20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1916)

Deep dive into Verne

Breathtaking in its pioneering use of underwater photography, this silent two-hour feature is a globetrotting epic of action adventure, romance and comedy, and though contains some problematic elements, it’s an early high water mark in Hollywood spectacle, an impressive early entry into the canon of Jules Verne adaptations, and by far the biggest box office success of its year of release.

The novel

An adaptation of not one, but two major works of the man often referred to as the ‘Father of science fiction’, 20,000 Leagues combines elements of two of Verne’s novels, namely 1871’s adventure, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, and 1875’s semi-sequel, The Mysterious Island, bringing together the twin adventures of Verne’s most celebrated creation, the mercurial billionaire genius inventor and subaquatic explorer, Captain Nemo.

From this rich material we experience a tale of rape, murder, child abuse, kidnap, and betrayals. Plus there are fistfights, a sea battle, a colonial uprising, a reconciliation of long lost family members, as well as ghosts, devils, and real live sharks.

For those not overly familiar with the source material, 20,000 Leagues is set in 1866, and sees Professor Aronnax and two male companions kidnapped by a middle aged and vigorous Nemo, who takes his captives sailing around the globe in his technologically advanced submarine, The Nautilus. Meanwhile The Mysterious Island is set during the US Civil War (1861-1865) sees a group of Union prisoners escape by hot air balloon to the titular Pacific Ocean island, where an elderly and dying Nemo secretly assists their survival and only reveals his presence at the end of the novel.

The Professor & niece

When it came to adapting this material for his 1916 production, for the sake of cinematic expediency, Verne’s appallingly contradictory timeframe is rightfully given the old heave-ho by Scottish director and screenwriter Stuart Paton, who sensibly also jettisons much of the ballast of Verne’s ponderous scientific explanations, and in true Hollywood fashion introduces female characters to provide romance and intrigue to Verne’s nearly all-male world.

Paton also introduces female characters such as Aronnax’s adult niece, who replaces the manservant Conseil as one of Aronnax’s companions, and on the Mysterious Island there is a young woman wearing a leopard print dress, who replaces the male castaway of the novel. Although Aronnax’s niece plays little part in the film, the female castaway ‘A Child of Nature’ as she’s billed, is central to the story. And yes, though much of what she does is invented by Paton, there’s no denying it’s an exuberant and captivating performance by actress Jane Gail.

Paton’s script cuts back and forth between the parallel stories of Aronnax on The Nautilus, and the escaped balloonists, eventually bringing the plot-lines together in a terrifically staged finale before ending on a note of poignant dignity which I suspect Verne would approve. This is a great example of how to ruthlessly hack an unwieldy source material into a platform for great cinema.

Child of nature, right

Typical of the era, the Asian characters of Nemo and ‘A Child of Nature’ are played in brownface, a now rightfully discredited technique. Yet A Child of Nature’s inclusion allows for an inter-racial Caucasian-Asian romance between her and a balloonist, which is quite the something in a film released the year after D. W. Griffith’s infamously racist, The Birth of a Nation.

This romance doesn’t occur in Verne, and is possibly inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which features a crew of shipwrecked men encountering a beautiful girl and her wizard father on a desert island. Nemo is explicably described as a ‘wizard’, and also deals with issues of colonialism and race.

On another note, the romance as portrayed may not be interpreted as such as by a modern audience, there’s no explicit kissing for example. However if we the audience are expected and required to interpret two rape scenes as rape scenes, and not ‘just’ assaults, then we’re similarly beholden to interpret their flirtatious behaviour in scenes as romantic and sexual in intent.

Neb, right

However the film is less kind to the balloonist, Neb, Verne’s sole Black character in these books. Treated with jaw-dropping racism in the novel, The Mysterious Island, this film introduces Neb only to quickly cut him from the film. This happens so alarmingly abruptly I first assumed the copy of the film I was watching was missing a reel.

However Neb’s very noticeably absent from an important scene at the end where the cast are brought together. We can only speculate what happened to poor Neb, and why he ended up so ruthlessly dispatched to the cutting room floor. The treatment of Neb and the casting of Nemo in subsequent adaptations is something I’ll address in another post.

Nemo himself stands alongside Sherlock Holmes as a great example of a literary character whose cultural existence has a life beyond his creator, and who’s longevity in the popular consciousness relies far more on countless and varied media interpretations for fame than for people reading the books. Many more people will be familiar with their names than will have ever read the source material.

