With the exception of the music categories, Disney films have not been great Oscar-winners. Oh, sure, Walt himself holds the record at 22 for most-ever wins. However, for one thing, that includes a total of four honorary awards—the Thalberg, plus awards for creating Mickey Mouse, for making Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and for making Fantasia. It also includes twelve for Animated Short, whatever the category was called over those years. He won two Documentary Feature Oscars in that time, for The Living Desert and The Vanishing Prairie. And of course the Best Picture for Mary Poppins. But if my research is correct, this is the only Disney feature non-documentary without an animated/partially animated segment to win an Oscar from the origin of the studio until 2005. All told, you’re only looking at fewer than a dozen live-action features of any kind to win Oscars in the studio’s history.
The US military, concerned about the mysterious disappearances of a number of ships, invite Professor Pierre Aronnax (Paul Lucas) and his assistant, Conseil (Peter Lorre), to help them figure out what has happened. The pair, along with harpoonist Ned Land (Kirk Douglas), end up aboard the mysterious Nautilus, a submarine before the word existed, captained by the ominous Nemo. He is a fierce, intense man who would be perfectly happy destroying all of humanity. Aronnax, Conseil, and Ned want to escape but are perfectly aware that Nemo would have no qualms with killing them, either, if they displeased him.
I have been avoiding calling Nemo “dark,” though he does fit the metaphorical version of the word nicely. Unfortunately, he’s played by James Mason, who can’t be called dark in the skin-tone sense that would be appropriate for the character. Nemo, whose name is Latin for “no man,” is revealed in the sequel novel Mysterious Island to be an Indian prince and therefore not exactly James Mason in appearance. Though in the original book, no ethnicity is given and no origin. Still, you can’t ignore the sequel’s revelations, since it was also written by Verne, and Nemo is even in the first one said to appear to be from “southern latitudes,” which presumably meant “olive-skinned.”
That said, of course, Mason gives the best performance in the film. What James Mason got you was intensity. You can believe that this is a man who will eat no food, wear no clothing, consume nothing of any kind from the land. And will kill you as soon as look at you. Peter Lorre had a history of movies with villains not unlike Nemo, and it’s possible this is one of the best ever. (Though he himself said the squid took the role he normally got.) Certainly it’s a great Baby’s First Peter Lorre, and a great way to introduce James Mason—himself an underrated actor.
It’s how I first think of him, Mason, and Douglas. I saw this movie many, many times as a child. I plan to show it to my own children, and if they don’t see it as often as I did, well, their viewing options are considerably broader than mine. But this is frankly not the worst introduction to older movies as a whole as all that. There are stupendous matte paintings, especially given that most of the movie was filmed on the Disney lot. The special effects work is amazing; it was a competitive Oscar category that year, and it beat Them! for the award. It also won Color Art Direction, beating, among others, Brigadoon.
The reason its best scene is as spectacular as it is? The squid wasn’t quite working. It looked really fake in the placid, sunlit original staging. Apparently Walt himself suggested the storm, though it may have been screenwriter Earl Fenton. In fact, it’s so successful that the imagery has been lifted for at least one other film version that I’ve seen. The battle between men and giant squid is probably the thing most people remember from the movie, probably whether they’ve seen it or not.
The movie itself was directed by Richard Fleischer, and if that last name sounds familiar, well, yeah. His father was Walt’s competitor Max Fleischer. And when Walt approached him for the job, Richard very carefully made sure that Walt was aware of that fact. Walt told him that, yes, he was, and he still thought Richard was the best person for the job. In fact, Richard asked his father, too, and his father said, sure, go for it—and congratulate Walt on his taste in directors.
This is from the great era of Disney Gets Everyone to Sing, featuring the rousing “Whale of a Tale,” written by Norman Gimbel and Al Hoffman and sung by Kirk Douglas, who learned to play guitar for the role. He insisted that the scene at the beginning with the women and the fight be added, because he was still a Man’s Man Action Star at the time and wasn’t hugely excited by taking a part where all he did was talk. But it’s why I cared about him at all, when I was a child, which is something he probably never considered—more people watch this than most of his more actiony movies.
The interior of the Nautilus was designed by the same person who did the exterior of the Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland, Roland E. Hill, Sr. And while the exterior little resembles the description Jules Verne wrote, I’d argue that ignoring that made the design far more iconic. Because frankly, what IMDb quotes of the book’s description kind of makes it sound a lot like . . . a submarine.