20,000 Leagues Under The Sea


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea
"Nemo may prefer a diet of marine delicacies but there's never any danger that his vessel will run short of ham."

The most ambitious and successful adaptation of Verne's classic novel to date, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was an important early live action venture for Disney and stands out thanks to the fantastic design work typical of the studio in its heyday. Though it hasn't aged well, it retains all the elements of a great adventure story and there's much to admire about it.

We begin with sailor's stories. Seamen are increasingly wary of sailing across a particular ocean route. They speak of a monster, and it's true that ships are being mysteriously destroyed. Shipping company owners are getting desperate. Against this background, a respected professor ventures out with two able hands to try and uncover the truth. What he finds - in 1866 - is a nuclear submarine, and on it a captain with an agenda of his own.

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Verne's book was so strikingly visionary that it's difficult to convey today the awe it originally invoked, or the genius of his insight. Filmed in the early Fifties, this film is well placed to bridge that cultural gap, and thoughtful design work gives the Nautilus a properly 19th century feel without detracting from its splendour. Typically for the period, Captain Nemo is played by a white man, but James Mason could never altogether be a bad choice and he brings charisma and conviction to this key literary figure, a man so repelled by humanity's warlike nature that he has become a divided creature himself, loving the solitude of the sea but venturing out on terrorist-style attacks to interrupt the arms trade. The moral ambiguity of his position is well handled even if the film sometimes spends a bit too much time pontificating.

Opposite this, unfortunately, is Kirk Douglas' brash and contemptuous imprisoned sailor, possibly the worst bit of overacting in the star's career. Nemo may prefer a diet of marine delicacies but there's never any danger that his vessel will run short of ham. As Paul Lukas' professor is increasingly sidelined, all interesting moral conflict goes with him and what we get instead is Douglas chewing his way through the scenery. Predictable escape attempts ensue, including an ill-advised adventure on a cannibal-infested island, and there's a bit of comedy banter with trained sea lion Esmeralda.

The pacing is poor and the action scenes too few, but when they happen they work well. The eventual battle with a giant squid, scientifically dubious though it may be, is certainly thrilling and superbly put together given the technical limitations of the time. There are also some very well handled underwater exploration scenes, though they've inevitably lost much of their original power.

For all its flaws, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea is still a fine, ripping yarn that will keep the kids happy on a wet afternoon.

Reviewed on: 07 May 2012
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A professor and two sailors find themselves prisoners aboard rogue submarine the Nautilus.
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Director: Richard Fleischer

Writer: Earl Felton, based on the book by Jules Verne.

Starring: Kirk Douglas, James Mason, Paul Lukas, Peter Lorre, Robert J Wilke

Year: 1954

Runtime: 127 minutes

BBFC: U - Universal

Country: US


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