Featured in graphic novels, cartoons and now in video games, such the 2015 Japanese mobile game Fate/Grand Order, Nemo’s been portrayed by Russian, Egyptian, Czech, and Puerto Rican actors, as well as by Indian and Pakistani ones. And it’s in The Mysterious Island, not the more famous 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, that Verne reveals Nemo is an Indian Prince whose wife and child was murdered by the British during the historical Indian Rebellion of 1857, also known as The First War of Independence.

Nemo

It transpires Nemo is really Prince Dakkar, son of the Hindu raja of Bundelkhand, and a descendant of the Muslim Sultan Fateh Ali Khan Tipu of the Kingdom of Mysore. When Verne was writing The British Empire and the Third French Republic were competing for global superiority, and painting the British as the villains would no doubt be a winning strategy for the French writer, and not damage his sales either at home or in the US, a country often celebrated and the source of heroic characters in Verne’s work.

In 1914 when filming of this version of Nemo began production, the world had changed again, with The Great War, as The First World War was then known, was beginning in earnest. And here Nemo’s story is fudged considerably by Paton, who removes some historical context and shifts the blame away from the British.

The map showing India

We learn instead that Nemo’s life in aquatic exile aboard The Nautilus began after he was falsely accused of inciting a rebellion in the unnamed Asian country of his birth, one under colonial rule by an unnamed European. A map on the wall in one scene indicates it is indeed India. However the military uniforms appear more generically European, perhaps French or German than British. It’s possible all Europe colonialism looks the same to Americans. I’m not an expert in military uniform and perhaps the costume department had a surfeit of those costumes readily available.

Nemo’s tragic backstory role in the rebellion is relegated by Verne to a couple of paragraphs, however here it’s portrayed in flashback at the end of the film, with the rebellion allowing for some impressive sets and crowded battle scenes. Rather than being purpose built the sets look suspiciously as if they were borrowed from another production, but they add to the sense of spectacle and allow for a fittingly huge finale.

Williamson bros.

Despite readers of The Mysterious Island being familiar with Nemo’s origin story, interestingly, and presumably for publicity purposes, a title card claims Prince Daakar’s {sic} tragic story has never been told by Verne. The author died in 1905 and so wasn’t available to dispute the claim.

The title cards are fascinating in themselves. The first grandly proclaims this to be ‘The First Submarine Photoplay Ever Filmed’ which is catnip to fans of submarine films such as myself, as well as making this film hugely significant in the realms of special effects and cinematography.

Jules Verne

The second tells us it was directed by Stuart Paton and photographed by Eugene Gaudio, then the third card states the submarine photography was possible by using the inventions of the Williamson brothers, who ‘alone have solved the secret of under-the-ocean photography’ and we’re introduced to the Ernest and George Williamson themselves, who smilingly doff their hats for us. They can be justly proud of their work. And then we’re shown a still photograph of Verne himself, a shame he wasn’t around to see himself honoured so. Imagine if JRR Tolkien had been so honoured by Peter Jackson in his magnificent 2001-2003 Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The shark hunt

There’s a strong commitment to exterior location filming, and the underwater work is phenomenal. An astonishing underwater shark hunting trip is executed with the type of contemporary disregard for health and safety associated with the worst excesses of Cecil B. DeMille, which makes for a very exciting watch.

This undersea footage was shot in the Bahamas where Walt Disney 38 years later shot his 1954 James Mason-starring version of 20,000 Leagues, and for the same reasons, a great deal of natural light and very clear water.

In 1916, underwater cameras weren’t used to shoot the underwater scenes staged in shallow sunlit waters, but the Williamson brothers used a system of watertight tubes and mirrors to allow the camera to shoot reflected images of the scenes as they took place.

The exterior of The Nautilus looks very close to how Verne described it, a very smooth cylindrical hull with a wooden platform on top for the crew to stand on. Whether in or on the water, it’s these scenes that make the film such a joy.

According to IMDB.com, 20,000 Leagues was produced at the unadjusted eye-watering cost of $500,000 by The Universal Film Manufacturing Company, a precursor to todays Universal Pictures. And it took a staggering $8million at the box office, comfortably outgrossing the second biggest hit of the year which could only scrape together $2.18million, thank you and goodnight, D. W. Griffith’s non-apology of an historical epic, Intolerance.

For the pioneering underwater photography which captures Verne’s love of technological innovation, this is madly impressive. When added to it being respectful and faithful to the source while offering spectacle, romance, comedy and action adventure, this sets an extraordinarily high bar that many of the subsequent adaptations of Verne fail to reach.

