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Film / 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

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A whale of a tale.

There is hope for the future. When the world is ready for a new and better life, all this will someday come to pass... in God's good time.
-Captain Nemo's Last Words

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a 1954 adventure/steampunk film produced by Walt Disney Productions and directed by Richard Fleischer. It is without much doubt the most famous motion picture to be based on the novel of the same name by Jules Verne.

The film featured Kirk Douglas as Ned Land, Paul Lukas as Professor Pierre Aronnax, Peter Lorre as Conseil, and James Mason as Captain Nemo, as well as a memorable design for the Nautilus and, of course, the memorable giant squid attack.

This film contains examples of:

  • Adaptational Alternate Ending: The novel had the heroes escaping with Nemo and the Nautilus left to an Uncertain Doom in the Maelstrom. Here Nemo's enemies attack his island base, Nemo is mortally wounded after setting charges, and the Nautilus sinks to the bottom of the sea with its crew after Nemo's death.
  • Adaptational Heroism: The movie makes Nemo rather more sympathetic, cutting out a number of his Kick the Dog moments from the novel, revealing his true goal (sinking enemy ships) much earlier and giving him the chance to defend his actions with a passionate speech, making his nameless faceless enemy seem much more like an avatar of the worst parts of human nature itself, and his last words (seen in the page quote) are rather hopeful for humanity as a whole. That said...
  • Adaptational Villainy: The film also makes Nemo rather colder than the novel, especially at first glance. He barely tolerates the existence of the three protagonists aboard, and actually carries out what was only threatened in the novel: to exile them to the deck and submerge the Nautilus beneath them, though he does not follow through on "forgetting they ever existed." On balance, this interpretation of Nemo seems much more aware that, while he's not the villain of the story, he is a villain in the story.
  • Age Lift: Arronax and Conseil are played by actors much older (Lukas was 59 and Lorre 50 at the time) than their book counterparts, who are respectively 40 and 30.
  • Alas, Poor Villain: Nemo during the climax, as he stumbles to the window to look at the ocean one last time.
  • All in the Eyes: There is a helpful close-up of Nemo's eyes when he's dancing on the thin edge of insanity, as he has the Nautilus ram a ship full of explosives.
  • All Animals Are Dogs: Esmerelda the sea lion, although it's partly because Ned is deliberately training her to do tricks and/or imitate him.
  • Anti-Villain: Nemo, for all his madness, is genuinely trying to stop an unnamed nation — one that already murdered his family because he refused to hand over his discoveries — from wreaking more destruction on the world.
  • As Long as It Sounds Foreign: An accent example. Aronnax has Paul Lukas' Hungarian accent, which doesn't sound anything close to a French one (more like German). Ironically, Peter Lorre, playing Conseil, is also of Hungarian descent, but provides a convincing French accent - Despite Conseil being Dutch.
  • Attack of the 50-Foot Whatever: A giant squid attacks the Nautilus underwater and the crew are forced to surface in order to dispatch it.
  • Battle in the Rain: The fight against the giant squid takes place at night during a fierce storm.note 
  • Beard of Evil: Nemo sports one and is undeniably a highly intelligent and dangerous man.
  • Big Bad: Captain Nemo, the man responsible for the ship attacks that get our heroes involved in the first place, imprisons them, and nearly kills them all when he lets the Nautilus sink at the end.
  • Big Damn Heroes/Save the Villain: Ned Land arrives in the middle of the giant squid attack, harpoons it right in the eye, and saves Captain Nemo from drowning.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Nemo dies and the fantastic technology of the Nautilus is lost with him, but Aronnax, Conseil, and Ned successfully escape. Nemo's dying words likewise hint that his knowledge will someday be discovered again.
  • Boisterous Bruiser: Ned Land is none too shy about getting in a fight.
  • Canon Foreigner: Esmeralda, the sea lion, doesn't exist in the book.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The bottled messages that Ned throws out with the triangulated coordinates to Nemo's hidden Island Base lead to Nemo's enemies invading it, which forces Nemo to detonate it out of fear that his secrets will be used for war. This also results in Nemo being fatally wounded and, due to his crew's Suicide Pact, causes their demise as well.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Ned's job as a harpooner comes in handy during the fight with the giant squid.
