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20,000 Leagues

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea on DVD

One of, if not the, best Walt Disney live action films, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is also one of the best science fiction movies of all time.

And some fifty years after it was first released it still works as if it were brand new, thanks to Disney’s new, and long awaited, Special Edition release of this classic in the genre of cinefantastique.

James Mason is outstanding as Captain Nemo, the mad genius from whose mind came the submarine Nautilus and the technology behind it. That technology, specifically its power supply, is never named, though it’s broadly hinted that it’s nuclear some fifty plus years before the atom was split.

Nemo is the villain of the piece, though he isn’t really a villain, at least in his own mind. To himself, he’s a hero, an avenging angel bringing his own brand of justice to those deserving of it.

But we don’t get to meet Nemo right off the bat. Instead, we’re introduced to Professor Pierre Arronax (Paul Lukas), his aide Conseil (Peter Lorre), and master harpooner Ned Land (Kirk Douglas), three members of a US-led expedition to find a so-called sea monster that’s been wreaking havoc on the shipping lanes of the Pacific ocean.

The monster, of course, is the Nautilus, and after it sinks the ship on which our trio of protagonists are sailing they are tossed into the sea and come across the submarine while its crew is performing an undersea burial for one of its crewmembers.

Thanks to Nemo's familiary with the professor's reputation, Arronax, Conseil, and Land are allowed to stay aboard, though under probation, and we get to see Captain Nemo’s masterpiece in action through a variety of adventures that include underwater farming, attacks on other ships, assault by cannibals, and the famous attack by a giant squid.

It’s not only great family entertainment, it’s great entertainment and good science fiction as well. The cast is outstanding, especially Mason and Douglas (the latter of whom also sings a Disney-esque song early in the film – probably its weakest scene), but it’s the imagination behind the movie itself that, at least to this reviewer, is the star.

The envisioning of the Nautilus and its technology is superb and contributed to the film’s two Oscars (special effects and color art direction). This is the most beautiful, graceful and yet fearsome submarine in motion picture history, part fish, part shark. And Disney wisely chose to leave the story set in the late 1800’s, from the novel, which not only makes the fictional technology all the more amazing for its “time,” but which, since it’s set before the atomic age began in the first place yet was made after it began, lets the movie itself get older and older without events catching up with it and making it look quaint.

And of course it doesn’t hurt to have Jules Verne as the creator of the concept in the first place, a man who was one of the early giants in science fiction.

The THX-certified DVD brings to home video, finally, an anamorphic version of this film, presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.55:1 that really cries out for a big, 16x9 TV screen to do it justice. Fortunately, we had just the beast handy on which to watch “Leagues” and we were impressed overall with its picture quality. The color is terrific and for the most part the picture is sharp and rich, though THX-certification or not there are scenes and shots that just aren’t up to today’s standards and this is a shame. Since this disc has received the THX treatment, we suspect they’ve done as good a job as is possible given today’s technology and, overall, we’re happy with the result.

Audio has been remixed into Dolby Digital 5.1 and though there isn’t a lot of surround there is some quite effective use of it. Mostly, however, we get the three front channels and the subwoofer and the results are quite satisfying for 1954-vintage audio tracks.

Then there are the extras which, in Disney tradition, are positively piled on in this two disc set.

Disc one features the remastered version of the film, accompanied by a feature length audio commentary with legendary director Richard Fleischer. You also get a widescreen (though not anamorphic, alas) animated short "Grand Canyonscope."

As usual, most of the other bonus material lives on Disc Two, and this includes some really meaty stuff like “The Making Of '20,000 Leagues Under The Sea'" and a featurette on Verne & Disney (Explorers of the Imagination). You also get the Humboldt Squid: A Real Sea Monster, Lost Treasures: The Sunset Squid, and continuing the tradition with Disney DVD’s, the 1954 Disney Studio Album.

And that isn’t all. There’s also a production gallery, the Musical Legacy of Paul Smith, a tour of the Nautilus, storyboard-to-scene comparison, and Monsters Of The Deep.

Add to that some unused animation (you might be surprised to find out where animation was used on this film), biographies of Kirk Douglas, Peter Lorre, James Mason, Paul Lucas, and Richard Fleischer, examples of advertising for the film, production documents, an excerpt from the screenplay (Nemo's Death), movie merchandise, the theatrical trailer, radio spots, Peter Lorre audio tracks, Captain Nemo's organ music and more.

It’s a terrific package of a movie masterpiece that deserves to live in the library of every movie lover – and/or sci-fi film lover.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, from Walt Disney Home Video
127 min., anamorphic widescreen (2.55:1), 16x9 TV compatible, Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
Starring Paul Lukas, Peter Lorre, Kirk Douglas, James Mason
Written by Earl Felton, Directed by Richard Fleischer


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