From the Archive – 20,000 Leagues Beneath the Sea (1996)



Directed by Michael Anderson
Starring Richard Crenna, Ben Cross, Paul Gross, Julie Cox

With Atlantic shipping in the Victorian age beset by some kind of maritime prankster who delights in ramming ships, the authorities ask Professor Arronax (Crenna) to investigate the possibility that the attacker is a ‘proto-leviathan’, an unevolved deep-sea relict of a past age. With harpoonist Ned Land (Gross) on board to bag the beast, and the professor’s daughter Sophie (Cox) – disguised, not very convincingly, as a boy, with the subtle pseudonym of ‘Charles Darwin’ – the good ship Abraham Lincoln sets out. The ‘beast’ resists harpoons and cannon fire, and rams the ship, spilling everyone with a name into the water to be rescued by Captain Nemo (Cross) and the submarine Nautilus. But then you knew that.

Professor Arronax buddies up with Nemo, while the good Captain and Mr Land go nose-to-nose in pursuit of Sophie (Nemo’s opening gambit: ‘My daughter would have been the same age as you if she wasn’t dead’) and Ned tries to escape. Nemo tries to have Ned bumped off, but fails. The Nautilus sinks the Abe Lincoln as Nemo’s declaration of war on the imperial powers who invaded his small and non-specific country and killed his family.

The ship gets attack by a proto-leviathan (what, no squid?), which Neddy kills. Nemo lets his prisoners go, submerging under them just to fuck with their heads before releasing a life raft and sailing away.

What’s wrong with it?

Well, the Nautilus is a good place to start. It’s a masterpiece of retro design that looks like it comes right out of Austin Powers. When Sophie and her father change into Nautilus uniforms you can just imagine Nemo asking ‘do you like your quasi-futuristic outfits? I designed them myself’. The alarm klaxon sounds way too modern, and is in fact the exact same noise as the siren in the military base in Terminator 3. The whole thing looks less like a cool, grandiose Victorian steampunky design than like a Disney theme-park ride.

Then there’s the master of the Nautilus. The guy clearly wants to be James Mason, and is also way too English to be the king-in-exile of a conquered land, even if he was Oxford educated. Plus, the whole thing of him macking on a girl he admits is young enough to be his daughter is just a little grotesque. The rest of the cast do little better: Paul Gross is dully macho, Crenna is blandly patrician and Cox is tediously winsome.

Which brings me to the problem of Sophie. Clearly interjected to add some breasts to the proceedings, the character is a blatant anachronism. This wouldn’t matter so much if they didn’t draw attention to it by having her dress up as a principle boy and then have Ned goggle at being introduced to ‘Mr’ Darwin, since she’s clearly nothing of the kind. Her presence further reduces the ideological conflict between Land and Nemo to macho chest-beating.

The dialogue is stilted and reeks of bad rep theatre, with lines like: “Are you Professor Arronax, Holder of the Chair of Marine Biology at Harvard Universtiy?” ‘Why no,’ you feel the answer should come. ‘I’m just breaking into his lab and his assistants haven’t noticed yet’.

Finally, the film clearly models a lot of its content on the old Disney Leagues, which was a far superior film, and when a fifty year old Disney film kicks your arse in the special effects field, you know you’re in trouble.

What’s right with it?

Well, not a lot really, save perhaps that what I saw was cut down from a miniseries which one must assume contained more of the same.

How bad is it really?

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is an aggressive waste of filmstock. The action is dull, the romance bland and the human interest utterly lacking. Cross’ attempt to simulate the mannered performance of James Mason only makes you yearn for the older version, and indeed Cox’s huge eyes do little but put one in mind of Peter Lorre, who essentially played her role in that movie.

Some might miss Ned Land’s ‘Got a Whale of a Tale’ sea shantying antics, but on the plus side at least Paul Gross doesn’t get to sing.

Best bit

When the giant squid has the sub on the surface, and Nemo tells them they are about to go face-to-face with the most tenacious of all sea beast…Oh, wait; that’s the old Disney version. Never mind then.

What’s up with…?

  • The proto-leviathan? I mean, what did they think? ‘The giant squid is passé; let’s do something different’. It’s like the director who decided that the ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy had been done to death and left it out of his version of Hamlet.

  • The dinner-party introductions? ‘My name is professor Arronax.’ ‘Not the famous marine biologist?’ ‘No; I’m a plumber. I work with daleks. On a ship at sea. Yes! The marine biologist!’

  • Nemo’s appeal-to-incest chat-up lines? Yick.


Production values: A version of the film from fifty years before kicked this film’s arse in every element of production, from design to special effects. 20

Dialogue and performances: Painfully stilted performances from wooden actors playing cookie-cutter characters. Nemo is without nobility, Arronax without dignity, Land without integrity and Sophie without…well, any defining features but the exceptionally obvious. The dialogue is the worst however; trite to the point of being insulting. 18

Plot and execution: This is a film without narrative drive. Everyone just meanders through, without goals, deadlines or pressures. The whole thing is a soggy mess, without tension or drama. What a mess. 18

Randomness: Not a whole lot, but God damnit! I want a giant squid! Bonus points for removing the giant squid. I mean, this is 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea; we expect a squid. We deserve a squid after two-and-a-half-hours of this stinkburger! 16

Waste of potential: Disney did better with this classic story of gripping adventure! Bunch of Muppets. And not the funny kind of Muppets. 20,000 Muppets Under the Sea I’d pay to see, I tells ya. 20

Overall 92%


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