  • Cool Ship: The design of the Nautilus in the film is considered the iconic look for the submarine. It's influenced many designs of the sub, and even appears on some book covers as well.
  • Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass: Ned Land who initially appears to be a feckless charmer, but displays real skill with the harpoon and saves Nemo's life.
  • Cultural Translation: Ned Land's ambiguously American in this version, where in the novel he was unambiguously Canadian.
  • Darker and Edgier: There’s quite a shocking amount of violence and death for a Disney film, especially for the time. Ned’s bawdy sea shanty (even though it's a G-rated bawdy song) is also quite a surprise to see from the studio.
  • Death by Adaptation: Captain Nemo, as well as most of his crew.
  • Defiant Captive: Ned Land, apparently unable to go a scene without attempting to betray Nemo in some small way. This nearly gets him, Arronax, and Conseil killed in the end.
  • The Dying Walk: After being shot, Nemo gives orders to scuttle the Nautilus, then staggers back to his room, collapses, and opens his viewport so he can look out into his beloved ocean one last time just before he dies.
  • Exotic Entree: Nemo serves a sauté of unborn octopus.
  • Explosive Instrumentation: As the Giant Squid attack shorts out the electric deterrent of the Nautilus, the control sparks violently and catches fire.
  • Faceless Goons: The soldiers of the Evil Empire Nemo is fighting are only viewed as silhouettes through a telescope. The director's commentary almost name-drops the trope while discussing them.
  • A Father to His Men: While distant, Nemo obviously cares for his men, from officiating a funeral for a man killed during a warship attack to him getting snared by the giant squid trying to rescue a man who fell overboard. In return, his men are unquestioningly loyal, and willingly follow any order Nemo gives even if it's to sink the Nautilus and die with him.
  • Fictional Country: The unnamed nation that imprisoned Nemo and killed his family since he refused to give them his scientific secrets. Their warships don't even carry flags.
  • Foil: Ned is shown as one to Captain Nemo; Ned's red and white shirt contrasts with Nemo's dark blue uniform, Ned is warm and passionate where Nemo is cold and callous, Ned is obsessed with getting back to land where Nemo wants to be as far as possible from it - Ned is The Everyman where Nemo is the Übermensch.
  • Foreign Queasine: Nemo gleefully informs his guests what they're eating as he serves them dinner. Aronnax and Conseil put on brave face (Aronnax a bit more successfully, and seems to actually enjoy the seafood once he gets over the surprise), but Ned angrily exclaims "Nothing here's fit to eat!" With filet of sea snake standing in for veal, sea cucumber preserves, sperm whale milk cream, and sauté of unborn octopus for pudding, Ned simply can't keep his disgust off his face.note 
  • Forgotten Phlebotinum: The laser that Nemo uses to drive off a shark probably would have been useful against the giant squid.
  • Giant Squid: One grabs onto the ship, and the crew has to surface in the middle of a storm in order to drive it off. It is the Trope Codifier for the modern age, and is unquestionably the most famous example in the history of film, if not all other forms of media.
  • The Good, the Bad, and the Evil: The three protagonists who just want to get on with their lives, versus Captain Nemo waging his one-ship war against The Empire, versus the nameless, faceless Empire, which is more or less the quintessence of all the bad parts of human nature.
  • Greater-Scope Villain: The unnamed nation Nemo is waging his one-ship war against. Whoever they are, they are certainly presented as ruthless enough that Nemo's tactics in dealing with them are, at least to him and his crew, entirely justified, and it is they who form the final challenge Nemo and the protagonists must deal with before the end.
  • Grudging "Thank You": After Ned saves Nemo from the giant squid. It's the former for Nemo and the latter for Ned, despite the fact that he did the rescuing.note 
  • Heel–Face Door-Slam: Nemo was that close to letting go of his misanthropy and sharing his advancements and discoveries with the world. If only those soldiers hadn't found their way to Vulcania just at that moment...
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: After Ned saves Nemo from the squid, they both question how that could have happened, and Ned decides that the only thing he can do after making a mistake like that is to "get drunk!"
  • Improbable Age: Conseil is called Arronaux's apprentice, but is played by fifty-one-year-old Peter Lorre.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold:
    • Ned can be crass, insulting, self-centered, and prone to stealing any treasure he can find, but he does befriend Conseil, expresses anger over the murder of fellow sailors, and saves Nemo from the giant squid.
