20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1985)

Okay, last one of these for a while. Tomorrow we’ll move on to something else. Maybe something spooky.

For the sake of completeness, I watched this 1985 animated Australian version of 20,000 Leagues. Not expecting much, by the way. I had in mind that it would probably be one of those cheap knock-off videos you see at the grocery store. Not really though. I was pleasantly surprised.

There’s even a name actor in the voice cast. At least Tom Burlinson was a name actor back in the ’80s when he starred in The Man From Snowy River. He plays Ned Land here and it strikes me that the more famous Ned (Kirk Douglas) was also in Snowy River. Interesting coincidence, if it is a coincidence.

The animation, while not Disney-quality, isn’t too shabby either. At least the character designs are interesting. Nemo is kind of a fat guy, which is an interesting choice, but not invalid. I like how Aronnax and Conseil look like they come out of European comics, especially Conseil. Ned Land (a Canadian in the novel) is built like a lumberjack.

The Nautilus is a nice combination of the novel’s cigar-shaped vessel and Disney’s stylized steampunk version. There’s nothing fancy about the way people and things move in general and most of the acting is choppy, but there are some nice animation moments where boats bob and float like they should and characters move underwater like they should. The giant squid is also nicely done with tentacles that whip around dangerously.

It’s interesting that the squid fight is moved up in the story to pretty much right after Aronnax and Company board the Nautilus. The movie’s only about 50 minutes long, so the story is super compressed and that’s just about perfect. They keep the tension between Aronnax and Nemo as well as the conflict between Aronnax/Nemo and Ned. Conseil (as in the novel) pretty much agrees to whatever Aronnax wants to do. They also hit the most memorable parts of the novel like Ned’s adventure on the island, the sinking of the warship, the undersea funeral, and Atlantis, while skipping over the boring bits.

And for Atlantis, they punch it up a notch by adding giant crabs.

All in all, not shabby in the least. The opening framing sequence is too long, but it’s pretty to look at, so it’s not awful. There’s some slapstick for the kids, but most of it’s genuinely funny instead of irritating. The sound is snazzy too, especially with surround-sound. Any time the characters are on board the Nautilus there’s always background noise of clanking and humming as the ship goes about its work. It added a lot to the experience.

This would be a pretty cool introduction to the story for children. Not as cool as the Disney version, of course, but if time or attention spans are an issue (for you or for any kids in the audience), it’s an enjoyable substitute.

Four out of five giant crabs.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1997: the Michael Caine version)


So. Michael Caine.

I love him, love him, love him, but the man digs acting so much that he’s not always as picky as I’d like him to be about the roles he takes. And unfortunately, this is one of them.

Adding to the disappointment are a couple of other favorites from back in the day: Ferris Bueller‘s girlfriend and the kid from Can’t Buy Me Love (aka McDreamy). I had the biggest crush on Mia Sara as a teen and I’m a big fan of Can’t Buy Me Love (and Grey’s Anatomy), so I was all ready to love seeing these familiar faces in 20,000 Leagues.

I think I’ve made it clear by now that I’ve got no problem with folks’ tampering with Verne’s novel. It needs tampering with. But there are a couple of things about it that aren’t broken and it’s exactly those things that this version throws out.

For example, Professor Aronnax is supposed to be a respected authority on marine life. That’s one of the reasons Nemo keeps him and his friends alive when they’re stuck aboard the Nautilus. There’s this cool, sort of uneasy, but immediate respect between Nemo and Aronnax where each wants to win the other over to his point of view.

In this version, Aronnax is played by Patrick Dempsey as a young kid with extreme father-issues who’s written a fantastical book about marine cryptozoology. He’s respected by exactly no one, including his dad (John Bach, who played Nemo himself in the 1995 Mysterious Island TV show as well as Faramir’s right-hand man in the Lord of the Rings movies), so when young Aronnax boards the Abraham Lincoln to go hunting for whatever’s destroying shipping in the Pacific, he does it to finally make a name for himself and earn the admiration he craves so badly.

Another big change is Nemo. They don’t really focus on his destroying ships. There’s a lot of talk about freedom (for example, in this version Conseil is a freed slave named Cabe), but for the most part, Nemo is a mad scientist. The reason he’s traveling around the world is to check on some explosives he’s planted on the ocean floor all over the globe. When detonated, the bombs will shift the Earth’s crust in such a way so that there will never be earthquakes again. That’s not entirely altruistic, because Nemo’s also building an underwater city in the ruins of Atlantis and he doesn’t want another earthquake to mess it up again.

