For its first big-budget live-action movie, Disney turned to a classic: Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The studio also turned to a few major Hollywood stars: Kirk Douglas, James Mason, Paul Lukas and Peter Lorre.
Set at the close of the 19th century, the story opens in San Francisco, where terrified sailors spin tales of a giant narwhal (one-horned whale) wrecking their vessels.
Professor Arronax (Lukas), his assistant Conseil (Lorre) and a roguish harpooner named Ned Land (Douglas) join an armed expedition to find the narwhal.
After their frigate is sunk, the three men discover the truth: the narwhal is actually the Nautilus, a giant submarine designed and built by reclusive genius Professor Nemo (Mason).
What follows is a dazzling undersea voyage aboard the Nautilus, beautifully photographed in widescreen Cinemascope. Much of the large budget went into the special effects, including a memorable battle with a giant squid.
While the film strayed from Verne’s original, the main characters remained ambiguously grey. Nemo may have been mad, but his ideas about society and man’s place in it were thought-provoking.
But make no mistake: Disney wanted a children’s film, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea filled the bill.
Ned Land was a crusty sea salt, but he wasn’t above horsing around with a playful seal or breaking into song for A Whale of a Tale.
The big-budget gamble paid off for Disney. The effects were like nothing 1950’s audiences had ever seen, and Verne’s story was timeless.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea scored with kids and their parents, paving the way for future Disney live-action extravaganzas like Mary Poppins (1964).
Prof. Pierre Aronnax
Robert J. Wilke
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