    Nemo: Actually, he regrets saving my life as much as I would regret saving his. The only difference is that I wouldn't have tried.
    Arronax: It is that difference that gives Ned Land a human dignity you no longer possess.
    • On the other end of the spectrum, Nemo could have let Arronax, Ned, and Conseil drown but chooses to take them in and allow them free reign aboard the Nautilus instead. In the end, it's even implied he'd have ended his war on humanity if his enemies hadn't found his base first.
  • Leitmotif: Both Ned and Nemo each have their own. Ned's is the song that he sings early in the film, "A Whale of a Tale". Nemo's is a piece called "Deep is the Mighty Ocean", which represents not only the depths of the ocean but also the depths of Nemo's soul. Both themes are used in different styles, depending on the scene of the film.
  • Love Makes You Evil: Captain Nemo's wife and child were killed by an unnamed nation since he refused to divulge his scientific discoveries.
  • My Fist Forgives You: Ned punches Conseil before admitting friendship. And then, generously, allows Conseil to hit him in return.
    Ned: Go ahead! [sticks out chin]
    Conseil: Well if you insist. [punches Ned in the stomach]
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Ned and Conseil try sending messages in bottles with the location of Nemo's Island Base hoping for a rescue; the bottles end up in the hands of Nemo's enemies and they attack the base, just as Nemo was announcing his intentions to share his secrets with the world. It also leads to Nemo getting fatally shot and his decision to sink the Nautilus with all aboard, nearly killing Ned, Conseil, and Professor Arronax, none of whom wanted to go down with the ship and had to fight their way out.
  • No, Mr. Bond, I Expect You to Dine: The dinner party. See also: Foreign Queasine.
  • "Number of Objects" Title
  • Offscreen Moment of Awesome: Prior to the events of the story, Nemo and his crew escaped slavery on an island, found their way to an uncharted island in the Pacific, developed nuclear fission, and then built a metal submarine capable of devastating the most powerful ships of the time, all with no real explanation given as to how other than referencing Nemo's genius.
  • Oh, Crap!: When Ned sees the impaled skulls and realizes the jungle is NOT friendly. He immediately turns around and moves his ass back to Conseil and the Nautilus. For his part, Conseil hears the native drums, drops the coconuts he's carrying, and hauls ass to the skiff, getting it well away from shore before Ned reappears on the beach.
  • Old Media Are Evil: Some subtext to this, when the reporters unabashedly twist Professor Arronax's words. All he actually says is that he's open to the possibility of a sea monster being the culprit, since so far he has no evidence to rule it out. The reporter then invents a sketch of the monster and writes and article that makes it sound like Arronax comes down firmly on the "monster" side of the debate.
  • Ominous Pipe Organ: Nemo plays one. Cut to Ned tuning him out with a homemade banjo.
  • Only Sane Man: Conseil and Ned see Nemo for what he is and are actively looking for ways to escape, while Arronax is too awestruck by the Nautilus and Nemo's scientific discoveries.
  • The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything: In the opening scenes of the movie we see 3 ships sunk or crippled on-screen by the Nautilus, and it's clear that several other ships have met similar fates. But once the main characters come on board, Nemo and his men only attack one ship on-screen over the course of many months - and dialogue supports that this is the only ship attacked in that time period, so we know he didn't go after any other ships during any time skips. The movie implies that Nemo halts his attacks for a time so as to take Arronax under his wing and show him the marvels of the ship and underwater life, only resuming them when he feels that the professor is firmly on his side.
  • POW Camp: Nemo and his crew were imprisoned in the fictional camp Rura Penthe before they escaped and built the Nautilus.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: Of a sort. Screenwriter Earl Felton found the novel more of a travelogue than a story, so he rejiggered it into a "prison break" narrative.
  • Precision F-Strike: Captain Nemo uses the word "Hell" once in this film. Odd, considering that this is a Disney movie that's rated G.
  • Race Lift: Captain Nemo, who is definitely Caucasian in this version, as opposed to the Ambiguously Brown character in the book. This version is presumably Polish, as the literary character was originally meant to be, in contrast with the book's Indian, which he ended up being in the final product.