Okay, taking a second look at Nemo, that’s actually pretty awesome. I wish Verne had thought of all that. I mean, Verne’s Nemo is very cool, but it’s hard to beat New Atlantis and shifting the Earth’s crust. They even pay homage to Journey to the Center of the Earth by wondering if the explosives might accidentally break through to the Earth’s hollow core, draining the oceans into it, and throwing the Earth out of its orbit. That’s pretty frickin cool.

So, Nemo’s not the literary Nemo, but he’s okay in hindsight. It’s Aronnax who’s the real problem. He’s far too mopey in general and his relationship with his dad is so damaged that it’s ridiculous and unbelievable. The filmmakers wanted us to know so badly that these two men don’t get along that they pushed their interactions over the edge into absurdity.

And because young Aronnax is so immature and issue-laden, we don’t get the uneasy respect between him and Nemo. Or we do, but it’s not convincing because there’s no reason for it. That relationship is the one thing I really liked about Verne’s novel (and a huge reason for the Disney version’s rocking so hard), so – as cool and pulpy as Caine’s Nemo is – the movie’s weakened by not having a good Aronnax to play against.

I should say out loud though, that none of this is Dempsey’s fault. He’s a fine actor and totally convincing in the role he was given. I actually did feel badly for him; even while I was wishing he would man up. It was his dad who was cartoonish in how resentful he was of young Aronnax, and even then, that wasn’t Bach’s fault. It’s the writing.

The writing also fails to give us a good squid fight, by the way. There’s a tentacled beast, but it’s bad CGI and it only attacks part of the cast in a quick, throwaway scene.

Speaking of special effects, the producers must have learned film-making from Stephen Sommers. Why actually shoot something as easy as cannons firing at a submarine when you can suggest it with crappy computer animation? Get some stock footage of a flat ocean, have your intern PhotoShop in a ship and the top part of a sub (don’t worry about having the water lap up around the sub either, surely no one will notice), and then drop in fakey little CGI water bursts wherever you want the cannonballs to hit. I mean, how sad is it that the 54-year old Disney version kicks this film’s ass in the special effects department just by filming models in a frickin water tank?

I need to mention Mia Sara because she’s a bright spot in the movie and I need to calm down. She plays Nemo’s daughter and doesn’t appear until about half-way through because Nemo keeps her hidden from Aronnax, Cabe, and Ned Land (adequately performed by Bryan Brown, but he’s no Kirk Douglas) in another part of the sub. By the time she comes on, we need a lift in spirits as badly as Aronnax does, and Mara (Mia’s character) succeeds in bringing us both up. She’s the fan of Aronnax’s cryptozoology book and she helps him grow out of his father-issues by loving him for who he already is.

At that point, the rest of the plot becomes believable because there’s a good reason now for Aronnax to want to stay on the Nautalis regardless of Cabe and Ned’s feelings. And those of the hot, island pearl diver who accidentally discovered one of Nemo’s explosives and was forced to come along on the voyage in spite of the captain’s speechifying about liberty. (Her relationship with Cabe was sweet though, so I’m glad she was around.)

I’ve spoiled a lot of the movie, but I’ll leave the end for you to discover if you’re still interested. It’s a crazy ending and I didn’t like it, but I can see why the writers thought they needed to go in that direction. They didn’t, but I can see why they thought they did.

Three out of five hot, island pearl divers.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Rankin Bass’ Festival of Family Classics version)

Growing up in the ’70s, Rankin Bass was the ultimate in TV animation, especially where the holidays were concerned. They’re the guys responsible for about 95% of my favorite Christmas specials as well as Mad Monster Party (which I sadly had to wait until adulthood to discover). So we thought it was very cool in 1972 when Rankin Bass came out with a weekly TV show called Festival of Family Classics where they’d adapt classic stories in their unique style.

It’s probably been since 1972 that I’ve seen an episode, but my memory about them is that they were never quite as cool as they should’ve been. Certainly not as thrilling as the opening title sequence suggested with its parade of awesome characters. There was something thrilling about seeing Johnny Appleseed and Sleeping Beauty share a rainbow bridge with a dragon, a Jack O’Lantern-headed guy, and another dozen or so famous characters from various stories and fairy tales. The adaptations couldn’t possibly live up to that.

Seeing the two-part episode of the 20,000 Leagues adaptation again, the trustworthiness of my memory is confirmed. Rankin Bass abandoned their signature style of animation for it and adopted something closer to Hanna Barbera. That’s pretty cool, actually. A story about a tough guy whaler, a crazed sea captain, and a world-traveling submarine should look more like Johnny Quest than Frosty the Snowman. Where the adaptation goes wrong is in its pandering.

I don’t recall if this was my problem with the show as a kid, but Rankin Bass chose to dumb down the material a significant amount. They turn Conseil into a young boy and make him the focus of the story. Not Ned Land, not Captain Nemo, not even Professor Aronnax. Those guys are all just background characters in Conseil’s story. (I forget if they kept the name Conseil or changed it. I’m thinking they must have changed it.)

