stakes. Ned runs for his life and rejoins Conseil, and they row away, pursued by cannibals. Aboard ship, the cannibals are repelled by electrical charges through its hull. Nemo is furious with Ned for disobeying his orders, confining him to the brig.

A warship approaches, firing upon Nautilus, which descends into the depths, where it attracts a giant squid. After a similar electric charge fails to repel the monster, Nemo and his men surface during a storm to dislodge it. Nemo is caught in one of its tentacles. Ned, having escaped from captivity, saves Nemo from drowning. Nemo has a change of heart and claims he wants to make peace with the world.


As the Nautilus nears Vulcania, Nemo finds the island surrounded by warships whose marines are converging on his base. As Nemo goes ashore, Ned tries to identify himself as the author of the bottled messages. Aronnax is furious, recognizing that Nemo will destroy all evidence of his discoveries. Nemo enters the base and activates a time bomb, but is mortally wounded on Nautilus’s deck from a slug to the back. After navigating the submarine away from Vulcania, Nemo announces he will be “taking the Nautilus down for the last time”. The crew declare they will accompany their captain in death. Aronnax, Conseil, and Ned are confined to their cabins. The Nautilus’s crew also retreat to their cabins at Nemo’s instructions.


Ned escapes and manages to surface the Nautilus, hitting a reef in the process and causing the sub to flood. Nemo staggers to his salon viewport, watching his beloved sea as he dies. Aronnax tries retrieving his detailed journal, but the urgency of their escape obliges Ned to knock him unconscious and carry him out. The companions witness Vulcania explode, and Ned apologizes to Aronnax for hitting him. As the Nautilus disappears beneath the waves, Nemo’s last words to Aronnax echo: “There is hope for the future. And when the world is ready for a new and better life, all this will someday come to pass, in God’s good time”.

Background: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was filmed at various locations in The Bahamas and Jamaica, with the cave scenes filmed beneath what is now the Xtabi Resort on the cliffs of Negril. The famous giant squid attack sequence had to be entirely re-shot, as it was originally filmed as taking place at dusk and in a calm sea. The sequence was filmed again, this time taking place at night and during a huge gale, both to increase the drama and to better hide the cables and other mechanical workings of the animatronic squid.


Changes from the Source Material: I am going to let Belle address this because she just read the book and it is fresh in her mind. The first thing she noticed was there was no duet with a seal. She said it mostly followed the plot of the book, but more streamlined.


Music and Songs: The score was composed by Paul Smith. The film features the song “A Whale of a Tale” written by Norman Gimbel and Al Hoffman and sung by Kirk Douglas. It also features Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D minor.”


Kirk Douglas as Ned Land. He had his film debut in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. He played an unscrupulous boxing hero in Champion, which brought him his first nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actor. Other include Young Man with a Horn, Ace in the Hole, and Detective Story. He received a second Oscar nomination for his dramatic role in The Bad and the Beautiful and his third nomination for portraying Vincent van Gogh in Lust for Life. He produced and starred in Paths of Glory and Spartacus. James Mason 1 as Captain Nemo. His best known films include The Desert Fox, A Star Is Born, Lolita, North by Northwest, The Prisoner of Zenda, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, A Touch of Larceny, Bigger Than Life, Julius Caesar, Georgy Girl, The Deadly Affair, Age of Consent, Heaven Can Wait, The Boys from Brazil, The Verdict, Mandingo, Murder by Decree and Salem’s Lot.

Paul Lukas 2 as Professor Pierre Aronnax. He starred in the melodrama Rockabye, Grumpy, The Lady Vanishes, Ladies in Love, Dodsworth, and The Casino Murder Case. His major film success came in Watch on the Rhine, a role he originated in the Broadway premiere of the play of the same name in 1941. He won the Academy Award for Best Actor for the role. He also received the New York Film Critics Award for his performance. Peter Lorre 3 as Conseil. Lorre caused an international sensation as a serial killer in the German film M, directed by Fritz Lang. In America he appeared in The Man Who Knew Too Much, Mad Love, Crime and Punishment, The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca and Arsenic and Old Lace.

Critical Reception: Upon the film’s original release, The New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther gave it a generally positive review by stating that, “As fabulous and fantastic as anything he has ever done in cartoons is Walt Disney’s “live action” movie made from Jules Verne’s ‘20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.’ Turned out in CinemaScope and color, it is as broad, fictitiously, as it is long (128 minutes), and should prove a sensation—at least with the kids.”

Legacy: At the Academy Awards, the film won two awards: Best Art Direction – Color (John Meehan, Emile Kuri) and Best Special Effects (John Hench, Joshua Meador). It was nominated for a third: Best Film Editing (Elmo Williams).

In the parks, Disneyland used the original sets as a walk-through attraction from 1955 to 1966. Walt Disney World Resort’s Magic Kingdom also had a dark ride named 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: Submarine Voyage from 1971 to 1994 In 1994, a walkthrough attraction at Disneyland Paris, named Les Mystères du Nautilus, opened, and a dark ride at Tokyo DisneySea was created in 2001.

My take: The special effects are pretty darn good for their day, and I feel they still hold up, but I think the real reason to watch the film is the interaction between the four main actors

Next Week: We’re going to tread lightly with Song of the South