You can read my review of 1929’s The Mysterious Island, HERE

You can read my review or the 1941 Russian adaptation of The Mysterious Island, HERE

My review of 1951’s Mysterious Island, is HERE

You can read my review of 1961’s Mysterious Island, HERE

And you can read my review of 1967’s The Stolen Airship, HERE

@ChrisHunneysett

THE SNOW QUEEN: MIRRORLANDS

Cert U Stars 3

Magic, mechanical mayhem, warring kingdoms and a battle between wizardry and science all feature in this upbeat and swashbuckling animated fairytale, an exciting and fun fable based on traditional European fairy tales and updated with the gloss of steampunk design and some superhero-style fisticuffs.

Gerda is the kind hearted, impetuous and brave young daughter of wizards who lives in a warm and sunny medieval kingdom, but she’s frustrated by a lack of power of her own.

Her land is ruled by a cruel king who favours science over magic and by exploiting their greed and gullibility of his subjects, begins to banish all magicians – including Gerda’s parents – to the Mirrorlands, the dreaded realm of the feared Snow Queen.

And so Gerda with her brother Kay, and friend Alfida, Gerda goes in pursuit of a magic key to free her loved ones and along the way discovers her own hidden powers.

The Snow Queen herself is a nicely acerbic monarch who although limited by a magic spell to her icy realm, is able to appear to Gerda as a ghostly spirit.

Yes it all feels a lot like a riff on Disney’s Frozen but on a creative level more akin to the animated capers of The Nut Job, or Tad The Explorer films.

There’s some jarringly out of place references to Alcatraz and suchlike and occasional use of modern slang but your little kids won’t care, they’ll be carried along by the epic sweep of the adventure on a journey of honey hued vistas. featuring lava lakes, giant rock monsters, and sky pirates.

However there’s a surprisingly intricate styling to the charming cityscapes, which feature robot-like street sweepers and trolley trams, and it’s full of slapstick silliness with mischievous and cute critters.

So it will entertain its target audience of your little ones, and without any songs to pad out the running time, it makes it’s a brisk enjoyable affair for the grown-ups.

THE FAIRY PRINCESS AND THE UNICORN

Cert U Stars 2

Magic and music take flight in this fantasy animated adventure based on the Bayala kids toy range and offers gentle entertainment aimed squarely at your little ones.

In a world divided into tribes of sun elves and shadow elves, the brave Princess Surah is a product of both regimes and must learn to control her growing magic powers while on a quest to recover a stolen dragon egg and prevent war.

Various story elements are reminiscent of fairy tales such as Sleeping Beauty, but with all the darkness stripped out and replaced with pretty rainbow coloured design. Even the peril comes wrapped in giant swirls of purple neon ribbons.

An environmentally friendly message of kindness, co-operation, tolerance and acceptance can’t be sniffed at, there are fun comic sidekicks in the shape of pet wolves and parrots and skunks, all the principal characters are female, most of the men are foolish and the young girls are the heroes.

It’s not up to Disney’s standard, but if your kids are familiar with the characters they’ll probably enjoy it more than I did.

100% WOLF

Cert 3 Stars 3

Werewolves and dogs are at each other’s throats as a pair of pooches go on the run in this boisterous family animated fable from Australia, a coming-of-age spin on The Lion King, bundled up with pop songs, slapstick, supernatural spells and spy gadgets.

On his 14th birthday Freddy expects to follow in his late father’s paw prints and become a fully fanged werewolf, but as his nefarious uncle is plotting to make himself the leader of the pack Freddy finds himself transformed into a poodle instead, and he has until the next moonrise to recover the lost magical Moonstone.

It’s in the possession of a deluded ice cream man in his Bond villain-style high-tech lair, and to retrieve it Freddy teams up with a stray dog named Batty who offers some streetwise advice and the hint of romance.

Alexs Stadermann previously directed 2014’s kiddie caper Maya the Bee Movie and knows his target audience, so he keeps it fast-paced, funny, with decent production values and most important of all maintains a steady stream of pee jokes to amuse kids of all ages.

VALHALLA: LEGEND OF THOR

Cert 12 Stars 3

Knee deep in folklore and medieval mud, this dark fantasy adventure from Denmark puts meat and blood on the bones of Scandinavian myths and is a coming-of-age tale of a young girl caught up in the.

Cecilia Loffredo and Saxo Molthke-Leth play the are brave yet endearingly flawed medieval mortal children Roskva and Tjalfe, who as punishment for a misdeed are required to serve as slaves to Thor, god of thunder, and accompany him on his quest to capture the dreaded giant wolf Fenrir.

This Thor is far removed from Marvel’s hugely popular superhero version, with Roland Moller being a proud, lusty and quarrelsome presence, while Dulfi Al-Jabouri is wryly enigmatic as his vain half-brother god of mischief, Loki.

An animated introduction sketches out the key mythology and warns of impending Ragnarok, the destruction of the world, while the
steady pace is augmented by a storming soundtrack.

