Directed by Richard Fleischer
Produced by Walt Disney
Written by Jules Verne (novel) & Earl Felton (screenplay)
Starring Kirk Douglas
Cinematography Franz Planer
Editing by Elmo Williams
Distributed by Walt Disney Pictures
Release date(s) December 23, 1954
Running time 127 min.
When one thinks about Walt Disney they usually picture Mickey Mouse, Snow White or perhaps Jimminy Cricket. Disney and animation are two words that are synonymous, so it’s understandable that the live action films that he made aren’t as well-known as his cartoons. That’s a shame because many of them are very good. 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea from 1954 would have to be one of my favourite Disney live action films.
Though 20,000 Leagues Under the see features a fine cast it is James Mason who dominates the screen as the iconic Captain Nemo. Even alongside stars of the quality of Peter Lorre and Kirk Douglas it is Mason whose performance becomes indelibly etched in the viewer’s mind. This is simply his film and he is always excellent as Captain Nemo, especially when he shows the mental anguish that Nemo goes through when he seeks his vengeance on mankind and those who imprisoned him and tortured his wife and child on the prison island of Rura Penthe. He does not relish having to commit murder until the deed is done, and this shines through with Mason’s performance.
The same cannot be said for Kirk Douglas, who is hamstrung with a truly annoying character. Usually Douglas is a fine, dependable actor, but here he is burdened with some really clichéd seafaring jargon and typically Disney-esque happy-go-lucky attitude that becomes grating after about twenty minutes. It is only when he briefly shows his frustration at being Nemo’s prisoner that he gets to show any substance with his performance. This is not Kirk’s fault, as his Ned Land character was brought in to counter-balance the mood of the film opposite Mason’s tortured soul in Nemo. As this is a Disney film, and their primary target audience has always been families, they needed a goofy, lighthearted family friendly hero.
Another thing I should mention here is the special effects which were considered to be awesome back in 1954. They still hold up well today, especially the underwater photography and shots of the Nautilus streaking through the water. Less successful is the fight with the giant squid, which to 21st century eyes looks a little bit lame. Still if you can overlook that it is quite menacing and the fight is quite well staged.
Overall I think that 20,000 League Under The Sea is a terrific movie suitable for all ages. This is not only Disney’s finest live-action film but one of the best adventure movies of the 1950s, one which still stands up well today over 55 years since it was first released.
* This movie was not released in Australia until 22 December 1955, 364 days after Americans first got the opportunity to see it.