In the year 1868, rumors of a sea monster attacking ships in the Pacific Ocean have created apprehension and fear among sailors, disrupting shipping lanes. The United States government invites Professor Pierre M. Aronnax and his assistant, Conseil, onto an expedition to prove or disprove the monster's existence. One of their fellow crew is the cocky master harpooneer Ned Land.
After months of searching, the "monster" is spotted. Though the ship fires at it with cannons, the monster rams the ship. Ned and Aronnax are thrown overboard, and Conseil goes in after Aronnax. The warship, burning and helpless, drifts silently and no one on board answers when the overboard passengers cry for help. The three drift in the ocean, eventually finding a strange-looking metal vessel, and realize the "monster" is a man-made "submerging boat" that appears deserted. Inside, Aronnax finds a viewing window and sees an underwater funeral.
Ned, Aronnax, and Conseil then attempt to leave in their lifeboat, but the submarine crew returns to their ship, capturing the castaways. The captain introduces himself as Nemo, master of the Nautilus. He returns Ned and Conseil to the deck, while offering Aronnax, whom he recognizes for his work and research, the chance to stay. When Nemo determines that Aronnax would die with his companions, he allows Ned and Conseil to board the submarine.
Nemo takes Aronnax to the penal colony island of Rura Penthe. Nemo reveals he was once a prisoner there, as were many of his crew. The prisoners are loading a munitions ship. The Nautilus rams the ship, destroying its cargo and killing the crew. An anguished Nemo tells Arronax that his actions have saved thousands from death in war; he also discloses that this "hated nation" tortured his wife and son to death while attempting to force him to reveal the secrets of his work. Ned discovers the coordinates of Nemo's secret island base, Vulcania, and releases messages in bottles, hoping somebody will find them and free him from captivity.
Off the coast of New Guinea, the Nautilus becomes stranded on a reef. Ned is surprised when Nemo allows him to go ashore with Conseil, ostensibly to collect specimens. Ned goes off alone to explore avenues of escape. While kneeling at a pool to drink, he sees a number of human skulls on stakes. Realizing his danger, Ned runs for his life and rejoins Conseil as they are chased back to the Nautilus by cannibals. Despite remaining aground, Nemo is unconcerned and the cannibals are repelled from the ship by electrical charges circulated on its hull. Nemo is furious with Ned for not following his orders, and confines him to the submarine's brig.
A warship approaches, firing upon the submarine. It descends into the depths, where it attracts the attentions of a giant squid. The electric charge fails to repel the monster, so Nemo and his men surface to dislodge the beast. Nemo is caught in one of the squid's tentacles. Ned, having escaped from captivity during the struggle, jumps to Nemo's rescue, saving his captor's life. As a result, Nemo has a change of heart; he claims now to want to make peace with the outer world.
As the Nautilus nears Vulcania, Nemo finds the island surrounded by warships whose marines are converging on his hideout. As Nemo goes ashore, Ned attempts to identify himself as the author of the bottled messages. Aronnax realizes this and becomes furious, recognizing that Nemo will destroy all evidence of his discoveries. Nemo plants a bomb in his hideout, but is mortally wounded from a slug to the back while returning to the Nautilus. After haphazardly navigating the submarine away from Vulcania, Nemo announces he will be "taking the Nautilus down for the last time". Nemo's crew declare they will accompany their captain in death.
Aronnax, Conseil, and Ned are confined to their cabins. The Nautilus's crew also retreat to their cabins at Nemo's instructions. Ned breaks loose and manages to surface the Nautilus, hitting a reef in the process and causing the ship to begin flooding. Nemo staggers to a viewing window and watches his beloved ocean as he dies.
Aronnax tries to retrieve his journal, which contains an account of the voyage, but the urgency of their escape obliges Ned to knock him unconscious and carry him out. The companions witness Vulcania destroyed in an explosion, while Ned apologizes to Aronnax for hitting him. As the Nautilus disappears beneath the waves, Nemo's last words to Aronnax echo: "There is hope for the future. And when the world is ready for a new and better life, all this will someday come to pass, in God's good time."
