In the year 1868, rumors of a sea monster attacking ships in the Pacific Ocean have created apprehension and fear among sailors, disrupting shipping lanes. The United States government invites Professor Pierre M. Aronnax and his assistant, Conseil, onto an expedition to prove or disprove the monster's existence. One of their fellow crew is the cocky master harpooneer Ned Land.
After months of searching, the "monster" is spotted. Though the ship fires at it with cannons, the monster rams the ship. 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, eventually finding a strange-looking metal vessel, and realize the "monster" is a man-made "submerging boat" that appears deserted. Inside, Aronnax finds a viewing window and sees 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, master of the Nautilus. He returns Ned and Conseil to the deck, while offering Aronnax, whom he recognizes for his work and research, the chance to stay. When Nemo determines that Aronnax would die with his companions, he allows Ned and Conseil to board the submarine.
Nemo takes Aronnax to the penal colony island of Rura Penthe. Nemo reveals he was once a prisoner there, as were many of his crew. The prisoners are loading a munitions ship. 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 this "hated nation" tortured his wife and son to death while attempting to force him to reveal the secrets of his work. 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.
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 to drink, he sees a number of 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 and the cannibals are repelled from the ship by electrical charges circulated on its hull. Nemo is furious with Ned for not following his orders, and confines him to the submarine's brig.
A warship approaches, firing upon the submarine. It descends into the depths, where it attracts the attentions of a giant squid. The electric charge fails to repel the monster, so Nemo and his men surface to dislodge the beast. Nemo is caught in one of the squid's tentacles. Ned, having escaped from captivity during the struggle, jumps to Nemo's rescue, saving his captor's life. As a result, Nemo has a change of heart; he claims now to want to make peace with the outer world.
As the Nautilus nears Vulcania, Nemo finds the island surrounded by warships whose marines are converging 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 from a slug to the back while returning to the Nautilus. After haphazardly navigating the submarine away from Vulcania, Nemo announces he will be "taking the Nautilus down for the last time". Nemo's crew declare they will accompany their captain in death.
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."
- Kirk Douglas as Ned Land
- James Mason as Captain Nemo
- Paul Lukas as Pierre Aronnax
- Peter Lorre as Conseil
- Robert J. Wilke as Nautilus' First Mate
- Ted de Corsia as Captain Farragut
- Carleton Young as John Howard
- J. M. Kerrigan as Billy
- Percy Helton as Coach driver
- Ted Cooper as Abraham Lincoln's First Mate
- Fred Graham as Casey
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was filmed at various locations in Bahamas and Jamaica, with the cave scenes filmed beneath what is now the Xtabi Resort on the cliffs of Negril. Filming began in spring of 1954. Some of the location filming sequences were so complex that they required a technical crew of over 400 people. The film presented many other challenges as well. The famous giant squid attack sequence had to be entirely re-shot, as it was originally filmed as taking place at dusk and in a calm sea. It was filmed again, this time taking place at night and during a huge gale, both to increase the drama and to better hide the cables and other mechanical workings of the animatronic squid. Cost overruns during production made the film very expensive for a Disney production, although by no means as expensive as other recent releases: Joan of Arc (1948) had cost $4.6 million; Quo Vadis (1951) had an estimated budget of $7.6 million.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea received positive reviews from critics, and was the second highest grossing film of the year (behind White Christmas), earning $8 million in box office attendance in North America and has become a notable classic film of the Disney corporation. Audiences fondly remember it primarily for its giant-squid battle sequence as well as the Nautilus itself and James Mason's portrayal of Nemo. The film currently holds an 89% approval rating at the review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes, with the consensus being: "One of Disney's finest live-action adventures, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea brings Jules Verne's classic sci-fi tale to vivid life, and features an awesome giant squid."
The film was also highly praised for the performances of the leading actors. This was the first time that major international stars such as Kirk Douglas, James Mason, and Peter Lorre had appeared in a Disney film, although Robert Newton, a well-known actor in British films, had played Long John Silver in Disney's Treasure Island (1950), and Richard Todd, another well-known star of British films, had appeared in a Disney Technicolor live-action version of The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men (1952). Mason especially was singled out for his performance of Captain Nemo. Many people who had first seen him on-screen in the film identify him most strongly with this role.