The problem is that “Conseil” still doesn’t have anything to do. The real story is going on around him, but he doesn’t participate in it a whole lot. He’s the character we’re supposed to identify with, but all he does is observe, so we’re extremely distanced from the action.

Also, there’s an annoying dolphin named Fifi that follows the Nautilus (whose design is pretty much plagiarized from the Disney version, not that that’s a bad thing) around the world because it’s inexplicably taken a liking to “Conseil.” This becomes important (but no more believable) in the climax when the Nautilus is headed down into the whirlpool and the main characters need saving. So this version does improve on the book in that it at least tries to explain how Aronnax and Company escape the maelstrom.

Other than that though, Rankin Bass follow the novel pretty closely. Too closely, considering my feelings about the book. It’s mostly a series of unrelated stories as the Nautilus travels around the world. There’s no real drama; just a boy and his tag-a-long dolphin friend.

Two out of five giant octopi.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)

Usually by now I’d be feeling the urge to watch some horror movies, but I’m not. I’m still stuck on undersea adventure, so I’ve been watching a 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea marathon. I’m about halfway through, so this and the next couple of posts will be about the three I’ve seen so far (not counting the Richard Crenna one that I saw back in August).

I had to start with the classic. Not because it’s classic, necessarily, but because it was the first one (not counting this one, which I’ve already reviewed), and that’s the kind of geek I am. In addition to looking at story choices, I also groove on noting influences and the Disney version influenced the crap out of all the rest of them.

As well it should. I wasn’t sure if I was going to like it as much as I remember doing as a kid, but if anything, I liked it more. It’s not a faithful adaptation of the book, but as I’ve said before, that’s a good thing. The book sucks.

Of the five versions I’ve seen so far, Disney captures the steampunk quality the best. The Nautilus looks and feels like a real place and it’s a place you’d actually want to live in. It’s got the coolest ship design probably ever, including every spaceship I’ve ever seen. I’d rather have Disney’s Nautilus than the Millenium Falcon and that’s saying a lot.

James Mason as Nemo is also cool. He’s suave and – though creepy – very charismatic. He’s exactly the kind of guy who would build a ship like the Nautilus and who could inspire men to leave their old lives behind and sail her with him. Mason does a fantastic acting job too. When the Nautilus rams a military ship, the conflict on Nemo’s face as he beats the crap out of his pipe organ is powerful. I really believed that Nemo thought he was doing the right thing, but hated it at the same time.

When I talked about the Richard Crenna version, I praised it for introducing an interesting plot that wasn’t in the novel. The novel needed something to pull the story along and the Crenna 20,000 Leagues added a love-triangle between Nemo and Professor Aronnax’s daughter (who took the place of Aronnax’s servant Conseil in that version). It was a good move, but Disney doesn’t have to change the story that significantly to stay interesting.

They keep the manservant, let Peter Lorre play him, and focus on his alliance with Ned Land as the two scheme to escape the Nautilus. The conflict comes from Aronnax’s thinking he can convince Nemo to share his technological advances with the world, if only he has the time. Land and Conseil’s plans threaten Aronnax’s, so the three are constantly challenging each other as Nemo takes them into situation after dangerous situation. I enjoyed that conflict infinitely more than the passionless romance in Crenna’s version.

A huge part of the reason I liked the conflict was because Kirk Douglas is so damn charming. His Ned Land is rough and not that bright, but he knows what he wants and you can’t help but love the guy and that stupid “Whale of a Tale” song he’s always singing. He also has more chemistry with Nemo’s pet seal than, well, anyone did in the Crenna version. (Honestly, I liked the Crenna version at the time, but after seeing this one again, I pretty much hate it in comparison.)

This one’s got the giant squid fight over Crenna’s giant eel too. There’s no explosive harpoon is the Disney one, but they more than make up for it in tentacles and rain and just the sheer manliness of the battle. The special effects also hold up remarkably well. It’s obviously not a real squid, but it moves pretty naturally and is actually scary as it silently races up towards the Nautilus from the depths. It’s much more convincing than the crappy CGI beast in the Michael Caine version, which I’ll talk about later.

The movie ends a lot better than the book. In the book, there’s a whirlpool that sucks the Nautilus down and Verne totally cheats on how Aronnax and Company escape. One second they’re going down with the ship; the next they’re lying on a beach somewhere with no memory of how they got there. The movie finishes with a dramatic battle at Nemo’s island hideout and when the Nautilus and the Aronnax Group go to their separate fates, it’s all believable.

Five out of five giant squids.