Walt Disney is a major force in the lives of modern kids, whether you like it or not.
Their brand is so omnipresent, so in your face, that it seems like they absorb it almost by osmosis. For example, why do kids love Mickey Mouse? How often do you actually see Mickey Mouse cartoons these days? How many kids have actually seen anything with Mickey in it aside from clips? When you go to any Disney park, obviously Mickey is a huge presence, and mouse ears are probably the single highest-selling piece of merchandise at the parks, with kids thrilled to wear them. But… why?
I’ve noticed it in my own kids. On Allen’s third birthday, we took him to Disneyland for his first trip there. The whole ride down to Anaheim, Toshi worked to get Allen hyped up, telling him how cool Mickey’s house was, and by the time we hit the parking garage, Allen was basically hovering a foot above his chair, like a hummingbird, superexcited, and when he saw the posts in the garage that you use to find your car later, he pointed and started to bellow “IT’S MICKEY! I SEE MICKEY! LOOK! THERE’S MICKEY! MIIIIICKKKEEEEEEEY!”
This is a kid who’s never seen a single scene that Mickey Mouse even appears in, and yet he’s acting like it’s Shea Stadium 1964 and the Beatles just hit the stage.
In many ways, the history of Disney exists as this single amorphous mass that people start digesting as soon as they’re exposed to media. People absorb images and scenes and impressions more than they actually watch the individual films or the cartoons. I find it fascinating that Disney will include a ride like Splash Mountain at Disneyland, but they won’t release the movie, “Song Of The South,” that is the source of all of the imagery you see on the ride. They’re happy to include Br’er Rabbit and Br’er Bear and Br’er Fox, but they still keep the film locked in the vault. All they really need from the movie is the iconography, the stuff they can throw on T-shirts and make stuffed animals from, and the movie itself is almost irrelevant.
When you see the title “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” what do you think of first?
I’m betting it’s the giant squid attacking the Nautilus. That’s the image that has been the go-to clip they use any time they reference the film or include it in a montage, and it must have been a spectacular moment for audiences when they first saw it in theaters in 1954. It is a great set piece, but it’s almost incidental when you see the movie. It’s got nothing to do with the rest of the movie thematically. It’s basically a big action beat that happens to keep things lively in the midst of what is a fairly somber adventure movie, all things considered.
When the boys and I were picking movies out for this year’s Film Nerd 2.0 line-up, they were the ones who stopped me when I turned to the page with “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea” on it. “That one says Disney on it,” Toshi observed. “That means we can watch it, right? Because it’s Disney.”
That’s certainly the idea. That’s the image that Disney sells, and the reason they have separate arms for more adult fare like Touchstone, Miramax, or Hollywood Pictures. I’ve certainly had a long-time affection for the film, and was excited about showing it to the boys. But I was also curious to see how they’d react to it, because it is a story that throws some strange moral curveballs at the viewer.
I’ve been out of town for a few days, and so I knew the boys wanted to spend some time together. I made dinner for us, and in addition to the movie, I picked a disc of Mickey Mouse cartoons to show before we started the film. We ended up watching five of the cartoons included on “Mickey Mouse In Color, Vol. 2,” and the boys had a good time with them. I’m struck by how much less precise the plotting and the comedy is in an average Disney cartoon than in the cartoon shorts that Warner Bros. produced. There’s a reason we revere Disney for the features and not for the shorts. The shorts were good business at the time, but they haven’t aged particularly well. They are good, and there are highlights along the way that are absolutely worth celebrating, but the five cartoons we watched were all just sort of loose and shapeless and gag reels with no real precision.
The one that they enjoyed the most, “Society Dog Show,” was more of a Pluto cartoon than a Mickey cartoon, and afterwards, the two characters they liked the most were Donald and Pluto. I’m not surprised. I’ve always found Mickey to be a sort of non-character. I don’t think he’s well-defined, and I never really found him to be that funny as a lead. In “Orphan’s Benefit,” they laughed at the constant abuse of Donald and his increasingly broad reactions. In “Mickey’s Birthday Party,” it was Goofy’s attempts to bake a cake that they enjoyed. In cartoon after cartoon, it is the supporting cast that registers, not Mickey.
And yet if I ask the kids tomorrow, I’m sure they’ll tell me that they love Mickey Mouse. Because they do. Just because.
When we started the feature, there were a lot of questions. Neither of the boys is familiar with Jules Verne yet, so they were coming to the movie cold. Toshi knew there was a submarine or a boat or something like that because he saw it on the actual DVD before I put it in. But other than that, I told them nothing.
It got them hooked early. The film starts with a mysterious attack on a boat by a “monster” that has glowing eyes and races along just under the surface of the ocean. Toshi right away told me that it wasn’t a monster, but a submarine. He wanted to know why it sank the ship, and I told him to wait and to watch. The film takes a little time introducing Professor Pierre Aronnax (Paul Lukas), his assistant Conseil (Peter Lorre), and the sailor Ned Land (Kirk Douglas). The Professor and Conseil are trying to get to Shanghai for some work, and their travel plans have been disrupted by a number of attacks on boats and reports of the monster that’s been busy. Ned Land thinks the story is a bunch of rubbish, and his vocal disapproval of the stories in the street lead to a brawl and an arrest. The Professor and Conseil are approached by the government and asked to head to sea with a military vessel to either prove or disprove the rumors. They set sail with Captain Farragut (Ted de Corsia), who doesn’t believe any of it, and for a while, they search, seeing only dolphins and whales.
That entire section of the story is interesting but not especially action-packed. The kids were entertained by Kirk Douglas doing his big musical number, “A Whale Of A Tale,” and the chorus “I swear on my tattoo” made Allen belly-laugh every time it was sung for some reason. But once the ship is attacked by the monster and Aroonax and Conseil and Ned all end up overboard, the boys got quiet, engrossed in the mystery that the film lays out. When they discover the Nautilus on the surface, seemingly empty, Toshi was pleased to be proven right. “I told you it was a submarine. I knew it. I knew there wasn’t no monster in the movie.”
James Mason makes a grand entrance as Captain Nemo, and from the very first scene he’s in, he plays it haunted, damned, a man who knows full well that there is no place for him in the world. I think Mason is one of those guys who left so many highlights behind on his filmography that we almost take his greatness for granted. We shouldn’t. He was fiercely intelligent, and he made fascinating choices in his work. His Nemo is quite mad from the moment we meet him, but he’s driven mad for all the right reasons. The things he hates, the wrongs he wishes to right, they are genuine evils, and Nemo is right to rage against them. It’s just that his methods are all wrong. That makes him a complicated moral figure, and over the course of the film, Toshi got really tied in knots trying to figure out his own reaction to Nemo’s struggles.
The moment we had to stop the film to talk about midway through is when Nemo takes the Professor to a small island where he shows him an active and hearty slave trade, a massive work camp full of forced laborers being harshly treated. Toshi asked me some very pointed questions about slavery and who it could happen to. “How do they make the people be the slaves?” he asked.
“They hurt them. They kill them. They hurt and kill their families.”
“But they can’t do that now, right? That’s just in the movie, right?”
“There are still places in the world where that sort of thing does happen.”
“But not for real, right?”
“Yeah. For real.” So when we turned the film back on and Nemo talked about the punishment that should rain down on these slavers, Toshi seemed like he was all good with that. He was onboard. Death to the bad guys.
But the film doesn’t really play it that way. Nemo’s got the right motives, but the wrong idea. He’s prepared to flush humanity down the drain because of what is wrong with it, motivated by how important he knows the good of it is. He believes in the better nature of man, but he also believes the better nature is fighting a losing battle with the worse nature. Evil is stronger than good in Nemo’s worldview. And he’d rather take the world out on his terms and for his reasons than let it destroy itself.
And as the film makes that more and more clear, it’s harder and harder to side with Nemo. The Professor struggles with his two different reactions, trying to reconcile them. On the one hand, he is dazzled by the discoveries Nemo has made, the entire world of self-sustaining life that he has carved out on the ocean’s floor. He also realizes that Nemo’s mastery of the atom, which is also his mastery of energy, is a step forward for all of mankind, a genuine evolutionary leap. They don’t call it nuclear power in the film, but it obviously is. This is a post-WWII film, and the film definitely casts Nemo in the role of Oppenheimer. America was still digesting what they’d done, and just as the Japanese films of the era reflect their attempts to express what it felt like to have the bomb dropped on them, we were trying to grapple with what it felt like to be the ones who dropped it.
