20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA. Walt Disney / Buena Vista, 1954. Kirk Douglas, James Mason, Paul Lukas, Peter Lorre. Based on the novel by Jules Verne. Director: Richard Fleischer.

   Although this 1954 Walt Disney production, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea doesn’t quite hit the mark as a cinematic adaptation of a literary text, it nevertheless succeeds wildly as an auditory and visual spectacle. As the first science fiction film to be shot in CinemaScope, this Technicolor film resonates with some absolutely lavish color schemes, beautiful underwater photography, and crisp portraits of the main characters.

   Add to that the wonderful score by Paul Smith, and you have yourself a borderline operatic experience in which repetitive leitmotifs guide the viewer off the California coast, into the vast Pacific, and underneath the ocean in Captain Nemo’s proto-steampunk submarine, the Nautilus.

   Based on the eponymous Jules Verne novel, this Richard Fleischer directed movie features James Mason as Captain Nemo, a mysterious man who is a renegade madman/visionary. He and his crew have been sailing underneath the Pacific in a (for its time) technologically advanced submarine, destroying warships in its wake. On board are his three captives, all survivors of an American naval vessel that he ordered destroyed. The three men could not be more different, in both personality and temperament. There’s the brawny Ned Land (Kirk Douglas); the erudite scientist, Professor Pierre Aronnax (Paul Lukas); and his neurotic, stout assistant, Conseil (Peter Lorre). Of all three four leads, it is Mason and Lorre who steal the show.

   Unfortunately, the film takes its slow time in revealing the thrust of the story; namely, that Captain Nemo was once enslaved on a penal colony and is now seeking revenge against the “hated nation” that persecuted him and was responsible for the death of his family. He’s learned to love life underneath the sea, finding it a palatable alternative to man’s humanity to man on the surface. Problem is: Nemo has become so filled with bitterness and hatred that he doesn’t realize that he’s not all that different from the warmongers he so dramatically opposes.

   But it’s not really the slow moving and predictable plot that makes 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea an enjoyable moving watching experience. Instead, it’s the spectacle of it all. This is a movie in which special effects really are indeed quite special. Case in point is the famous sequence in which Ned Land (Douglas) battles a giant squid. As a Disney film, there are naturally some family friendly moments, such as when Ned sings a seafaring ditty, “A Whale of a Tale,” and a few lighthearted moments with a seal.

   All told, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a work of movie magic, one that I am sure is a completely different experience watched in a theater.