- Kirk Douglas as Ned Land
- James Mason as Captain Nemo
- Paul Lukas as Pierre Aronnax
- Peter Lorre as Conseil
- Robert J. Wilke as Nautilus' First Mate
- Ted de Corsia as Captain Farragut
- Carleton Young as John Howard
- J. M. Kerrigan as Billy
- Percy Helton as Coach driver
- Ted Cooper as Abraham Lincoln's First Mate
- Fred Graham as Casey
After making four live-action movies in Great Britain at a relatively low cost, and to avoid paying heavy fees on the profits that his animated features have earned in that country, Walt Disney had proven to audiences that he wasn't just an animation producer. With some credibility under his belt, he decided to put a lot of money into a big-budget production. For his source material, Walt chose Jules Verne's seminal adventure classic: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. It's Disney's first science-fiction film, and the only one to be produced during Walt's lifetime. Walt originally conceived of adapting Verne's literary work in the late 1940s, naturally thinking of creating an animated version of the story. But fate intervened with the appearance of a gifted sketch artist named Harper Goff, who's been working for Disney on various special projects. Mr. Goff shared with Walt a passion for Jules Verne by drawing a few continuity sketches. When Disney saw Goff's artwork, he had a moment of inspiration that would put the future of his studio and the plans for Disneyland in jeopardy. So by 1952, Disney scrapped his idea of making an animated version of 20,000 Leagues. He then turned his attention to the live-action adaptation. For the lavish production of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Walt hired 20th Century Fox's veteran film pioneer Ralph Hammeras to handle the ambitious miniature effects photography. Hammeras previously worked on such movies as State Fair and Anna and the King of Siam. And then, Walt continued gathering together an amazing collection of Hollywood talent, including:
- Franz Planer (cinematographer)
- Elmo Williams (film editor)
- Emile Kuri (set decorator)
It surprised many in the studio when Walt hired Richard Fleischer – son of pioneering cartoonist Max Fleischer, who became one of Disney's greatest rivals – to direct 20,000 Leagues. It remained one of the more bizarre yet fascinating ironies in Hollywood lore. By 1953, though, Fleischer Studios had long since been absorbed by Paramount Pictures, and Max – along with his brother Dave – was enjoying his retirement. The elder Fleischer brothers not only gave Richard a precious blessing; they also buried the hatchet and became mutual friends with Disney.
Since this was such a big-budget production, Walt decided to select a star-studded cast for the film's leading roles. Kirk Douglas portrays the film's protagonist – master harpooner Ned Land. Paul Lukas and Peter Lorre were chosen as Professor Aronnax and Conseil, respectively. And for the story's antagonist – Captain Nemo – James Mason was cast.
When screenwriter Earl Felton was nearing the final draft, he handed over his screenplay to Disney's art department. In one significant step forward, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea became the first live-action feature film to be sketched from start to finish – the storyboards contained over 1,300 drawings.
Soundstage #3 was constructed at the Disney Studios' backlot with a massive indoor underwater tank measuring 18 feet. In addition, Walt paid his sum to use the facilities at other studios. This included Universal International (with the exterior sets redressed for the opening sequence) and 20th Century Fox (with a large exterior underwater tank for the models). And beyond that, there's a lot of location photography in Jamaica and the Bahamas, with the cavern scenes filmed beneath what's now the Xtabi Resort on the cliffs of Negril.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was the first of a few Disney films to be photographed in the new widescreen process known as CinemaScope. Prior to this, all Disney films were photographed in the Academy fullscreen ratio. Since CinemaScope was an experience so new, Disney was allowed only one lens, which caused production to last much longer than it normally would have. It's one of the first CinemaScope movies ever produced outside of 20th Century Fox.
Giant squid battle
In March 1954, the famous giant squid attack sequence had to be entirely re-shot. The sci-fi novel described the assault as originally taking place at dusk and in a calm sea. But when the film footage was played, the squid's wires were visible and looked fake. The scene was then rewritten to take place at night during a huge thunderstorm. It's filmed again, both to increase the drama and to better hide the cables & other mechanical workings of the animatronic squid, and the results were satisfying.
As production of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea drew closer to completion, Disney sought out a new distribution partner for his studio's expanding library. The deal with his previous distributor – RKO Radio Pictures – was already ending. He had no desire to renew the deal of the contract, and he always felt that RKO took too high a fraction of the profits. So Walt eventually decided to begin self-distribution. He named the distribution company Buena Vista after the street of his studio in Burbank, California.
Walt assigned music veteran Paul Smith to conduct the musical score for 20,000 Leagues. The only song from the film – "A Whale of a Tale" – was written by Norman Gimbel and Al Hoffman. It's frequently found on various compilation albums.
With a total (and greatly over-run) production cost of over $9 million, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was one of the most expensive and ambitious motion pictures ever produced in Hollywood up to that time – even surpassing David O. Selznick's Gone with the Wind. Considered by most of Hollywood to be "one of Walt Disney's biggest gambles", it presented a serious financial risk to the studio should the film flop.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was announced with "one of the biggest advertising and promotional campaigns Hollywood had ever seen!" In February 1955, Dell published a comic-book version of the film. Disney assigned one crew to to create a documentary about the production of 20,000 Leagues, which was then broadcast under the Disneyland TV series on December 8, 1954. According to modern sources, that hour-long promotional program entitled "Operation Undersea" was referred to in the film industry as "The Long, Long Trailer", in reference to use as a publicity program.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea had its world premiere on December 23, 1954. Critics adored the film, thus showering it with virtually unanimous praise. Audiences fondly remember it primarily for its giant-squid battle sequence as well as the Nautilus itself and James Mason's portrayal of Captain Nemo. The film currently holds an 89% approval rating at the review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes, with the consensus being: "One of Disney's finest live-action adventures, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea brings Jules Verne's classic sci-fi tale to vivid life, and features an awesome giant squid."
