20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: The Special Edition DVD

Cast, Crew, and Other Info:

Director: Richard Fleischer
Writer: Earl Felton

Professor Arronax: Paul Lukas
Ned Land: Kirk Douglas
Conseil: Peter Lorre
Captain Nemo: James Mason

Based on the novel by Jules Verne.

Available at Amazon.com and at Amazon.ca.


A ship investigates reports that a monster is sinking ships in the south seas. Two French academics and a rowdy harpooner discover the truth when they are taken aboard a futuristic submarine captained by the enigmatic, tortured Captain Nemo.

High Points:

The DVD features approximately two hours worth of extra elements. These include “Grand Canyonscope”, a Donald Duck cartoon shown theatrically with the original film, a detailed (if self-congratulatory) documentary on the making of the film, a Disney video diary for 1954, and the disastrous first attempt to shoot the giant squid sequence, known (in polite company, at least) as the “Sunset Squid.”

Designer Harper Goff created the definitive pop-culture images for Jules Verne’s novel. The Nautilus (interior and exterior) and the deep-sea suits (actually functional) remain as indelible as Boris Karloff/Jack Pierce’s Frankenstein Monster.

Weak Points:

While I enjoyed the extras, I find annoying the trend towards needless cutesiness in the menu graphics, through which one cannot fast-forward. They devote a good deal of time developing elaborate graphics which kick in any time one selects from the menu, and absolutely no time to creating a menu which makes it easy to find specific items.

The Scores:

Originality: 4/6 It’s an adaptation, and the story plays like a good many other swashbuckling adventures.

Harper Goff‘s designs capture perfectly a Victorian notion of the future.

Effects: 5/6 Obviously, special effects have improved since 1954, but Fleischer and his crew did a good job. The rear-projection looks bad. The underwater scenes (filmed in a studio tank and off the Bahamas) remain impressive. If I were scoring in the context of ’54, I would have given this a 6; from today’s, a 3 or 4.

The matte paintings generally blend very well.

The documentary covers the development of the squid sequence. Everyone knew the fight with the squid would be a highlight. The first attempt, shot with a rather unconvincing robo-squid against a tropical sunset, looks idiotic. The sunset actually creates a peaceful mood, and the squid, with its blubbery pink flesh, looks like something one might hallucinate after one too many fruity tropical drinks at Club Hedonism.

The final cut, with a new, fairly convincing squid and a raging storm still works. Yes, it’s a giant mechanical puppet, but some contemporary CGI doesn’t work as well.

Story: 4/6 Verne’s novel is rather picaresque, and the film remains so, though the focus on Land and Conseil’s desire to escape gives a sense of a plot. I wish they had explored further Arronax’s growing sympathy for Nemo, who is a mass-murderer, though one with motives he believes justify his actions.

Emotional response: 3/6 Despite the actual danger the men face, and the genuine horror in Nemo’s past, we rarely get any real sense of these things. Despite some horrific content, Disney’s people were perhaps too aware of the corporate reputation, and the drama and conflict suffer somewhat as a result.

Acting: 5/6 James Mason plays Nemo in an understated manner which remains powerful. Regrettably, the script does not permit us to see further into his dark soul. Douglas and Lorre were obviously enjoying themselves (a fact borne out by the documentary). The treatment of Ned Land as a sort of combination swashbuckler and buffoon grows a little old. Undoubtedly, certain aspects of his character will appeal more to younger children.

Production: 5/6 At the time, this was the most expensive Hollywood film ever made, and it shows. Some elements and effects are dated, but most of the film’s production elements hold up reasonably well.

Overall: 5/6 To really enjoy this film, you have to accept it for what it is: a 1950s Disney adaptation of a swashbuckling Victorian SF adventure story. Viewed in this light, it’s an enjoyable film.

In total, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea receives 31/42

Other Comments:

Certain elements which reflect the time and the fact that it was a Disney film may annoy some viewers. They’ve given Nemo a cute pet seal, and Land (Douglas) gets a musical number. The brief appearance by a Hollywood-variety cannibal tribe may also give one pause, though the Jamaicans who played them reportedly found the experience supremely amusing.

This film represents Disney’s entry into the world of live-action feature-length films. Despite expenses which nearly sunk the company (Disneyland was under construction at the same time), it proved a huge hit.

Unfortunately, the quality and caliber of Disney’s feature films would decline over the next quarter-century, and the studio would not really be taken seriously as a maker of non-animated films again until the 1980s.

The DVD “Special Edition,” released in 2003, features:

Remastered version of the film
Audio commentary with director Richard Fleischer & film historian Rudy Behlmer
Animated short: “Grand Canyonscope”
Documentary: “The Making Of ‘20,000 Leagues Under The Sea'”
Jules Verne & Walt Disney: Explorers of the Imagination
The Humboldt Squid: A Real Sea Monster
The Sunset Squid Sequence
1954 Disney Studio Album
Production Gallery
The Musical Legacy of Paul Smith
Touring The Nautilus
Storyboard-to-Scene Comparison
Monsters Of The Deep
Unused Animation
Biographies: Kirk Douglas, Peter Lorre, James Mason, Paul Lucas, Richard Fleischer
Advertising: Lobby Cards, Posters and Merchandise
Production Documents
Screenplay Excerpt: Nemo’s Death
Movie Merchandise
Theatrical Trailer
Radio commercials
Audio: “Whale of a Tale.”