20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA
***/**** Image B- Sound A- Extras A+
starring Kirk Douglas, James Mason, Paul Lukas, Peter Lorre
screenplay by Earl Felton, based on the novel by Jules Verne
directed by Richard Fleischer
ATLANTIS: MILO'S RETURN
*½/**** Image C+ Sound A- Extras D+
screenplay by Thomas Hart & Henry Gilroy & Kevin Hopps & Tad Stones & Steve Englehart & Marty Isenberg
directed by Victor Cook, Toby Shelton, Tad Stones
"Climb aboard the Nautilus...and into a strange undersea world of spellbinding adventure! Kirk Douglas, Paul Lukas and Peter Lorre star as shipwrecked survivors taken captive by the mysterious Captain Nemo, brilliantly portrayed by James Mason. Wavering between genius and madness, Nemo has launched a deadly crusade across the seven seas. But can the captive crew expose his evil plan before he destroys the world?" --DVD liner summary for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
by Bill Chambers The trained seal is impressive, but enough about Kirk Douglas. Disney's epic live-action adaptation of the Jules Verne novel, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea proves three things over the course of its thick running time: that director Richard Fleischer (the man who brought us Fantastic Voyage, the film that inspired Innerspace) was a gifted special-effects marshall--20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is still eye- popping/fooling forty-nine years after its release; that James Mason essayed the cinema's definitive Bligh archetype; and that there's always some asshole in a striped shirt in submarine movies. (Here it's Douglas's scurvy harpoonist Ned Land.) What's surprising is how prosaic the film can be with so many assets in place, i.e., Mason, the Seussian interiors of the Nautilus, head-hunters, an enthralling killer squid, a seal with the charisma of Fred Astaire, and an especially vein-popping Douglas.
As a toddler, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea put me to sleep even faster than Star Wars did (sorry), but I always cut the film significant slack for having suffered an amputating pan-and-scan video transfer, as this was Disney's first and ultimately one of its few CinemaScope productions. On DVD, the picture is so severely letterboxed that we grow tired another way, straining to see it, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is plodding besides, filled with enough mock-losophy for a third Matrix sequel. Earl Felton's indisputably sophisticated script is yet another to fall victim to the overzealous homage of subsequent entries in the underwater power-struggle genre (The Hunt for Red October, Crimson Tide, Atlantis: The Lost Empire (see sidebar), and even the Dark Castle Ghost Ship come to mind) that it minted; we can give a movie credit where credit is due while admitting that it sometimes exists in its own shadow. Though often breathtaking--the picture contains the most astonishing F/X predating the work of master illusionist Douglas Trumbull--and appealingly sinister, a few barnacles have sprouted up around 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
Maybe the cheapest-looking direct-to-video animated sequel from Disney yet, Atlantis: Milo's Return is lamer than its predecessor but arguably more entertaining, since it's like three "Scooby-Doo" episodes strung together as opposed to the loud, incomprehensible, and ponderous dry-run for (the similarly tedious) Treasure Planet that was Atlantis: The Lost Empire. When the ragtag crew that found Atlantis returns to the underwater city to pick the brain of fearless leader Milo Thatch (voice of James Arnold Taylor; Michael J. Fox was the only actor from the original to bow out of this follow-up), everyone, including Milo's Atlantean girlfriend Kida (Cree Summer), ventures--on a quest for what, beats me--first to a ghost town in the Nordic mountains (where they battle a Verne-ian octopus called "The Kraken"), then to the American southwest (where an Indian elder plays that hilarious old joke where he threatens to kill them by summoning coyotes from Hell after they stave off a threat to his people), then to the home of philanthropist Preston Whitmore (John Mahoney), who was minding his own business one evening when a Viking demon broke in and stole his favourite Scandinavian spear. We also get an epilogue that functions as an eleventh-hour subversion of all that was accomplished in the first film--the excuse Disney completists have been waiting for to avoid watching the justly-maligned, albeit kind of gorgeous, Atlantis: The Lost Empire. Stay away from this one, too, but if you're hostage to it, know that it's relatively painless.
