Thursday, 11 July 2013

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)

Probably the best adaptation of Jules Verne's classic undersea tale ever made, with probably the best casting and performance of Captain Nemo ever also. I can also go further and say this is probably the best live action Disney film ever as well, in the top five for sure.

The plot is actually kinda loose really, there isn't really any definitive plan or agenda here, its merely Nemo cruising the ocean depths enjoying his freedom from civilisation. The main angle is Nemo used to be a prisoner on the island penal colony of Rura Penthe (Star Trek!!) and managed to escape with fellow prisoners whom now make up his crew.

Nemo thusly spends his time sinking ships that leave that island mainly because they carry arms and ammo for war. That's about it really, Nemo dislikes landlubbers, the people from this island oh and they killed his wife and child too when trying to unlock the secrets of his work. The only things I'm not sure of in this adaptation is where exactly does Nemo come from, where is this island suppose to be? why are there prisoners there? which wars does Nemo refer to?...the backstory isn't very clear.

We know from the original novel that Nemo seems to be from India, the kingdom of Mysore, and his family were killed by the ruling British Empire. In this film Nemo is portrayed as a European which in-turn renders the backstory a little off as we don't really find out what has happened to him previously, the film lacks proper explanation as I mention above. This is really the only downside to the whole film, everything else is reasonably accurate give or take, the finale has been changed.

What's so enjoyable about this film are the visuals on display, the Nautilus design here is a piece of cinematic history. That strange pointed shell-like shape with fins, a big circular viewing window and that classic bug-eyed design for the main cockpit/helm section which breaks the waters surface. I loved the Nautilus and its interior (complete with spooky organ...essence of 'Phantom of the Opera' much?) and I also always loved that steampunk-ish design for the deep sea diving suits (obviously unintended at the time). In fact everything to do with Nemo's craft, its interior and his equipment has that wonderful blend of Hammer horror and steampunk, right down to the muted dull colours and that heavy riveted steel appearance. Heck even the skiff has its own lovely design, the way it slotted into the Nautilus.

Lets be honest here all the visuals on display throughout the film are gorgeous, even the models are well animated and nicely shot. Large scale sets and props look good, especially close ups of the Nautilus topside, she also looks great gliding through the murky depths and submerging...just like a sea monster. The main highlight of course must be the giant squid attack, everybody knows of this famous encounter surely. What amazed me is this sequence still holds up today! it looks great rubbery tentacles aside. The sight of that snapping maw as Nemo's crew battle the beast amidst a terrible sea storm is sheer joygasm from start to finish. Any monster fan will appreciate how awesome this sequence is, even the wide shots showing the entire squid latched onto the Nautiluses hull underwater looks great, no it doesn't look like 'Stingray'...not too much.

Lastly how can I not mention the cast...oh my, you don't get line ups like this anymore. James Mason and his voice totally kill in this role, its one of the roles he is most fondly remembered for and rightly so. Personally I don't like how grumpy, stern and militaristic Nemo is portrayed here, whether that is Mason or from the novel I don't know but he always did intimidate me with his gruff demeanor, but that's good acting right there isn't it.

Along for the ride is cocky sailor Kirk Douglas who again never really sat well with me here. I think he over acts and is too intense, I don't think he fit the role either with his American accent. Saying 'mate' or attempting to say it in an English regional accent doesn't quite cover it for me. Lukas and his Eastern Euro accent, like Mason, is a joy to listen to, he makes the perfect upper class professor type (should of done more horror with his Vincent Price-like looks), whilst Lorre adds a touch of humour and his own quirky vocal tonnes. On the whole despite how epic this cast is I do believe most were miscast with the slight exception of Mason (even though Nemo isn't suppose to be European), and maybe all going too far for a Disney film?

I remember this fondly from my childhood and it still works well to this day, a few small minor gripes aside (and the miscasting) the film nigh on perfect. I only wish they could of included some stuff from the novel such as visiting the lost city of Atlantis and maybe a few more brushes with some creatures of the deep. A visual masterpiece in fantasy methinks, and considering this was made in 54 that ain't bad...James Mason + smoking jacket = awesomeness right there.