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Use the dialogue to hone your James Mason, Peter Lorre and Kirk Douglas impressions – 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

June 25, 2012

You can tag this movie with a nice robust “They don’t make ’em like that anymore.” Growing up, Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was superb entrée into the world of classic movie magic. When it came on TV it was an event, much like the yearly (was it yearly?) airing of The Wizard of Oz. Everything about the film, from the excellent cast (which introduced this once-young kid to Kirk Douglas) to the simultaneously terrifying and thrilling design of the Nautilus, combined to forge a film that holds up extremely well to this day. Not only that, but it also holds up better than movies that were made ten years ago. Nothing ages faster than digital effects, and it’s a blessing that this flick was made in a day when a person would think of a “digital effect” as a stubbed toe or a hangnail. Look at the digital Nautilus in 2003’s The League of Extraordinary Gentleman and tell me which is awesome and which looks big and stupid (just about the only thing those two movies have in common quality-wise is that “League” is in both titles).

Jules Verne’s Nautilus was Steampunk before there was such a thing as Steampunk, which makes it awesome, unlike pretty much everything that’s called Steampunk.

On another level, perhaps no film ever assembled more impersonatable(?) actors. Granted, there aren’t that many people to do a killer James Mason (Captain Nemo) impression anymore, and now it feels like whenever you do the Kirk Douglas (tight-shirted Ned Land) voice you’re making fun of his stroke (my favorite Douglas impression was coincidentally from the late Phil Hartman in a 20,000 Leagues SNL sketch). But Peter Lorre (chubby, timid Conseil), though the less well-known of the movie’s star troika, and an actor who’d never be mistaken for a leading man, is one of those guys you’re imitating even when you don’t know who it is exactly that you’re imitating. Everyone on Earth has done a forced, nebbish “Riiiiiiick…” at some point in their life, as Casablanca is in our cultural DNA.

And all three of these guys shared the screen in this flick. And it had a fearsome Victorian submarine monster. GLORIOUS OVERLOAD, BABY.

So the comic book has a lot to live up to. Does it?

It does. Kind of. While nothing could really match the cinematic goings on — putting this very much in a Raiders of the Lost Ark/The Empire Strikes Back/Close Encounters of the Third Kind no-win scenario — a valiant attempt is made. The script (unknown scripter, though it’s adapted, of course, from Verne’s original novel) moves along well, never plodding into the stiff, hokey territory so often traveled by contemporaries. This is assuredly helped by the source material, so I suppose we shouldn’t press any medals for that. The art, though, is where this book makes its mark. Frank Thorne, long before his career-defining work with Red Sonja and her fetishistic affinity for mail and metal, provided the pencils and pens here, and his work stands out amidst the 1950s backdrop. It’s — forgive me — leagues better than most art you’d find in comics of this time. His layouts and scene construction are excellent, and he turns the smallest parts of a sequence into the most compelling and enjoyable. Take this following panel. Yes, the clear view of the upper portion of the partially submerged Nautilus is what draws the eyes at first, but hell, aren’t those the best seagulls you’ve ever seen?:

I was especially taken with the detail (and color) of this look inside Nemo’s lush private rooms — the refined man cave of all refined man caves:

And, without doubt, we have to stop by the famous giant squid attack for a quick peak (since it’s up there with the Ben-Hur chariot race in the Indelible Action Sequences category). It knows when to shut up and let the the image speak for itself:

And it goes on like that. If there’s one distracting bit, it’s that the comic’s Conseil — thin and blond — looks absolutely nothing like Lorre’s chunky guy with a Curly Howard haircut. Not a big deal, just something you’d notice.

Anyway, this a nice little two-fer: A nostalgic trip through a great movie hand-in-hand with early work from a noted artist. Thorne’s Red Sonja is definitive for all the right reasons, and you can see whispers and hints of that future success in this. That’s a good thing, and you can’t ask for a lot more. And you shouldn’t, or Nemo will ram your ship and send you straight to a watery grave.

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