Carrying the "Vault Disney" tag within its platters but not on the cover art itself, Disney's THX-certified, 2-disc Special Edition of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (overseen by production house Sparkhill) presents the film at its original, true CinemaScope aspect ratio of 2.55:1 in a transfer enhanced for 16x9 displays. The details are so intricate and each shot is so busy as to, when combined with a consistent, video-ish ghosting artifact, inhibit absolute crispness of image. Mild, welcome grain helps maintain the persuasion of celluloid, though, while saturation is strong and hues seem much more accurate than the pink tones of the film's VHS and LaserDisc incarnations. Audio has been remastered in 5.1 Dolby Digital to striking effect, with explosions, somewhat jarringly, giving off a rumble to challenge the Earthquake Sensurround experience. Voices do not exhibit the lispy quality of Fifties soundtracks and are firmly anchored in the centre channel. Surround gimmickry is used sparingly--the rear speakers are most apparent during the tribal siege and squid attack.
Film historian Rudy Behlmer pumps director Fleischer for information on Disc 1's feature-length yakker, but the commentary is rendered instantly obsolete by Disc 2's 88-minute "The Making of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea", which covers all facets of the production with candour, humour, and nostalgia. Although a post-stroke Douglas is difficult to decipher now and again, his memories, especially of co-star Lorre, are fond and delightful. Fleischer, meanwhile, recalls with awe being courted despite his pedigree (he's the son of Max Fleischer, head of Disney's then-rival animation studio) and remembers sympathetically the memory problems that often led actor Paul Lukas to lash out at cast and crew. The material here just gets richer as the doc progresses--frankly, I don't want to spoil it for you.
Other video-based supplements include the featurettes "Jules Verne and Walt Disney: Exploring the Imagination" (16 mins.), in which university professor George A. Slusser asserts that Verne was the Stephen King of his generation; "The Humboldt Squid: A Real Monster!" (7 mins.), an unsettling facts-about-giant-squids piece hosted by oceanographer Scott Cassell; "The Musical Legacy of Paul Smith" (11 mins.), a tribute to the composer of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and such other Disney films as Pinocchio (for which he won an Oscar); "Monsters of the Deep" (7 mins.), a black-and-white TV short made to promote 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Walt discusses the squid battle and Douglas is stripped of his guitar by a prop man); "Touring the Nautilus" (5 min.), a sequence of blueprints that blur the line between fact and fiction (are we to think they were they sketched by Walt's or Nemo's crew?); "Movie Merchandise" (6 mins.), a press conference-style interview with the Brooks brothers, collectors of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea memorabilia; and "Production Gallery", a 3-minute montage of production stills.
And that ain't all. Capping off Disc 1 is the usual assortment of start-up trailers (Pirates of the Caribbean, Finding Nemo, X-Men: The Legend of Wolverine, Atlantis: Milo's Return) plus a rare, charming (if patently offensive) CinemaScope cartoon starring Donald Duck, Grand Canyonscope (7 mins.), offered in 2.55:1 anamorphic widescreen. Disc 2 resurrects "The Sunset Squid Fight"--the initial, spectacularly failed stab at the squid tussle, reconstructed from colour 16mm outtakes (it's Ed Wood cheesy)--as well as the "unused animation" that realized, with limited success, Fleischer's idea for bioluminescent fish to swim past Nemo's porthole. Galleries of production stills, production art, filmmaker biographies, posters, lobby cards, merchandise, set documents (call sheets and the like), and a screenplay excerpt of the film's climax (Felton had a beautiful command of language), three radio spots, storyboard-to-screen comparisons for the scuba and squid scenes, an outtakes reel, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea's 1954 theatrical trailer finish off this exhaustive treasure chest of a DVD. Simply put, Disney may never top this A+ effort.
Atlantis: Milo's Return arrives on DVD in a pillarboxed, 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer with a distracting amount of edge-enhancement, thus negating the pristine condition of the master. An inexpressive soundmix comes in same-tasting DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 flavours. Trailers for Pirates of the Caribbean, The Haunted Mansion, The Jungle Book 2, Stitch!, Bionicle: The Movie - The Mask of Light, and "Kim Possible" round out the disc alongside a kid-aimed game ("Search for the Spear of Destiny") and a deleted scene ("Kraken Baby Sequence") that restores a cheeky ending to one chapter of the film. Originally published: May 20, 2003.