Walt Disney produced live-action features prior to 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, but the 1954 Jules Verne adaptation marked his studio's first serious attempt to make a non-animated film as prestigious and commercial as those of its competitors. Disney gave high priority to the project, spending more than had ever been spent on any previous movie. He ponied up for the construction of water-tank-equipped studio spaces, specially designed underwater cameras and scuba gear, and six months of filming, ranging from Jamaican beaches and the ocean floor to the model shops of Hollywood. He also bought top talent. James Mason plays the messianic captain of the futuristic submarine The Nautilus, while Kirk Douglas is the brash harpoonist who's captured by Mason, along with oceanographer Paul Lukas and Lukas' apprentice, Peter Lorre. Young action director Richard Fleischer (son of Disney's animation competitor Max Fleischer) packs the episodic story with high spirits and moments of quiet wonder, and the film was a huge hit worldwide, thanks mainly to its much-trumpeted centerpiece: a giant-squid attack on stormy seas. The sequence took up about a quarter of the final production budget, in part because it had to be re-shot after an early take revealed too much of the beast's wire and rubber. (The original footage appears on the second disc of the impressively well-stocked double-DVD special edition, which also includes a 90-minute making-of documentary, a set of short appreciations of everyone from composer Paul Smith to Jules Verne himself, an almost superfluous commentary track by Fleischer and historian Rudy Behlmer, and even a snappy Donald Duck cartoon.) Leagues' success established the formula for Disney's live-action adventures, which from the '50s through the '70s matched cutting-edge special effects, elaborate sets, high-toned source material, and a staunch commitment to narrative pull. Fifty years later, the fullness of classic Disney adventure films still makes other movies about sweaty men in exotic locales look weak. Leagues has only the faintest aroma of "art," but the odd nods toward maturity are enough to counteract such concessions to broad commerciality as Douglas' pet seal, or his incessant singing of the maddening "A Whale Of A Tail." The action lets up frequently for amazing undersea footage–most impressively, an extended hunting and farming expedition–and for explorations of character that reveal Mason's complex sense of morality and Douglas' dangerous loutishness. Most vitally, the filmmakers never let the audience lose track of how cool it would be to cruise the bottom of the ocean in an elegantly appointed super-boat. The secret of good escapist fare, as Disney's crew knew, is giving the audience someplace remarkable to escape to.
More from The A.V. Club