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— Tate Donovan, Hercules

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Walter Elias Disney took tremendous risks bringing Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to theaters in 1954. It was to be a major live-action film, shot in the new widescreen CinemaScope process, and by the time the troublesome shoot was done, $4.3 million was spent, a major undertaking for that time. Not only that, but the new theme park he was building in Anaheim was not making things any easier for him.

But the finished product (the movie, that is) turned out to me a major hit and it set the tone for Disney’s live-action division for years to come.

The studio has done a remarkable job supplying the 20,000 Leagues DVD with enough extras to keep fans of the movie busy for days.

A Shifting Reef

Special Edition DVD will keep you busy for days
Special Edition DVD will keep you busy for days

The movie opens in 1868 where a strange sea monster has been wreaking havoc on the major shipping lanes by sinking vessels at will. Many are afraid to travel on the ocean, but this monster has attracted the interest of Professor Arronax (Paul Lukas) from the Museum of Natural History in Paris and his assistant Conseil (Peter Lorre). The two secure passage on a ship determined to hunt down the monster.

While at sea, the ship is truck by the monster and Arronax and Conseil are thrown overboard along with brash harpoonist Ned Land (Kirk Douglas). They remain adrift until they come across a strange metallic vessel. It turns out that the monster is actually a submarine, unheard of in the mid-19th century, complete with a crew led by the mysterious Captain Nemo (James Mason).

Nemo has a bone to pick with society. He rams ships that carry materials used to make weapons of war, while his submarine, powered by what is only hinted at as atomic energy, is decades ahead of his time. Yet he is extremely reluctant to share his discoveries with his fellow man for fear they might abuse them.

Nemo only wants to roam the undersea domain, the only way he can be at peace. While Land and Conseil try to find ways to escape, Arronax tries to learn more about Nemo and the secrets that await him at the end of Nemo’s mission.

Picture and Sound

The picture looks especially sharp considering how old the movie is and that it was only the second CinemaScope feature filmed. The image is crisp while the ultra-wide 2.55:1 aspect ratio fits comfortably on the screen, which will look better should you be lucky enough to have a 16x9 TV.

The sound carries well and is extremely balanced for a movie made way before the era of stereo. It does not have true surround, however, and it will sound the same no matter where you sit in your viewing room.

DVD Extras

The audio commentary by Fleischer and Behlmer is more accurately called an interview than a conversation, since it had been 39 years since Fleischer made the picture and he does not remember everything.

Fleischer does have enough interesting stories, such as learning to shoot CinemaScope from scratch, and directing underwater scenes. He also explains how he had to get a blessing from his father, animator Max Fleischer, a bitter competitor of Disney, to direct the movie.

Among the best extras the disc has to offer are the featurettes. A 90-minute documentary on the making of the film is the centerpiece, and it goes into very minute detail about the different aspects of the production, from the design of the diving suits to Kirk Douglas’s singing.

A much shorter featurette on the comparisons between Walt Disney and Jules Verne is also an interesting watch, along with a piece on the Humbolt squid, which would have been better had the filmmakers chosen not to frame the image with a vignette that is more annoying than dramatic. There is also a short bio on Paul Smith, a longtime composer for Disney.

The Sunset Squid

Ironically, the best material comes from what was clearly the production’s biggest embarrassment. The most famous scene in the whole movie is the fight with the giant squid during a huge downpour, a scene still compelling compared with today’s CGI standards. That scene was a reshoot of an earlier attempt that is one of the most unintentionally funny monster fights you will ever see. “The Sunset Squid,” named because the fight took place at sunset in much calmer seas, shows that the first squid built looked like a giant sunflower with very lethargic tentacles and sluggish movements. The scene is so lame that in order to make it look more dramatic, Mason misses the squid while throwing a harpoon at point blank range!

Also included in the deluxe setup are a segment from Monsters of the Deep, a 1955 television spot featuring Disney, Douglas and Lorre; dozens of still photos; drawings; a screenplay excerpt detailing captain Nemo’s death ( even though he would return in Mysterious Island); a storyboard-to-scene comparison; unused animation; and even radio spots on an audio channel.

The supplemental materials might demand an entire weekend of viewing, and some of the extras come across as filler, such as the “Tour of the Nautilus,” which is just a series of still photographs, movie scenes and blueprints.

Before you watch the movie, be sure to see the supplied cartoon, Grand Canyonscope, a hilarious Donald Duck short that includes a joke about CinemaScope. This would make the experience complete since the cartoon was part of the original feature.

Conclusion

It is a shame that Disney’s later live action efforts deteriorated into fluff like The Love Bug (also released on DVD today) and The Shaggy Dog. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea proved to his competitors that he was a movie producer to be taken seriously, and this is evident on this deluxe edition DVD.