20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. (1954)
It's been my favorite since I was a wee thing. Other movies have come close, but nothing has ever displaced it from that top slot. I've seen it more times in the theater than a lot of newer movies. I never tire of this film. Everything about it captivates my imagination. The story. The music by Paul Smith. The characters and the actors who bring them to life. James Mason, Kirk Douglas, Paul Lukas, and Peter Lorre. The giant squid, Esmeralda the sea lion, the organ, cannibal island, Vulcania.... The movie has the most amazing underwater footage, the most exquisite matte paintings from Peter Ellenshaw.
20,000 is also quite dark for a Disney movie, despite the adventurous overtones. Murder, vengeance, suicide pacts, cannibals, atomic energy, much death and destruction... and yet it is also filled with the most amazing sense of wonder and beauty and hope. Without the latter, this movie would be nothing. It's the mix of dark themes with the hope and beauty that makes it so satisfying. I know this movie shaped who I became, particularly as a writer. Between it and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea television series, I developed a lifelong obsession with submarines and would be in the Navy right now commanding one, if women had been allowed to serve on subs back then. I had my application to Annapolis all ready to go.
This is an absolutely gorgeous movie. The submarine interior sets are sumptuous, rich and elegant, and technicolor just makes them look even more lovely. Captain Nemo does "do right well for himself," as Ned Land observes. Seeing this in the revival theaters growing up, I always wanted the shots of the salon, in particular, to linger and linger so I could just drink in the beauty of it. I covet that submarine!
When I was little, Ned Land was my favorite character. But as I've aged, Captain Nemo has become my favorite. There's so much complexity in him. I never tire of watching the little things James Mason does, of how he delivers his lines, the emotion, both hidden and apparent. There's also much unspoken complexity going on underneath the surface. His irritability with Ned Land vs. the way he lights up when he gets to talk about the ocean with Arronax. There are also many tiny visual things that are never explained. Such as his relationship with his first mate (played by the wonderful Robert J. Wilke). The first mate is the only one Nemo allows to touch him physically, the only one he truly trusts, even though any of the rest of his crew will give their lives for him. It's subtle and very interesting.
I also never fully appreciated Professor Aronnax or Paul Lukas when I was young. Now, I love his character, his optimism and hope, his enthusiasm to make the world a better place. And Peter Lorre, of course, is always wonderful.
This is a movie I never wanted to know how it was made. I never wanted the magic of it lessened by the reality of movie-making. Though I would give anything to go back in time and walk through the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea exhibit at Disneyland. They had the sets, etc. My mom tells wonderful stories of hanging out in the exhibit. One of my fondest memories is of meeting Kirk Douglas, telling him how much I loved this movie, and having him sing part of A Whale of a Tale to me!