20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

January 28, 2012 11 Min Read

Review by: Fusion3600

Plot: What’s it about?

The calm, serene ocean has become a cursed place of late, as countless ships have sunk and others have returned with strange stories. Some of the survivors of the accidents have reported sightings of a Narwhal, which shocks the authorities. A Narwhal is a vicious whale of immense size with a long horn, so sinking ships isn’t out of the question. The trade routes need to be secured and in order to ensure that happens, something must be done about the situation. Even if no Narwhal is involved, some action has to be taken and soon. An expedition from the United States is headed in that direction, so naturalist Professor Pierre Arronax (Paul Lukas) and his assistant Conseil (Peter Lorre) join up with the ship’s crew. Also in Arronax’s party is Ned Land (Kirk Douglas), a world class whaler who is there to handle the Narwhal, should one be the source of the numerous ships being sunk. As it turns out, a massive object with a horn is sinking the ships and the expedition finds itself in the same situation as the others who passed through these waters. But it is no Narwhal behind the troubles, instead it is a man known as Captain Nemo (James Mason) and his incredible submarine, The Nautilus. But why is Nemo involved in such mysterious behavior and when Arronax’s crew enters the ship, can they uncover the truth?

It has been an extensive wait, but Disney has finally given us 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, in a deluxe two disc release, no less. And Disney has taken care to restore the video & audio elements, so this presentation is as good as it gets, not to mention the assortment of supplements. But as cool as the scads of extras are, the real draw is the movie itself, which I consider to be a true classic and one of Disney’s finest live action productions. I know some feel the movie is weak until the finale, but I’ve always been taken with this picture. The tone isn’t quite as dark as it should be, which lends a lighter texture to the experience, but this is still a fun adventure to embark on. The visuals are very cool, especially the underwater lifeforms outside of the Nautilus, though the ship itself also offers some impressive sights. The interior sets are well crafted and effective, which is why some of the pieces were used as part of an attraction at Disneyland for a while. As based on Jules Verne’s timeless novel, this movie has a solid premise and brings over much of the storyline, though as I mentioned, it isn’t as dark in tone as it should be. The cast is good also, with Kirk Douglas, Peter Lorre, James Mason, and Paul Lukas, all in more than solid form here. I simply love this movie and since Disney has issued such a wonderful treatment, I am pleased to give 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea my highest recommendation.

He might not be the most famous name involved here, but the real star of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is James Mason. His effort as Captain Nemo is superb and drives the movie, since his is the central character, after all. As was the case in Verne’s novel, Nemo is written as a mysterious man and that allows Mason some room within the role. He has a sense of calm in most scenes, but you can tell there is something about him, an element that is hidden most of the time. A lot of actors given roles like this one tend to overact, which turns the character too much toward comedy, instead of the intended status. But Mason balances his performance well, so he might come close to the edge at times, but he keeps it all in check. I even think his beard is cool, so if his facial hair even gives a good performance, you know his work was top notch. An offbeat, tragic character, Nemo is well handled by Mason and he deserves some praise for his effort. Other films with Mason include The Verdict, Salem’s Lot, Heaven Can Wait, Murder by Decree, and Mandingo. The cast also includes Kirk Douglas (Spartacus, The Bad and the Beautiful), Peter Lorre (The Raven, Tales of Terror), and Paul Lukas (The Ghost Breakers, Strange Cargo).

Video: How does it look?

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is presented in 2.55:1 anamorphic widescreen. As Disney has done some restoration work, this treatment is excellent and while this movie is almost fifty years old, you couldn’t tell from this presentation. There is some light grain in a few scenes, but that’s natural and it never lessens the visual experience. The source print is nearly pristine, so there is minimal grain present and debris is absent throughout. So at last, the visuals can shine through and in this movie, that is most crucial indeed. The colors look bold and have a lot of life, with hues that show no fading or other errors. I expected some softness in the colors, but that isn’t the case and of course, that is great news. No troubles to report as far as contrast, thanks to some smooth and well balanced black levels. This movie has numerous shadows and other dark visuals, but this transfer handles them all with ease. In the end, I am left overjoyed with this visual presentation, so I offer Disney immense praise for their work here.

Audio: How does it sound?

I didn’t expect much here, even with a new Dolby Digital 5.1 option, but the audio is a notch or two up from previous releases. The material is around fifty years old, so it doesn’t allow for a dynamic soundtrack, but this treatment sounds terrific. In some of the more tense sequences, the surrounds pick up a little and enhance the atmosphere. This brings more texture to the scenes than in prior editions, which is sure to please fans. You’ll also hear some subtle presence in other scenes and the music sometimes drifts back to the rear channels, so the new 5.1 treatment has yielded nice dividends in this case. I even noticed some excellent low end presence, which is important here, since the Nautilus has a lot of engine noise at times. No real complaints with dialogue either, as vocals come across in clean and crisp fashion. This disc also includes English subtitles, in case you ever need those.

Supplements: What are the extras?

This release contains two discs, so I will break down the extras by disc, starting with the first platter, of course. A Donald Duck cartoon titled Grand Canyonscope was shown in theaters with the main feature, so its presence is most welcome. The main supplement is an audio commentary with director Richard Fleischer and film historian Rudy Behlmer. Fleischer has a lot to say about the production and whenever he starts to slow down, Behlmer is there to prompt him, so the track never loses its focus. An informative session from start to finish, this is one commentary that is worth its weight in sunken treasure. The rest of the extras are found the second disc, starting with the superb documentary The Making of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. This piece runs almost ninety minutes and is loaded with behind the scenes materials. A ton of revealing interviews detail the trials & tribulations of the production, such as cast difficulties, production woes, and of course, the giant squid issues. This is a real treat to watch and is the highlight of this release’s supplements, no doubt about it. You can also watch two brief featurettes, one that deals with real life squids and another that focuses on Jules Verne & Walt Disney. A look at the original, unused squid attack footage is next, so fans will be glad to see that material. If you dive into the production archives section, you can browse tons of production photos & conceptual artwork, unused animation sequences, promotional materials, production documents, some original ADR tracks of Peter Lorre, a special Tour of the Nautilus, a tribute to composer Paul Smith, the original organ music, storyboards, Monsters of the Deep promotional reel, some brief behind the scenes clips, talent files, Nemo’s Death script excerpt, and the film’s theatrical trailer.

Disc Scores