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Toon Talk: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea DVD
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by Kirby Holt (archives)
June 20, 2003
Kirby reviews the recent DVD release 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Toon Talk
Disney Film & Video Reviews by Kirby C. Holt

(c) Disney

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
Special Edition DVD

Fathoms Below
Widely regarded as the penultimate Disney live action adventure story, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is now available, in all its grand Cinemascope/Technicolor glory, on a Special Edition 2 Disc DVD set. And, as this was the first ‘homemade’ live action film from the Disney Studios, which also had the good fortune to be produced during the advent of the Disneyland television series, there was plenty of supplemental material on hand to include herein, and it will mostly please fans of 20KL, both old and new.

I say ‘mostly’, because there is a curious omission among the bonus features: the complete Disneyland episode on the making of the film, Operation Undersea. While I believe that some of the footage included in the other supplemental features found in this set is from that episode, it is disappointing that the entire program is not included as, say, The Best Doggone Dog in the World was on last year’s Old Yeller disc. And considering the fact that that episode won two Emmy Awards, including the prestigious Best Individual Program trophy (and also that an excerpt from another Disneyland episode, Monsters of the Deep, is included) makes its absence even more odd.

But aside from this one missing link, this psuedo-Vault Disney set contains an amazingly thorough cache of rare, behind-the-scenes footage, most of it considered lost for years; never before have you seen such an impressive array of material for a film of this vintage.

By all accounts, the making of the film was not an easy one: from Walt’s surprising selection of rival animator Max Fleischer’s son Richard as the director, to the initial problems adapting Jules Verne’s sprawling, mostly plotless novel, to the trials with the easily offended and forgetful Paul Lukas (who played Professor Arronax) and the almost insurmountable challenges of the groundbreaking underwater photography (obtained through the risky use of unproven diving equipment), not to mention the immensely difficult (and highly expensive) squid attack scene (which actually had to be filmed twice), it is easy to see how this film became the most expensive movie ever made up until that time, even more costly then that money pit Gone With the Wind. All of which may have proved for some trying times for the makers of the film at the time, but certainly makes for great DVD viewing today ...

And which undoubtedly produced the definitive cinematic version of Verne’s oceanic opus. I remember as a young boy, watching this movie on The Wonderful World of Disney, being enthralled by the sleekly menacing, eerily glowing Nautilus, while terrified by the swirling tentacles and that hideously chomping beak of the giant squid. Re-watching the film again today, through an adult’s eyes, it still hasn’t lost its ability to enthrall, especially since this was for me (and probably for a lot of others as well, I imagine) my first viewing of the film in its proper Cinemascope aspect ratio. (All I can say is “wow!? … and thank goodness for letterboxing.) I can also appreciate better now the fine acting on display, provided by Disney’s first real ‘all-star’ cast, lead by the barrel-chested bravado of Kirk Douglas’ Ned Land and the catlike coolness of James Mason’s Captain Nemo.

Made in era of B-movie monsters and War of the Worlds hysteria, the story’s science fiction elements are handled matter-of-factly and with a subtle hand, but such flaws as some sloppy direction (crowded compositions; an at times sea turtle-like pace) and questionable story points (Nemo’s annoyingly silent crew; a group of soldiers who must be the worst shots in movie history) are noted, but easily dismissed amongst the majestic scope of the tale itself. And its not that much of a stretch to see the subconscious influences this film may of had on such future sub movies ranging from Das Boot to U-571.

And certainly it’s hard to resist the charms of a nearly fifty-year old film that, as evidenced in the compendium of seemingly endless facts and fantasies included on this treasure trove of a DVD collection, was so obviously a product of the blood, sweat and tears of all involved in its arduous, yet ultimately highly-rewarding production.

A whale of a tale, indeed.

Bonus Feature Highlights:

  • Disc 1 also features Grand Canyonscope, the Donald Duck short that was paired with 20KL during its original theatrical release and was also filmed in Cinemascope … as hilariously noted by co-star Ranger Woodlore (“Spread out, folks, this is Cinemascope!?). Also featuring Louie the Mountain Lion, this is a funny and exciting Donald escapade, although I believe that Ranger Woodlore’s line to Donald “don’t bother the Americans? was changed from the less-PC “don’t bother the Indians?.
  • Director Richard Fleischer is joined by film historian/author Rudy Behlmer on the optional Audio Commentary for the film. The commentary is done in an ‘interview’ style (with Behlmer fawning over Fleischer, not unlike James Lipton) that comes off as ill prepared and, frankly, not very interesting compared to the set’s other, more comprehensive supplements. (In other words, just like the recent Love Bug DVD, skip the commentary and go straight for Disc 2.) Still, there are some tidbits of note:
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