The film was also highly praised for the performances of the leading actors. This was the first time that major international stars such as Kirk Douglas, James Mason and Peter Lorre had appeared in a Disney film, although well-known British actor Robert Newton had played Long John Silver in Treasure Island (1950), and British actor Richard Todd had appeared in the Technicolor live-action version of The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men (1952). Mason was especially singled out for his performance of Captain Nemo. Many people who had first seen him on-screen in the film identify him most strongly with this role.
Bosley Crowther, who was a film critic from the New York Times, gave the film a generally positive review by saying: "As fabulous and fantastic as anything he has ever done in cartoons is Walt Disney's "live-action" movie made from Jules Verne's '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.' Turned out in CinemaScope and Technicolor, it is as broad, fictitiously, as it is long (128 minutes), and should prove a sensation — at least with the kids."
Modern-day film critic Steve Biodrowski said that the film is "far superior to the majority of genre efforts from the period (or any period, for that matter), with production design and technical effects that have dated hardly at all." Biodrowski also added that the film "may occasionally succumb to some of the problems inherent in the source material (the episodic nature does slow the pace), but the strengths far outweigh the weaknesses, making this one of the greatest science-fiction films ever made."
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was also hugely successful at the box office, earning $8 million in North American box office attendance, eventually becoming one of the highest-grossing movies of 1954 (second only to Irving Berlin's White Christmas). The film was theatrically re-released two times – in 1963 and 1971.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea won two Academy Awards: one for Best Art Direction, the other for Best Special Effects. It's also nominated for Best Film Editing.
On March 4, 1980, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea became one of the first 13 titles to be released in the newly-formed Walt Disney Home Video.
It was then subsequently re-released to the home video market several times:
- May 28, 1986
- January 24, 1992 (under the Walt Disney Studio Film Collection label)
- March 3, 1995 (under the Walt Disney Family Film Collection label)
- March 4, 1997 (under the Walt Disney Film Classics label)
On May 20, 2003, the film was first released on two-disc DVD.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is one of Disney's greatest, most popular and most iconic live-action movies. It became a noteworthy masterpiece of the Disney corporation, representing the highest caliber. The film's success proved once and for all that the way ahead for the studio was in live-action movies, as animated features became much more expensive to produce.
Disneyland used the original sets as a walk-through attraction from 1955 to 1966. Walt Disney World Resort's Magic Kingdom also had a dark ride named 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: Submarine Voyage from 1971 to 1994, which consisted of a submarine ride, complete with the giant squid attack. For this ride, voice-over artist Peter Renaday stood in for James Mason in the role of Captain Nemo. In 1994, a walk-through attraction at Disneyland Paris, named Les Mystères du Nautilus, opened. In 2001, a dark ride at Tokyo DisneySea was created.
References in later films
Due to its success, Disney has occasionally referenced this film in their later movies. In Pixar's Finding Nemo when Marlin and Dory encounter a school of Moonfish, one of their "impressions" involves forming the shape a sailing ship and singing the chorus to "A Whale of a Tale". The name of Nemo could have also been meant as a nod to Captain Nemo.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest has a scene near the beginning in which Jack Sparrow and his crew end up on a small island with cannibalistic natives. The scene in which Jack rushes to the Black Pearl while being chased by the natives may have been a reference to a similar scene in 20,000 Leagues, in which Ned Land and Conseil travel to an island with cannibals, with the former similarly rushing towards the boat while being chased by the natives.
On January 6, 2009, Variety reported that a remake entitled 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: Captain Nemo was being planned with Joseph McGinty Nichol, a.k.a. "McG", attached to direct. The film serves as an origin story for the central character, Captain Nemo, as he builds his warship, the Nautilus. McG has remarked that it will be "much more in keeping with the spirit of the novel" than Richard Fleischer's film, in which it will reveal "what Aronnax is up to and the becoming of Captain Nemo, and how the man became at war with war itself. "It was written by Bill Marsilli, with Justin Marks and Randall Wallace brought in to do rewrites. It was to be produced by Sean Bailey with McG's Wonderland Sound and Vision.
McG once suggested that he wanted Will Smith for the Captain Nemo role, but he has reportedly turned down the part. As a second possible choice, McG had mentioned Sam Worthington, whom he worked with on Terminator Salvation, though they did not ever discuss it seriously. The project was later shelved in November 2009 with McG backing out of directing.
During the 2010 San Diego Comic-Con, director David Fincher announced plans of directing 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea for Walt Disney Pictures based on a script by Scott Z. Burns. While Fincher was wrapping up The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011), it was speculated that 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea would enter principal photography by late 2012. In the meantime, Fincher began courting Brad Pitt to play the role of Ned Land while the film was kept on hold. However in February 2013, it was announced that Pitt had officially turned down the role.
In April 2013, it was announced that the Australian government will provide a one-off incentive of $20 million in order to secure the production. Despite this, the film was put on hold again the following month due to complications in casting a lead. On July 17, 2013, Fincher dropped out of the film to direct the adaptation of Gone Girl.