  • Ramming Always Works: How the Nautilus destroys ships, building up enough speed to slice open the bottom of the wooden target with its reinforced metal hull. Bites them in the butt with the final ship we see destroyed, the volatile weapon material in the ship's hold explodes from the impact before the Nautilus gets to a safe distance and damages the rudder.
  • Running Gag: Ned Land repeatedly rubs Conseil's head in an affectionate manner, brushing his (very short) hair back, and Conseil brushes it forward again each time.
    • A musical tone plays anytime a person, animal, or object falls down.
  • Seadog Beard: Nemo has one, though a little more neatly-trimmed than most, befitting his Wicked Cultured status.
  • Shock and Awe: The outer hull of the Nautilus can be electrified to administer painful shocks to anything or anyone in contact with it. This capability proves very effective against a tribe of cannibals who climb on board the ship, causing no serious injuries but inducing them all to jump off into the water and get back aboard their canoes and row away. It's initially effective against the giant squid as well, causing it to let go of the Nautilus, but when the squid grabs on again more firmly, the defense system fails and shorts out.
  • Shout-Out: Their names are only said once so it's easy to miss, but Ned's girls at the start of the movie are named Minnie and Daisy.
  • Steampunk: Harper Goff's design of the Nautilus may well be the Trope Codifier, as was Disney's decision to stage this as a period piece rather than attempt to modernize it (as did the earlier War of the Worlds). An oddity, though, compared to later versions of Steampunk is that the Nautilus is powered by a nuclear reactor made a century ahead of its time, rather than a steam engine.
  • Suicide Pact: The Nautilus crew are sworn to follow Nemo anywhere, even in death. When he's mortally wounded and guides the Nautilus to her final resting place beneath the sea, they commit themselves to their quarters without question to await the inevitable.
  • Survival Through Self-Sacrifice: Nemo is ready to spare Arronax but not Conseil or Ned Land, leaving them to drown when the Nautilus submerges. Arronax goes back to die with his friends, leading Nemo to spare all three.
  • Sweet Seal: Captain Nemo (and later, Ned Land) gets a Nonhuman Sidekick in the form of Esmeralda the sea lion, in true Disney tradition.
  • Taking You with Me: After a mortally-wounded Nemo plants the bomb to blow up Vulcania and plans to take the Nautilus to the ocean floor for the last time, his understanding crew confines Ned, Arronax and Conseil to their quarters, intending that they go with him. However, this is averted as Ned rebels and escapes with Arronax and Conseil (and also Nemo's pet sea lion) in the nick of time.
  • Team Pet: Esmeralda the sea lion, who changes loyalties from Nemo to Ned through the film.
  • Tentacled Terror: In possibly the most memorable sequence from the film, the Nautilus crew takes on a giant squid amid a storm at sea and it nearly succeeds in killing Nemo until Ned happens along.
  • The World Is Not Ready: How Nemo justifies keeping his scientific discoveries a secret, since humans would only use them for war and destruction. Arronax comes to the same conclusion at the film's end.
  • Undying Loyalty: Nemo's crew will follow him anywhere even in death.
  • What the Hell, Hero?:
    • Ned Land frequently gives these to Nemo.
    • Arronax gives one to Nemo, after he sinks a warship loaded with gunpowder.
    • Conseil gives one to Arronax for defending Nemo, even calling him "captain".
    • Arronax gives one to Ned for sending the bottles with Vulcania's location, which lead to Nemo destroying the secrets he finally ready to unveil to the world.
  • Wicked Cultured: Nemo keeps a small library and elegant furnishings on the Nautilus, and that pipe organ on which he plays Bach.
  • Worthless Yellow Rocks: Nemo has collected much treasure from the ocean's depth but doesn't take any great value in it, in fact he uses it for ballast, much to Ned's chagrin.
  • You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: Not that Nemo saw Ned Land as particularly useful, nor did Ned go out of his way to prove otherwise, but after Ned's escape attempt nearly gets the Nautilus invaded by cannibals, Nemo finally has enough of him and confines Ned to the brig with a thinly veiled implication that he will be permanently dealt with soon after.
  • Your Terrorists Are Our Freedom Fighters: How Nemo justifies sinking ships - they are from a belligerent nation that carry tools for war, so he is merely avenging those who have been needlessly killed, along with the slaves forced to produce the materials.