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On Dec. 23, 1954, Disney-Buena Vista unveiled 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea at its premiere in New York. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review, titled “‘20,000 Leagues’ Sure-Fire: Disney Film Tops; Fleischer Megging, Effects Standout,” is below:
Disney has really topped himself in bringing this most dignified and respected of all science-fiction classics to the screen. The production abounds in belly laughs and spine-tingling thrills, set forth with an all-important air of plausibility. The amazing technical proficiency of Disney’s production staff makes you not only believe the fantastic tale but actually live it throughout the more than two hours of running time.
Earl Felton’s script preserves all the well-loved adventures of the Jules Verne original. It tells of how 19th Century shipping is terrorized by what is believed to be a recently discovered sea monster. And of how a United States ship of war, the Abraham Lincoln, sails to the South Seas to hunt it down. With her goes Professor Arronax (Paul Lukas) with his assistant, Conseil (Peter Lorre). There is also a tough Yankee harpooner, Ned Land (Kirk Douglas). The monster is sighted and proves to be a giant submarine. In the battle that follows, the Lincoln is rammed and disabled. Aronnax, Conseil and Land, swept overboard, find themselves clinging to the mysterious subsea craft.
Eventually, they meet her skipper, Captain Nemo (James Mason) and his mysterious crew. Nemo, a genius and a madman, has discovered undreamed of sources of power and methods of navigation, which he is using to avenge himself on the navies of civilization. He and his crew have developed and learned to live upon the resources of the sea. During the weeks that follow, the captive professor is fascinated by the vistas of knowledge being opened to him, but the harpooner lives only to regain his freedom.
There follows an exciting encounter with cannibals, a fight with another warship, a breathless battle to the death with a giant octopus and a climax when the navies of the world close in on Nemo’s island stronghold and he blows it up by an atomic explosion rather than have its secrets fall into unworthy hands.
Felton’s script and Disney’s concept improve on Verne’s original. The French author, who was touched by the philosophy that led to the Paris Commune of 1871, wrote on the presumption that anything was moral that tended to set up a revolutionary dictatorship of the world. His Captain Nemo was such a would-be dictator and Verne, in the original work, did not even take the trouble to disclose the nature of Nemo’s grudge against society. And it paid slight attention to the morals of drowning hundreds of sailors because you are displeased with their masters.
In the Disney version, all this is changed. We are told that Nemo’s wife and child were killed for political reasons and that he was condemned to slavery. Even so, despite his madness, he seeks world reformation rather than world revolution and is eager to give humanity the benefits of his knowledge, if it will mend its ways. All of this makes for a much more sympathetic character.
The captain’s casual attitude toward murder is sharply challenged by the common sense of the harpooner. During the opening sequence, I feared Kirk Douglas was going to be too red-blooded, too muscle-flexing and too fun-loving to be endured. But as the picture progressed, I saw how wise the director, Richard Fleischer, was to play him this way. Once the action is confined to the submarine, where Mason, Lukas and Lorre all are playing at slow tempo, Douglas has to be both the most dashing of heros and the most rollicking of comedians if the picture is to have variety and pace. Assisted by a funny trained seal, he gives the standout performance of the show.
Lorre gets in some droll laughs too, while Mason is madly majestic as Nemo. Lukas gives a solid performance as the quiet man who is the leavening force between the exuberance of Douglas and the imperiousness of Mason.
Three star cameramen make the picture notable. Till Gabbani does wonders with underwater photography, Ralph Hammeras comes through brilliantly with some of the toughest special effects of the season and Franz Planer is highly ingenious at finding fine angles in the cramped space on the sub. Here the art direction of John Meehan is very deft at giving the luxury of the past certain overtones of the future.
The score by Paul Smith is just about perfect, as is its orchestration by Joseph S. Dubin. Another high point of technical excellence was supplied by the editing of Elmo Williams. But the biggest star of the film is the fearsome giant octopus that scares you to death at the climax. It cost $200,000 and it has my nomination for the prop of the year. It frightens you to even think of the headaches the production manager, Fred Leahy, must have endured in supervising its monstrous manufacture. — Jack Moffitt, originally published on Dec. 15, 1954.
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