A good few decades have passed since I first saw this at my local flea-pit, and now the Disney+ catalogue provides a chance to look again at Richard Fleischer’s robust adaptation of Jules Verne’s classic story. I saw this on a revival at my local fleapit at the age of six, and was impressed by the Gothic design of the Nautilus ship, by the dynamic lead performances, and the impressive physical effects, not least the giant boggle-eyed squid that was worth the price of admission if paying to see fighting squids is your thing.
Disney’s adventures in live-action haven’t always been successful, but with an expensive, state-of-the-art Technicolor/Cinemascope pedigree, this is one old movie that comes up looking pretty spruce. Sure, there’s a few dated process shots, but there’s also some stunning glass paintings, notably Captain Nemo’s volcanic base, and lots of well–integrated hydraulics and clever model-work. When I was a kid, this movie was all about the monster, but the plot and character development still made an impression, and while the submarine effects are still cool, it’s the acting that really seals the deal on classic status here.
Was there ever a better leading man that Kirk Douglas? Often shirtless, resplendent in his earring, never short of a sea-shanty (A Whale of a Tale!) or a cheeky rabbit-punch in the melt for those who annoyed him, his Ned Land is a rambunctious creation, and the fore-runner of many inferior action heroes to come. He’s perfectly matched in James Mason’s Captain Nemo, who comes on all saturnine charm, but the veneer soon gives way to intense philosophical wrestling about the current state and vexed future of mankind. Nemo is an ambiguous character, the very opposite of Ned’s two-fisted, straight-up heroism, and yet the two men play off each other perfectly.
Ned eats with his hands; he’s ‘indifferent to utensils’ and unimpressed by Nemo’s sophisticated, evolved diet, which serves up ‘milk of a sperm whale’ and ‘sauté of unborn octopus’. Their struggle, narrated by the wonderfully bug-eyed Peter Lorre, is that of the heart and the brain, yet both men have each quality in abundance and this isn’t a shallow story of good and bad but does justice to Verne’s loftier ideas. Ultimately, 20,000 Leagues is the yardstick by which Disney/family films should be judged; yes, there are attractive carnival elements like Douglas serenading a seal or fighting off cannibals, but 20,000 League Under the Sea delivers when it comes to story, dialogue, acting and overall bonhomie; it’s a cinematic game-changer of its day that still comes up fresh as paint today.