The film ultimately rejects Nemo, but I like that his crew stays true to him till the bitter end. They are loyal to Nemo because they come from the same place as him, have suffered the same pain as him, and bear the same scars as him. He lost his family, and they lost theirs. They understand him, and they’re ready to do anything for him. Toshi got anxious about Nemo’s fate, and when he is shot escaping his island hide-out, Toshi seemed really upset. “They’re going to fix him, right? On his ship, they can fix him and make him better, right?”
I wouldn’t answer the question. I told him to watch, and he got closer to me on the couch. Tense. Once it became clear that Nemo was going to go down with the ship, Toshi held my hand. Upset. “Dad, why don’t they fix him?”
“I think it’s too late for that.”
“But he can’t die. He’s got all the good science and he wants to do, to help all the people. So he’s a hero, so he can’t die.”
“You know he killed all those sailors, though, buddy. He was wrong. Even though he wanted to do good things for the right reasons.”
“I know, but he could do the good stuff, too, right? He was going to show people how to do all the good stuff.”
The escape from the Nautilus is exciting and well-staged, and very sad. By the time the island goes up at the end, a huge rolling mushroom cloud rising from “an explosion, the likes of which the world has never seen,” Toshi was curled into me, holding my arm. “Dad,” he said, “that movie’s sad at the end. Captain Nemo died, and that made me feel like I could cry.”
“That is sad. You’re right.”
“I wish he didn’t do it wrong. I wish he could have been all good.”
I asked him if that meant he didn’t like the film, or if he would have liked the movie more if Nemo was just a good guy. He thought about it.
“No, I liked it like this. Because he was sad. And they took his dog away at the end. That’s the saddest part of all.”
By “dog,” of course, he was referring to Esmerelda, Nemo’s pet seal, and the star of the film as far as Allen was concerned. When Esme first shows up, Allen got up and pointed at the TV, ecstatic. “Daddy, they got a SEAL!”
“Yep. She’s like Captain Nemo’s dog.”
That delighted him. “Yeah! He’s got a SEAL! And she’s a DOG!””
And every time she showed up, he clapped for her. He loved her scenes with Kirk Douglas. Loved watching her eat Nemo’s seaweed cigars. He loved her without hesitation. Just plain giddy every time she was onscreen.
The giant squid attack, the image that dominates in terms of famous moments from this film, is pretty exciting and well-staged, and even if the effects are basic by today’s standards, they work well because of how clever they are, how carefully shot. The relationship between Ned and Nemo intrigued Toshi, because he knew that Ned didn’t like the way Nemo did things. He understood that Ned was the film’s real hero, even though he was stealing at one point in the movie, chipping away at Nemo’s stash of treasure. His moral lapse was far less serious than Nemo’s, the film is careful to point out, and Toshi seemed to get the basics of that. He knew that Ned was the one who had the most uncomplicated idea of right or wrong, so when Ned rescued Nemo even though he didn’t agree with him, it made an impression on Toshi.
At the end of the film, we put on the cartoon that is included on the “20,000 Leagues” DVD, a Donald Duck cartoon called “Grand Canyonscope.” By far, it was the best of the cartoons we screened tonight, a sharp and funny few minutes in which Donald, in hapless tourist mode, manages to set off a chain of events that fills in the entire Canyon. The cartoon was shot in 2.35:1 widescreen, and letterboxed as such for the disc, and it’s a lovely exercise in character and gag work. It’s also from that mid-’50s era of lush pop Disney stylization. I think this is one of the true golden eras for the company, when they were at full stride.
Based on how complicated Toshi’s reaction was to the film right up to the moment I tucked him in bed last night, “20,000 Leagues” got under his skin. So is this a “kid’s film”? Is this automatically right for kids? Or is a film like this simply a handsomely produced film with the Disney name on it that may be too strong for some kids? I think the film asks big questions and poses some uneasy answers to those questions. Since Disney’s doing a screening of a new restoration of this soon, I’m guessing there is a new Blu-ray coming. I’m sure we’ll watch the film again at that point, and I’m curious to see how Toshi’s reaction to it evolves over time.
“Film Nerd 2.0” remains, in every sense of the word, an irregular column: