Sunday, 29 June 2014
Let's talk Disney. We all remember the animated films: Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Alice in Wonderland, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and plenty of others. The funny part of my childhood is that I was alienated in large part from the Disney animated canon barring a few exceptions such as Peter Pan and The Aristocats. Why? Well, largely thanks to the infamous "Disney Princess" marketing phenomenon and its unnecessary gender segregation making me afraid to watch a lot of movies that turned out not to be so bad once I actually gave them a chance years later.
On the other hand, one could argue that my alienation from the Disney Animated Canon helped me to see the company's work in a broader sense. For most people when you bring up the name of "Disney" they immediately think of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Sleeping Beauty, The Lion King, or any of the other big animated features they've done. It's easy to forget the vast number of live action productions ranging from 1951's Treasure Island (their first feature to have no animation at all) to David Lynch's The Straight Story, but I tend to think of a lot of their other movies as well. When the subject of favorite Disney films pops up in conversation, most people immediately select one of the animated features, and yet for me there is one live action film I always find myself bringing up.
Being the science fiction fan that I am, it should come as no surprise that the writings of many of the great authors have influenced my life. Arthur C. Clarke alone has helped shape the way I write science fiction, but going even further back to my childhood we have the really old icons, two of the earliest pioneers of the genre: Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. I remember reading an abridged version of Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea somewhere between Grade 2 and 3, and during that time I also first saw the 1954 adaptation. When the opportunity rose to order it off Amazon years later I didn't hesitate.
Since then I've made a few attempts to read the full book (though for whatever reason I've never finished it) but the movie still stands as a grand masterpiece. Disney's finest achievement is not in fact Snow White or Pinocchio or even The Lion King, but the live action production of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
It is the late 19th century, at a time when scientific understandings of the ocean were extremely limited (at least, moreso than today in that this was back in the days when research could only be conducted from the surface). Pierre Arronax (Paul Lukas) is a French marine biologist who, along with his assistant Conseil (Peter Lorre), has been trying to reach Saigon only to end up stranded in San Francisco due to rumors of an unknown monster attacking and destroying ships all over the world.
Arronax makes a deal with the U.S. government to join an expedition in search of the monster, but the ship is attacked and he falls overboard. Conseil jumps in soon after, and the two are joined soon after by harpooner Ned Land (Kirk Douglas). Since the ship is too badly damaged to help, the three castaways end up drifting through open water until they encounter the monster... which is actually a highly advanced submarine belonging to the mysterious Captain Nemo (James Mason), a bitter and emotionally scarred recluse seeking justice against the "Hated Nation" that has wronged him. Together these four men embark on an incredible journey across the world's oceans.
Now Disney has actually worked with an all-male cast more often than you might initially think (Pinnochio, Treasure Island, and Up just to name a few), but it is interesting how they have preserved that detail from the book. Many other adaptations try to force in a love interest of some sort but Disney of all people sticks to Verne's own writing and keeps the cast as he intended.
What makes this movie so great is the fact that it manages to be fairly adult. It is a family film in every sense of the word, but it manages to find stuff for both young and old audiences and never swerves too far one way or the other. There is plenty of great action and exciting visuals for the younger viewers, but also enough character interaction to give them the sufficient depth for us to make a connection. It does have plenty of light-hearted and comedic moments but it's also not afraid to get darker when necessary, and when it does it never feels forced.
I also love the fact that unlike most family films (especially those usually produced by Disney) the conflict isn't black and white. Typically with any Disney production, at least in my experience, you usually have a very clear antagonist and a very clear protagonist. You know to root for the hero and to cheer when you see the villain defeated.
Here, it's not so simple. All four of the main characters have their positive and negative qualities. Nemo in particular tends to constantly blur the line between being an anti-hero and a villain, but even when it comes to the way the other characters play off of each other it's the same deal. Much of the plot is also driven by the conflict between Arronax and Ned Land, both of whom hold understandable perspectives on how to deal with their predicament, and the film never specifically sides with either one.
Kirk Douglas is a lot of fun as Ned Land. For one thing this may be the only time you'll get to hear him sing in a movie; he performs the one musical number in the film and it is simplistic but really enjoyable. He does get a few other little sub-plots, particularly in his relationship to Nemo's pet seal lion Esmeralda, with whom he becomes especially close (though the stuff he feeds her is... somewhat questionable) which allows for some comic relief.
James Mason is of course the perfect foil as Nemo, who contrasts Ned Land's jolly fun-loving attitude with his very serious performance. We only find out bits and pieces of Nemo's full story, but from what is explained it certainly leaves you questioning morality. It is never easy to tell if he is a hero or a villain, and you could argue both ways; even Arronax isn't fully sure. He is very much one of those characters you can both sympathize with and fear at the same time.
Peter Lorre is an interesting addition to the cast given that this was a rare instance where he got to play against his usual villainous roles. In fact, the Special Edition DVD has an excerpt from a promotional TV special where Walt Disney himself claims that Lorre said "The squid got the role that's usually reserved for him". Here he actually plays the rather likable fellow Conseil, who serves as sort of a surrogate for the audience, being the one character who is never completely sure where he stands; torn between his loyalty to Arronax and his responsibilities as a scientist and Ned Land's shared distrust toward Nemo.
There are a few performances of course that don't get as much attention. Many overlook Paul Lukas' exceptional performance as Arronax in favor of the better known Mason, Douglas, or Lorre, but he is a crucial part of the story just as much as any of them.
Even less recognized is Robert J. Wilke playing the role of Nemo's stern first mate. He's mostly a minor character who has few interactions with the leads aside from Mason, but on some level that actually makes him quite intimidating during his scenes. All we know about the mate is that he'll do anything for his captain, and he subsequently becomes a very intimidating character when on screen but also never steals the show from the leads.
Naturally, the splendid acting isn't all there is to make the film a worthwhile experience. In addition the film has some amazing visuals, many of which still hold up rather effectively today. Considering the subject matter it should hardly come as a surprise that we see a lot of incredible underwater shots, including an extended diving sequence with no dialogue beyond Arronax's narration complete with many images of sea creatures. In other shots we see models of ships and the Nautilus itself being used to great effect.
Then of course there's one of the most famous sequences in the film when the cast comes face to face with the giant squid. There were actually two versions of this scene shot (one available on the DVD shot against a sunset, and the one actually used in the movie where the fight happens in the middle of a storm), but this is one of the tensest moments in the film. The animatronics used to produce the squid are extremely convincing and when we see our protagonists threatened we get a sense that they're in legitimate danger.
The story is filled to the brim with other memorable scenes. The diving scenes are quite good, as is Ned Land's musical number, but there are plenty of great scenes like Kirk Douglas being chased off a beach by a group of cannibal natives. In fact Johnny Depp would pay homage to that scene 52 years later at the beginning of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest.
It's really quite a shame that this film isn't as well recognized nowadays as Disney's animated films or their more recent live action work such as the Pirates of the Caribbean films. They even took down the hugely popular Disneyland ride based on this film. I can tell you I have gotten annoyed in the past when I've talked to people who claim to be hardcore Disney fans who never heard of this 1954 masterpiece, as it really is one of the company's finest achievements even today.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is probably one of the best examples you can get of Disney movies at their finest. It's an enjoyable and thoroughly well-executed science fiction classic that deserves greater recognition than it is getting now. If you haven't seen this masterpiece I would strongly advise you to do so. You won't regret it.