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 atomic-powered 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.
Nemo’s demise at the end of the film is heroic in both magnitude and intention as he destroys all of the advanced technology on his high-tech island base, Vulcania, and even scuttles his beloved Nautilus to prevent the human race from “tampering in God’s domain” before it is wise enough to understand that territory.
But make no mistake: Disney wanted a children’s film, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea filled the bill.
Ned Land may have been a crusty sea salt, but he wasn’t above horsing around with Captain Nemo’s playful pet seal, Esmerelda, 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
Ted de Corsia
Mate on Lincoln