A few days ago that powerhouse of an actor Kirk Douglas turned 99. I might not have noticed it if it weren’t for the fact that a week before, when my three kids were picking out a DVD for family movie night, they settled on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I hadn’t seen it since I was a kid myself, so sitting down to revisit it was a bit of a revelation.
Sure, the scenery all ends up with Kirk Douglas’s teeth marks all over it. His Ned is shameless in his mugging for the camera, but it fits. Watching again as an adult, his braggart of a character isn’t as admirable as he was to a boy—his actions are what cause the tragic ending of the film.
James Mason gives a gloweringly melodramatic performance, but he succeeds tremendously in making Captain Nemo magnetically compelling in his warped ideological drive against colonialism and injustice. Together with Ned, the actions of the two men made for some good discussions with my kids about right and wrong action in the service of a cause.
And perhaps most of all, there’s the look of the movie. As befits a studio founded as an animation house, the Walt Disney crew here is devoted to creating powerful story-book images on screen. The Nautilus, the undersea funeral, the giant squid—the scenes all look somewhat familiar because their influence can be felt in dozens of other movies made since. To pick just one, there’s Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo, which features a sort of bizarro version of the Nautilus piloted by a Nemo-like undersea wizard with a similar grudge against the world above.
There are some things which don’t work well. Peter Lorre’s signature creepiness is wasted in a role which could have been played by any actor. There’s an encounter with a warrior tribe on an island which comes off as caricatured (though the comic flight of Ned from them also gets visually recycled in later films such as the Pirates of the Caribbean movies). The protagonist of the Jules Verne book, Professor Pierre M. Aronnax –played here by Paul Lukas—can’t compete against the star power of Mason and Douglas. And like most adaptations of Verne, Captain Nemo is portrayed as a European, instead of being Indian as in the source novel. (Looking around online, it appears Nemo has only once been portrayed by an Indian actor, when he was played by Naseeruddin Shah in the 2003 movie The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen—a film I do not recommend.)
But these flaws all fade away as you watch. The corniness of Kirk Douglas strumming a turtle-shell guitar to a sea-lion is counterweighed by the justly celebrated battle with the giant squid—still one of the most effective action sequences ever filmed.
It’s a whale of a tale. After watching it, my eight-year-old son turned to me and asked if the movie was based on a book. Upon hearing it was, he requested that we read it together. So we will.
Previous Great Films for Kids: