Podcast No. 0038: Going 20,000 Leagues to Uncover Jules Verne


Artwork by Elias Hale

This month on Dispodopolis, we discuss the 1954 Academy award-winning movie, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. This is one of Ryan's favorite films, and it is long overdue for us to review this film. Walt Disney made some fantastic movies, and this is one of his' masterpieces. From a stunning cast to an amazing behind the scenes crew, Disney spent more money on this movie than on any preceding film. In 1954, this was well ahead of its time and spearheaded special effects into the 1980s. 20,000 Leagues surpassed most movies in technological achievement, and this would translate into the parks. But first, we discuss the unique literary works of Jules Verne.



Jules Gabriel Verne was a French novelist, poet, and playwright. Verne, along with HG Wells, laid the foundation of modern science fiction. Jules Verne's father was an attorney and wished for him to join his practice. While at the university, he fell in love with the written word. He wrote plays while a secretary for the Theatre Lyrique. But in 1857, He married and took a job as a broker in the Paris Stock Market. His responsibilities to support his family came first, but he continued to write in the evening. In 1862, Verne had a fateful meeting with Pierre-Jules Hetzel. Hetzel read and agreed to publish Verne's book, Five Weeks in a Balloon. It was an international bestseller. Because of the success of the book, Hetzel and Verne started a partnership. Verne would dabble in dystopian literature, but Hetzel rejected the direction. Hetzel wanted Verne to return to what was successful monetarily. Over the next 40 years, Verne would write over 60 works in the popular series Voyages Extraordinaries. Through his writing, Jules Verne would spark inspiration for countless tales. His unique views of the world opened up new avenues of complex dialogue and thought.


Durning Verne's most prolific and influential time, he wrote the six books that significantly impacted the future. They were the 1863 novel Journey to the Center of the Earth, From the Earth to the Moon in 1865, Around the Moon in 1870, Twenty Thousand Leagues in 1870, Around the World in Eighty Days in 1873, and the Mysterious Island in 1875.


This time in Jules Verne's life was one of his most stable. Verne and his family settled in Amiens, France, during this time, and he purchased a yacht to sail around Europe with his family. Twenty years later, his life would drastically change. His mother and business partner passed away within a few months of each other, and he would return to the dystopian and pessimistic world views that plagued the crevices of his mind. He would continue to write until his death, and many of his works would be completed and published by his son posthumously.


He left us with some of the most inventive and rich storytelling that sparked the imagination of all that read his works, including Walt Disney. Disney Studios have adapted three of Verne's books. Two under the tutelage of Walt Disney and one within the new millennium. The second was the 1962 film, In Search of the Castaways, based on Captain Grant's Children, starring Hayley Mills and Maurice Chevalier. The last one was the 2004 film, Around the World in 80 Days, starring Jackie Chan, and the masterpiece 1954 film, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which we will be talking about tonight.


20,000 Leagues movie poster from 1954.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was released on December 23, 1954, and brought in a box office of 28.2 million with a production cost of 4.3 million. The amount is roughly is the same budget as Mary Poppins, which was released ten years late. The 20,000 Leagues cast was an experienced crew, including Paul Lukas, Kirk Douglas, James Mason, and Peter Lorre. The cast is all men and stayed true to the story and period.


At the age of 59, Paul Lukas played Professor Pierre Aronnax. He started his career in Europe in 1915. He is known for Watch on the Rhine with Bette Davis, and the 1938 Alfred Hitchcock movie The Lady Vanishes with Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave (father of Vanessa Redgrave and Lynn Redgrave). 20,000 Leagues is his only role for the Disney Studios. Lukas plays Professor Pierre Aronnaz, a French scientist with an explorative and curious mind, that wants to get to the bottom of the monster that has been sinking boats in the Pacific Ocean and killing the men aboard these ships. He has a strong but naive personality that isn't afraid to explore and step over boundaries he isn't supposed to be crossing.



Kirk Douglas was 38 years old when he played Ned Land in 20,000 Leagues. He was born Issur Daneilovitch Demsky in 1916. Douglas' career started later than a typical Hollywood leading man because of World War II involvement. During the war, he spent four years in the Navy. He is known for Spartacus, Gun Fight at the OK Corral, and Lust for Life. Late in life, he reunited with the Disney Company and starred in a few Touchstone Picture films. In 1986, Douglas and Burt Lancaster starred in the movie Tough Guys together, and he starred with Sylvester Stallone in the 1991 film, Oscar. He was also in a few Miramax Films, the 1999 film, Diamonds, with Dan Akroyd and Jenny McCarthy, and It Runs in the family. With Disney Studios, he produced the 1983 film, Something Wicked This Way Comes, created by Ray Bradbury. In 20,000 Leagues, Kirk Douglas comes out swinging as Ned Land. He denies the existence of the monster and has many doubts until he sees it for himself. He is always looking out for himself but will stop to save those in need. Ned also will drag Conseil, the Professors assistant, into his plan to get rich.


James Mason on the set of 20,000 Leagues during the shot of the squid scene.

At the age of 45, James Mason plays Captain Nemo. He was born in England in 1909. Mason's career started in 1935 and worked up until he died, with three projects being released posthumously in 1985. Known for the controversial film, Lolita, along with A Star is Born with Judy Garland, and the Alfred Hitchcock thriller North by Northwest with Cary Grant, he stole every scene with his strong presence. Mason didn't work with Disney before this feature or after. Mason played the dark, mysterious and secretive antagonist, Captain Nemo. Captain Nemo trusts no man who hasn't pledged allegiance to him and thinks all men are maleficient and out for profit. Nemo had been a slave to arm's dealers and forced to work for them. Refusing to work for them and holding back information, they, in return, killed his family.


The man with the smallest role but most accolades to his career, Peter Lorre played Conseil at 50. He was born in 1904 in Hungary and started his career in 1929. He was placed in most movies to round out an impressive cast and bring balance to the screen. He is well known for the 1942 classic Casablanca with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, the 1944 classic Arsenic and Old Lace with Cary Grant, and 1941 classic the Maltese Falcon with Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor. The only other Disney Movie he appeared in was The 1934 Hollywood Party, a Hollywood star cavalcade. Lorre played Conseil, who is the professor's assistant and companion. Conseil watches out for the professor's reputation and warns him about how the journalists will twist his words. Conseil is influenced by temptations presented by Kirk Douglas' character Ned Land.


Next, we look at the crew that turned this feature into a masterpiece that holds up to this day. The first two men we look at are the writer and director. The scriptwriter is Earl Felton, and he translates Jules Verne's book for the screen. He was a long-time Hollywood screenwriter, but this was his only contribution to Disney. He mostly contributed to a lot of B movies. Walt Disney tapped Richard Fleischer, the son of Max Fleischer, who created the Out of the Inkwell and Betty Bop cartoons, to direct the film. Max Fleischer and his brother ran Fleischer Studios, which was in direct competition with the Disney Studios. In 1939, they also made a full length animated feature, Gulliver's Travels, to compete with Snow White. Walt got Max Fleischer's approval before hiring his son, Richard. Richard Fleischer also directed the Burt Lancaster futuristic feature Soylent Greens. Richard Fleischer is known for epic fantasy movies.


Peter Ellenshaw's matte painting of Vulcania in 20,000 Leagues.

After, we explore the film's creativity, focusing on the artwork, special effects, and animatronics. Peter Ellenshaw created the matte paintings used as backdrops. Today, they still exist, and Vulcania is seen at his son's house in the Disney Plus exclusive show, Prop Culture. It is on display in Season 1, Episode 2, that centers around the props of Tron. Harrison Ellenshaw, Peter's son, was the visual effects supervisor on Tron. Peter Ellenshaw also worked on Mary Poppins (yes, those beautiful rooftop scenes of London and the St. Paul's Cathedral), and Bedknobs and Broomsticks. There is a lot of nepotism at Disney Studios, and we're okay with that. Creative talent seems to run deep there.


Dinner party in Captain Nemo's quarters.

Harper Goff, the production designer, designed the Nautilus in the film. He developed multiple storyboards to influence Walt's decision to go forward and produce 20,000 Leagues. He threw everything he knew into the piece. Walt Disney met and hired Harper Goff at a train affectionate event. Goff went straight to work on the feature. You can see that design translated into Roy Hofheinz's penthouse suites at AstroWorld. Hofheinz would watch the Houston Astros from this vantage point. Rich velvet fabrics and steampunk details are everywhere in the design of the Nautilus and at AstroWorld. Goff worked for the Disney company from 1951 until he died in 1993.


Then we come to the music that enhanced 20,000 Leagues. This brings up one of Ryan's favorite songs, A Whale of a Tale, song by Kirk Douglas and written by Al Hoffman. He also wrote the beautiful melodies that accompanied Cinderella and Alice in Wonderland. Norman Gimbel also worked on the music with Al Hoffman, but this would be his only contribution to Disney.


20,000 Leagues was Disney's first film in CinemaScope, and they used the full extent of its range and color. The giant squid was one of the moments that screamed excitement and depth and used the technique to its maximum capacity. The squid was 40 feet with two feelers of 50 feet. It could rear of 8 feet of water and took 28 men to operate. They had to film this scene twice and finally went with a stormy night to cover the wires and machinery that made the squid function.


The majority of filming took place on Stage 3 in a massive underwater tank measuring 18 feet. They did additional filming at the accompanying studio backlots of Universal and Twentieth Century Fox. The location shots of them climbing and diving around the various islands were shot in Jamaica and the Bahamas. The film's caves are currently part of the Xtabi Resort on Negril's cliffs, which is on the island of Jamaica.


Because of the amazingly talented individuals that came together to create this film, 20,000 Leagues won two Oscars. One was for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, and the other was for Best Effects, Special Effects. But let's move on to the movie because it is a beautiful story that dives you into Aquatic Science and the never-ending saga of justification for evil versus the altruistic good.


Opening Credits of 20,000 Leagues.

The movie starts with a backdrop of a curtain parting and escalating music, foreshadowing the drama to come. As the opening credits end, we are whisked away to the Pacific Ocean, watching a sailing ship attacked by what looks to be a menacing green-eyed sea monster. It is 1868, and rumors of a sea monster attacking ships in the Pacific Ocean have created apprehension and fear among sailors and disrupt shipping expeditions. It is staged in San Francisco, a lively, bustling shipping and mining town with lots of unsavory characters looking to make a quick buck. A US military base nearby invites Professor Pierre Aronnax, a noted French biologist, and his assistant, Conseil, on an expedition to prove or disprove the monster's existence. One of their fellow crewmates is the cocky master harpooner Ned Land.


After months of searching, which seems like a few minutes, the "monster" is spotted. Though the ship fires at it with cannons, the monster rams the ship. Ned throws his harpoon at it and realizes that it isn't a monster at all as the harpoon bounces off of its metal body. Ned and Aronnax are thrown overboard, and Conseil goes in after Aronnax. The warship, burning and helpless, drifts silently, and no one on board answers when the overboard passengers cry for help. The three drift in the ocean, Arronax and Conseil eventually come across the strange-looking metal vessel, and realize the "monster" is a man-made "submerging boat" that appears deserted. Nedvreaches the plate soon after and boards as well. Inside, Aronnax starts exploring the abandoned ship, finds a viewing window and sees the crew conducting an underwater funeral.


Ned, Aronnax, and Conseil then attempt to leave in their lifeboat, but the submarine crew returns to their ship, capturing the castaways. The captain introduces himself as Nemo, captain of the Nautilus. Nemo decides to test their loyalty to each other and returns Ned and Conseil to the deck while offering Aronnax, whom he recognizes for his work and research, the chance to stay. When Aronnax rejects his offer and joins his comrades outside, Nemo determines that because of Aronnax's loyalty, he allows Ned and Conseil to board the submarine.


Underwater scene of the crew gathering food.

Nemo takes Aronnax to the penal colony island of Rura Penthe. Nemo's strategy is to gain Aronnax's empathy and reveals he was once a prisoner there, as were many of his crew. The island is a mining facility for weapons of war inhabited by slaves and indentured servants. As a boat is leaving the island's dock, the Nautilus rams the ship, destroying its cargo and killing the crew. An anguished Nemo tells Arronax that his actions have saved thousands from death in war; he also discloses that these same arms dealers tortured his wife and son to death while attempting to force him to reveal the secrets of his work. While the crew is distracted, Ned discovers the coordinates of Nemo's secret island base, Vulcania, and releases messages in bottles, hoping somebody will find them and free him from captivity. Only in the movies would something so romantic work.


Captain Nemo and Professor Aronnax out in the rowboat.

