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|Kevin Krock, editor|
20,000 Leagues Under The Sea has always been one of my favorite Disney live-action movies. The story is a captivating mix of adventure, humor, and drama, and this lavish production features wonderfully unique, detailed, and fantastic settings. It is just one of those movies that sucks you in and keeps you watching.
Drawing its inspiration from the core of Jules Verne's rather disjointed and muddled story, Disney's version changes and adds little bits here and there to unify the plot and make the movie more entertaining. What results is an adventure story that follows Captain Nemo (wonderfully played by James Mason), an unstable but genius sea captain, as he pits his incredible submarine Nautilus against the world in an effort to bring peace to the surface of Earth.
Early in the story, Nemo attacks a Navy ship and subsequently rescues and essentially imprisons a few survivors, including a spirited harpooner, Ned Land (played by Kirk Douglas) and the Conseil (played by Peter Lorre). From there, the prisoners work to make their escape while marveling at the magnificent and peaceful undersea world.
While they try to persuade Nemo to share his technical marvels with the world, they encounter all sorts of trouble, like cannibals, a giant squid, and a few warships. Ultimately, Nemo chooses not to reveal his powerful secrets to the world, and his selfishness puts the rest of the crew and the rescued prisoners in harm's way.
As if the exciting story, great acting, and impressive visuals were not enough, 20,000 Leagues, which was directed by Richard Fleischer (son of early animation pioneer Max Fleischer), won two Academy Awards in 1954 for Best Special Effects and Best Art Direction. When you see this movie, you will understand why. After seeing this a few times since picking up the DVD, I just wish I could see it in Cinemascope on a big screen again. It truly is a classic family adventure movie, and one of Walt Disney's most memorable live-action films.
Before discussing the goodies, I thought this would be a good time to explain a little marketing change that Disney recently made. On the outside, this two-disc set is a seemingly unassuming special edition, but if you recall the four wonderful Vault Disney collection DVDs introduced last year, you will have a good idea of the high level of quality present in this set. For some reason, Disney has decided to drop the Vault Disney moniker from the recent and future classic movie special edition DVDs. My guess is that the term vault conjured up general consumer thoughts of old, forgotten movies rather than classic family entertainment. Regardless, 20,000 Leagues is indeed one of those Vault Disney DVD sets, and the bonus material and look closely model those of the previous sets in the collection.
Turning to the goodies, the list on the DVD cover and press release looks very impressive, but you cannot really appreciate the full scope until you pop the discs in and start sifting through all this great material. It is an awesome collection of goodies for both film buffs and families.
Starting with Disc One, there are really only two bonus items besides the movie. The first is the Grand Canyonscope Donald Duck animated short, which accompanied the film's original theatrical release. The most significant difference between this Donald short and other Disney animated shorts is that this one was intended to be shown in Cinemascope to match the film's very wide aspect ratio, and the animators and story folks took full advantage of that.
The second item is the very interesting, all-new, full-length audio commentary by Director Richard Fleischer and film historian Rudy Behlmer. The tone of this commentary takes on a more interview-like style rather than the traditional style of two people simultaneously talking about a particular scene.
Behlmer typically asks questions about particular scenes or historical events around the movie, and Fleischer fills in the details. Occasionally, Behlmer makes a comment here or there, but his main role seems to act as a catalyst to help Fleischer talk about his movie. It may sound a bit odd, but it is structured enough to keep on topic, nicely paced, entertaining, information filled, and actually ends up working quite well.
Disc Two carries the bulk of the bonus material, and as you can see from the sidebar, there is a load of stuff! Of particular interest is the very comprehensive, 87-minute documentary, The Making of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. This wonderful show covers every aspect of how the movie was made, from storyboard to premiere, and it does so in an entertaining and interesting way with rare archive film footage, interviews, and still art.
Given the grand scope and expense of this movie for the 1950s, just the fact that it was successfully completed is impressive, and after watching the documentary, you will have a greater appreciation for just how much the production team was pushing not only the limits of technology but also the financial limits of the Disney Studio. It is a real treat.
There are a couple of other smaller documentaries that are also worth watching. The first is a 16-minute featurette called, Jules Verne & Walt Disney: Explorers of the Imagination, which compares the genius of these two masters of imagination and shows how the joining of these two minds across time was inevitable. It is interesting to see the similarities between the two, and the historical perspective on Verne is nice for those unfamiliar with either his works or the impact they had on the readers of his time.
The second documentary is a seven-minute featurette called, The Humboldt Squid: A Real Sea Monster. This show looks at a rather aggressive type of squid that live off the coast of Mexico, and it is quite interesting.
Another of my favorite goodies on this disc is the three-minute Lost Treasure: The Sunset Squid sequence. This shows the famous squid battle as it was originally conceived and shot, and it is just about as hokey as it gets. The fight takes place on a calm sea at sunset, and everything looks fake and poorly acted. When Walt saw it, he insisted that Fleischer rethink the sequence and come up with something better. After all, this was one of the big climaxes of the movie, and the believability of the movie hinged on this sequence. All of the 35 mm copies of the original sequence were destroyed, but a 16 mm behind-the-scenes reel was discovered and pieced back together based on storyboards. As slick as the final movie looks, it is a lot of fun to see some of the growing pains that the producers endured which eventually made the movie much stronger.
In addition to those great tidbits, here are a few other goodies worth watching or listening to:
To top it all of, there are also several extensive still galleries, a couple of storyboard-to-film comparisons, Nemo's organ music, a theatrical trailer, biographies of the cast, and a screenplay excerpt of Nemo's death. It is an amazing array of material, and it exceeds the expectations set by the bonus material compiled for the first four Vault Disney titles.
Do I have any complaints? Only two:
First, Disc One still has autoplay previews, and it would be nice to just keep them as separate entities on these special editions.
Second, the DVD insert is a cheesy one page listing of the movie's chapter stops. It would be nice if Disney included a map of the bonus features on Disc Two so it would be easier to pinpoint where to find a particular item. Both of these are relatively minor annoyances but should in no way deter you from getting this wonderful collection.
The Video, Audio and Interface
For a movie of this vintage, the video transfer blew me away. Before I put the disc in, I remembered the very rough, almost machine-washed look of the Treasure Island transfer. But from the first frame to finish, 20,000 Leagues has been beautifully restored. The detail is sharp, and the colors are solid and nicely balanced. The dark scenes have an impressive depth to them, and the dark colors are not faded or washed out at all. It is just a pleasure to see how nice this movie looks after all these years. Best of all, the transfer is in anamorphic widescreen, so you can fully enjoy the beautiful Cinemascope shot framing. I just wish I had a widescreen TV to watch it on.
The audio has also been restored and remastered, and it makes a perfect complement to the restored video. While not as dynamic as modern 5.1 surround soundtracks, this new 5.1 mix has enough surround effects and audio to keep things interesting without it sounding unnatural. It is a fine line to walk, but it works nicely and should play well on any home theater system.
As for the interface, it too perfectly complements the movie and gets you in the mood right from the start. Awash in themed animated screens and screen transitions, this interface is a good demonstration of how a simple-to-navigate menu system can be assembled with all the right touches to show off the potential of DVD as an immersive home video medium. Additionally, as previously mentioned, the interface on Disc Two is identical to the one on the previous Vault Disney DVDs. It is a fun and interesting design that works very nicely with the content.
The Final Evaluation
This is simply a must-have set for any family video library. This classic family adventure movie looks and sounds wonderful with its remastered and restored transfer, and the massive collection of bonus material will have you exploring this set for hours. For about $18 at your local warehouse store or online, this set is a steal, and you shouldn't miss it.
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