Upon the film's original release, New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther gave the film a generally positive review by stating that, "As fabulous and fantastic as anything he has ever done in cartoons is Walt Disney's "live action" movie made from Jules Verne's '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.' Turned out in CinemaScope and color, it is as broad, fictitiously, as it is long (128 minutes), and should prove a sensation — at least with the kids." In his controversial 1967 biography The Disney Version, the usually prickly critic Richard Schickel, stated that James Mason was "superbly cast as the mad inventor Captain Nemo".
Modern-day film critic Steve Biodrowski said that the film is "far superior to the majority of genre efforts from the period (or any period, for that matter), with production design and technical effects that have dated hardly at all." Biodrowski also added that the film "may occasionally succumb to some of the problems inherent in the source material (the episodic nature does slow the pace), but the strengths far outweigh the weaknesses, making this one of the greatest science-fiction films ever made."
Disneyland used the original sets as a walk-through attraction from 1955 to 1966. Walt Disney World Resort's Magic Kingdom also had a dark ride named 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: Submarine Voyage from 1971 to 1994 which consisted of a submarine ride, complete with the giant squid attack. For this ride, voice artist Peter Renaday stood in for James Mason in the role of Captain Nemo. In 1994, a walkthrough attraction at Disneyland Paris, named Les Mystères du Nautilus, opened, and a dark ride at Tokyo DisneySea was created in 2001.
It was the highest grossing film of 1954 made by Disney, but the Second Highest Grossing film of 1954, behind Non-Disney Movie White Christmas.
The film was hugely successful when it was released, winning Academy Awards for Best Special Effects and Best Art Direction as well as being nominated for Best Editing. It also opened many new options for the Disney Corporation. It has since been regarded as a classic.
References in later films
Due to its success, Disney has occasionally referenced this film in their later movies. In Pixar's film Finding Nemo when Marlin and Dory encounter the school of Moonfish, one of their "impressions" involves forming the shape a sailing ship and singing the chorus to "A Whale of a Tale". The name Nemo could have also been meant as a nod to Captain Nemo.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest has a scene near the beginning in which Jack Sparrow and his crew end up on a small island with cannibalistic natives. The scene in which Jack rushes to the Black Pearl while being chased by the natives may have been a reference to a similar scene in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, in which Ned Land and Conseil travel to an island with cannibals, with the former similarly rushing towards the boat while being chased by the natives.
On January 6, 2009, Variety reported that a remake entitled 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: Captain Nemo was being planned with Joseph McGinty Nichol, a.k.a. "McG", attached to direct. The film serves as an origin story for the central character, Captain Nemo, as he builds his warship, the Nautilus. McG has remarked that it will be "much more in keeping with the spirit of the novel" than Richard Fleischer's film, in which it will reveal "what Aronnax is up to and the becoming of Captain Nemo, and how the man became at war with war itself. "It was written by Bill Marsilli, with Justin Marks and Randall Wallace brought in to do rewrites. It was to be produced by Sean Bailey with McG's Wonderland Sound and Vision.
McG once suggested that he wanted Will Smith for the Captain Nemo role, but he has reportedly turned down the part. As a second possible choice, McG had mentioned Sam Worthington, whom he worked with on Terminator Salvation, though they did not ever discuss it seriously. The project was later shelved in November 2009 with McG backing out of directing.
During the 2010 San Diego Comic-Con, director David Fincher announced plans of directing 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea for Walt Disney Pictures based on a script by Scott Z. Burns. While Fincher was wrapping up The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011), it was speculated that 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea would enter principal photography by late 2012. In the meantime, Fincher began courting Brad Pitt to play the role of Ned Land while the film was kept on hold. However in February 2013, it was announced that Pitt had officially turned down the role.
In April 2013, it was announced that the Australian government will provide a one-off incentive of $20 million in order to secure the production. Despite this, the film was put on hold again the following month due to complications in casting a lead. On July 17, 2013, Fincher dropped out of the film to direct the adaptation of Gone Girl.