Off the coast of New Guinea, the Nautilus becomes stranded on a reef. Ned is surprised when Nemo allows him to go ashore with Conseil, ostensibly to collect specimens. Ned goes off alone to explore avenues of escape. While kneeling at a pool, he sees several human skulls on stakes. Realizing his danger, Ned runs for his life and rejoins Conseil as they are chased back to the Nautilus by cannibals. Despite remaining aground, Nemo is unconcerned of the unwanted visitors that Ned has brought back with him. Nemo repelled the cannibals from the ship by electrical charges. Nemo is furious with Ned for not following his orders and confines him to the submarine's brig. Nemo doesn't blame the islanders' attack of the submarine and justifies their behavior because they are encroaching on their territory.



As they are traversing the water, a warship approaches, firing upon the submarine. The submarine descends into the depths due to a malfunction and damage. As it dives deeper and deeper, it attracts the attention of a giant squid. The electric charge fails to repel it, so Nemo and his men can resurface to attempt to dislodge the beast. Nemo inadvertently is caught in one of the squid's tentacles. Ned, having escaped from captivity during the struggle, jumps to Nemo's rescue, saving his life for the giant squid and diving in the ocean to retrieve Nemo's body. As a result, he has a change of mind; he claims to want to make peace with the outer world.


As the Nautilus nears Vulcania, Nemo finds it surrounded by warships whose marines converge on his hideout. As Nemo goes ashore, Ned attempts to identify himself as the author of the bottled messages. Aronnax realizes this and becomes furious, recognizing that Nemo will destroy all evidence of his discoveries. Nemo plants a bomb in his hideout but is mortally wounded by the troops' attacking gunfire surrounding the island. After haphazardly navigating the submarine away from Vulcania, Nemo announces he will be "taking the Nautilus down for the last time." Nemo's crew understands that they will accompany their captain in death.


Squid attack scene with Captain Nemo and Ned Land.

Aronnax, Conseil, and Ned are confined to their cabins. The Nautilus's crew also retreat to their cabins at Nemo's instructions. Ned breaks loose and manages to surface the Nautilus, hitting a reef in the process and causing the ship to begin flooding. Nemo staggers to a viewing window and watches his beloved ocean as he dies.


Aronnax tries to retrieve his journal, which contains an account of the voyage, but the urgency of their escape obliges Ned to knock him unconscious and carry him out. The companions' witness Vulcania destroyed in an explosion, while Ned apologizes to Aronnax for hitting him. As the Nautilus disappears beneath the waves, Nemo's last words to Aronnax echo: "There is hope for the future. And when the world is ready for a new and better life, all this will someday come to pass, in God's good time." Now we ask you, do you think there will ever be a future where we are ready?



We end our conversation with an evaluation of Jules Verne's impact and influence on the Disney parks. His vision is in four of the Disney Parks. Even the parks where it isn't deliberately quoted, there is a nod to his time, life, and doctrine. Mysterious Island is a fascinating land in the Tokyo Seas park, where you can journey to the center of the earth and travel 20,000 leagues under the sea. A nod to Verne can be seen in the steampunk translation of Tomorrowland and the experience of Space Mountain: De la Terre á la Lune at Disneyland Paris. Previously, you could see his influence at Disneyland with a walkthrough of the Nautilus sets from the movie in Tomorrowland. This attraction was available until 1966. At Walt Disney World, the submarine ride was the 20,000 Leagues under the Sea attraction, with submersibles that were recreated to represent the film's Nautilus. You could also see Jules Verne as the main character in the now-shuttered attraction, The Timekeeper, and in the former attraction, Horizons.



Before we discuss the feature film, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, we discuss the men living on the Nautilus's experimental diet. Fiona takes us on a journey to imagine a menu of shakes and beverages that could be created to represent the movie. We talk about how to express various sea creatures using their colors, textures, and visual representations. True to Dispodopolis conversation ettiquette, we go down the rabbit hole to discuss Fiona's latest fascination with the Gummi Bears. This of course leads to our discussion of Gummi Glen that was featured at the motor boat cruise at Disneyland.



We would love to hear from you and your family. If you have any comments, questions, or fun and fancy-free thoughts, email us at comments@dispodopolis.com. Please enjoy our latest podcast, Dispodopolis.



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Images from Walt Disney Studios, Life Magazine, vulcaniasubmarine.com, and disneypix.com

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