20,000 Leagues Under The Sea was not Walt Disney’s first live-action feature. But it was by far the biggest and most ambitious production he had attempted to date. The project went wildly over-budget, becoming the most expensive feature film ever made up to that time. If it flopped, it very likely would have dragged the entire studio down with it. Instead, it cemented Walt Disney’s reputation as a producer capable of creating live-action spectacles every bit as impressive as his animated features.
In fact, Walt at first considered adapting Jules Verne’s novel as a feature-length cartoon. That in itself is a fascinating alternate history to contemplate. Almost all of Disney’s animated films fall pretty squarely within the fairy tale/fantasy genres. It would have been incredible to see what the Disney animators could have done with a science fiction adventure.
It was the work of artist Harper Goff that convinced Walt to make the film in live-action. Goff had been working as a set designer for Warner Bros. when he met Walt in 1951. They were both trying to buy the same model train set and bonded over their shared hobby. Walt got the train but Goff got a new job.
Assigned to work on the 20,000 Leagues project, Goff proceeded to draw up an elaborate set of storyboards for a live-action feature. The work clicked with Walt. Perhaps emboldened by the success of his first live-action British production, Treasure Island, he greenlit 20,000 Leagues as his first American-based feature.
To direct, Walt hired Richard Fleischer, the son of one of his oldest competitors, the great animator Max Fleischer. The younger Fleischer started his career at RKO, directing low-budget B-movies and noirs like The Clay Pigeon and The Narrow Margin. Nothing in his previous work suggested that he was the right fit for a project of this magnitude. To be fair, very few projects of this magnitude had been attempted by anyone. Needless to say, Dick Fleischer leapt at the chance, but not before both he and Walt made sure Max was okay with his son going to work for his old rival.
Fleischer worked on the screenplay with Earl Felton, a writer he’d worked with previously at RKO. Like many popular novels of its era, Verne’s book had originally been published as a serial. This gave Fleischer and Felton a lot of cool incidents and episodes to choose from but not a lot of plot. Ultimately, they decided to focus on the unwilling captivity of the book’s three heroes, picking the most memorable scenes from the book and rearranging them into an order that fit their needs. The result is faithful to the spirit and flavor of Verne’s book, if not the letter of the text.
Walt was willing to do whatever it took to ensure the film’s success, even if that meant hiring bona fide A-list movie stars for the first time. Kirk Douglas had only been in pictures for less than a decade. But he was already a two-time Oscar nominee for the films Champion and The Bad And The Beautiful. Physically, he was ideally suited for the role of harpooner Ned Land. For Douglas, it gave him an opportunity to play a lighter role than the intense, hard-boiled parts he’d been associated with. Because this was a Disney movie, he’d even get to sing a song.
As Professor Aronnax, Disney cast Paul Lukas, an Oscar winner for the wartime drama Watch On The Rhine. The great character actor Peter Lorre was cast as Aronnax’s assistant, Conseil. This was also a change of pace for Lorre, who was usually typecast in roles that ranged from somewhat shady to outright villainous. Lorre and Douglas make a surprisingly effective comic duo. It would have been wonderful to see them together in other films, like a European heist movie.
Of course, Disney’s most inspired bit of casting was James Mason as the brilliant but deranged Captain Nemo. Mason had been a huge star in the UK but had not been an immediate success since coming to Hollywood. That was starting to change thanks to starring roles in The Desert Fox and especially A Star Is Born.
Mason’s performance as Nemo is one of the absolute best pairings of an actor to a character. It’s difficult to imagine anyone else playing the role now without a touch of Mason’s influence creeping in. He’s imperious, paranoid, single-minded, ruthless and refined. Virtually none of Nemo’s robotic, identically dressed crewmen on the Nautilus even have names, much less personality. They don’t need them. It’s clear that they live only to serve their charismatic cult leader.
Disney had never really worked with established movie stars before and wouldn’t do so very often in the future. He preferred to make his own stars, be they cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck or contract players like Bobby Driscoll and Luana Patten. But 20,000 Leagues demonstrates that Walt had a canny sense for tapping into what made these stars great. None of the four actors were really playing against type. But Disney found a way to channel what made them great, Douglas’s magnetism, Mason’s intensity, Lukas’s gravitas and Lorre’s…well, Lorre-ness, and channel it in directions no one else had. He ended up getting four great star performances without a weak link in the bunch.
Apart from the cast, the movie has several behind-the-scenes MVPs. First and foremost is Harper Goff, whose storyboards kickstarted the whole project. Goff was responsible for designing the Nautilus, both the exterior and interior sets. In doing so, he basically invented the entire aesthetic that later evolved into steampunk. Ornate Victorian furnishings sit comfortably beside hard steel walls with exposed rivets, pipes and tubes and massive circular staircases. Best of all is Nemo’s enormous pipe organ, a magnificently absurd touch that tells you everything you need to know about this character.
20,000 Leagues Under The Sea won an Oscar for Best Color Art Direction but Goff didn’t get one. At the time, he wasn’t a member of the Art Directors Guild and therefore, wasn’t eligible under Academy bylaws. John Meehan and set decorator Emile Kuri collected the awards instead. Goff worked for Disney for a few more years, contributing a great deal to the layout of Disneyland and later, Walt Disney World. Later on, he’d once again create some unforgettable sets as art director on Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory.
20,000 Leagues also won an Oscar for Best Special Effects, beating out another submarine movie, Sam Fuller’s Hell And High Water, as well as the giant ants of Them! (Elmo Williams was also nominated for Best Film Editing but lost that one.) The effects had been by far the most challenging aspect of the production, especially the now iconic giant squid. John Hench was the lead developer of the squid, creating a full-sized hydraulic monster that required a team of twenty-some men to operate.
The first attempt at the squid sequence went poorly. Fleischer and Walt both agreed that the monster looked ridiculous. Walt apparently commented that it looked like a Keystone Kops short. While Hench and his team redesigned the squid’s appearance, writer Earl Felton suggested that the scene take place at night during a violent storm, rather than the placid twilight setting of the original. The film was already in danger of going overbudget and the reshoots sent the cost through the roof. Between this film and the ongoing construction of Disneyland, the studio was once again running on fumes.
But the reshoots did the trick. The giant squid remains a highlight of the picture and an indelible moment in movie history. No one could ever accuse Walt Disney of being thrifty and his willingness to spend whatever it took in his quest for perfection paid off more often than not.
Matte artist Peter Ellenshaw, who had worked on all of Disney’s British productions, had now accepted full-time employment at the studio and set up shop in Burbank. Once again, he created seamless illusions. He transformed a tank on the 20th Century Fox lot into Nemo’s island lair, Vulcania, and a quarry into a South Seas penal colony.
Richard Fleischer also tried to work some traditional Disney animation into the film, proposing a sequence where the Nautilus encounters animated, bioluminescent creatures near the bottom of the sea. The animation was produced (it’s available as an extra on the special edition DVD and it’s pretty cool) but Walt decided to nix the idea. That was the right call, as it would have clashed with the style of the rest of the film. Years later, Wes Anderson would use a different kind of animation to achieve the same effect in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. It works there, matching the more whimsical tone of Anderson’s work.
20,000 Leagues Under The Sea was a big hit upon its release just before Christmas of 1954, although it took awhile to earn its money back since it had cost so much to make. Eventually it became the third highest-grossing movie of the year, just behind White Christmas and The Caine Mutiny. It was by far the most successful live-action film Walt had produced to date, leading to an attraction at Disneyland, toys, comics and records. Even Kirk Douglas’s “A Whale Of A Tale” got released as a single.
Despite all this success, this would be the only time Fleischer, Mason, Douglas, Lukas or Lorre ever worked for Disney. In Kirk Douglas’s case, the relationship ended on a sour note. He had brought his sons, Joel and Michael, over to Walt’s house and footage from that visit ended up in an episode of the Disneyland TV show. Douglas wrote Walt, saying he hadn’t given permission to use the footage of his family and asked for it to be removed. Walt apologized, then went ahead and aired it again anyway. So Douglas sued him, ABC, and just about everybody else involved with the show for “invasion of privacy”. He later ended up dropping the suit but the incident caused a rift between Walt and Kirk that neither one ever quite got over.
Today, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea appears like a magnificent anomaly in the Disney canon. It could have been the start of a bold new direction for the studio, a series of close collaborations between Walt and first-class filmmakers and actors brought in from outside the studio. Instead, the live-action division began to close ranks, falling back on historical dramas, nostalgia pieces and eventually comedies. It would be years before the studio attempted another live-action film on this scale. Now, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea feels like a calling card for a Disney that never arrived.
VERDICT: Disney Plus.