Valhalla is based on a comic book and the focus on characters, plotting and power games feels a bit like watching Game of Thrones for kids.

THE QUEEN’S CORGI

Cert PG 85mins Stars 2

This bare bones animated adventure is a cheap-looking knock-off of the first The Secret Life of Pets caper, and a mongrel mix of slapstick, satire, romance and sports film wrapped in British union flag.

Jack Whitehouse voices a smug, snobby, entitled and unfunny Corgi called Rex, which means it’s an easy payday for the posh comic.

A present from Prince Philip to the Queen, Rex falls from his status as royal favourite, and ends up first in the dog house and then out on the street, from which he tries to  return home.

Meanwhile in Buckingham Palace there’s a character called Charlie who’s in dogged pursuit of the position of top dog, and long-suffering Footmen are peed on by pampered pedigree pets, so at least some of the political jokes have a little bite, unlike the toothless nips at Donald Trump.

It’s busy and simple enough to just about pass muster for the most undemanding of little kids.

 

SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME

Cert 12A 129mins Stars 4

You won’t believe what you’re seeing in this comic book action adventure as Spider-man hits the high spots in a deliciously deceptive head-spinning romp.

A direct sequel to blockbuster smash, Avengers: Endgame, this is a mischievous mix of sweet high school romcom, fun teenage spy caper and exciting superhero CGI spectacular.

Peter Parker is in romantic pursuit of classmate MJ, on their school’s European vacation, when his costumed alter-ego Spider-man learns heroes don’t get holidays. 

Grumpy secret agent Nick Fury teams Spider-man with superhero Mysterio, which will be a surprise to long-time Spidey fans as Mysterio is one of the web-swinger’s best known arch-villains.

But re-inventing Mysterio as a dimension-hopping hero with a tragic past makes him a more interesting character while also tying this version of Spider-man into last year’s animated Multi-verse adventure.

Parker identifies Mysterio as the man to replace Iron Man as his mentor, and they set about battling the Elementals, extra-dimensional giants with power over air, earth, wind and fire.

Returning with a winning chemistry as Peter Parker and MJ, Brit actor Tom Holland and pop star Zendaya are the beating heart of the film, with her self-contained charisma making MJ the best superhero squeeze since Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane, in 1978’s Superman.

And they’re reunited with the key young cast members of Spider-man: Homecoming, and Marvel fan favourites such as Samuel L. Jackson, Jon Favreau and Marisa Tomei reprise their roles as the adult guardians.

Indie movie star Jake Gyllenhaal brings his unique brand of loopy intensity to Mysterio, and while he often gives the impression of a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders, it’s a useful quality to have when playing a guy trying to save the planet.

Having Parker unveil various old and new Spider-suits is part of a stream of call-backs to previous films, which will have fans cooing in delight.

Plus a pair of fat-rimmed hi-tech spectacles are a knowing wink to Michael Caine’s 1960’s spy, Harry Palmer, and neatly magnify the script’s central concerns.

While the film wears the frothy air of an espionage caper, the tone disguises some very serious thoughts about fake news and multi-media manipulation, while reminding us Parker was employed in other incarnations as a photojournalist.

From dealing with the fallout of Endgame to deciphering what Marvel has in store for Spider-man, there’s a lot to uncover in this, and one of the best secrets is kept until after the credits, so make sure you stay until the absolute end.

Lion

Director: Garth Davis (2017) BBFC cert: PG

This real life long distance drama covers a lot of hard miles on its struggle around the globe.

Searingly sincere and with few surprises, we follow the footsteps of Saroo, an illiterate Indian boy adopted by a wealthy white Australian couple.

Played by the endearing Sunny Pawar, the six year old inadvertently goes on an epic train journey before ending up in the claustrophobic chaos of Calcutta. There’s a touch of Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp in the sad soulfulness of the streetwise urchin.

Saroo is eventually adopted along with another boy by Nicole Kidman in a bad haircut. Suddenly it’s twenty five years later and he’s a strapping surfer dude, played by the charming presence Dev Patel.

Suffering an identity crisis at university, Saroo begins the struggle to find his birth family. Rooney Mara plays the most generic of girlfriends, forced to parachute in and out to give Saroo someone to explain himself to.

It’s a seemingly impossible task given Saroo doesn’t know his surname, the name of his home town and he has search area with a radius over twelve hundred kilometres long.

Fortunately in the intervening years some clever bod has invented google maps, which helps his quest no end. I’ve had less effective sat navs when trying to find an open garage. Too little time is spent on the detective work and the solution feels woefully under-earned.

There’s a spiritual core to the film which helps us cope with the poverty porn, the frequent suggestions of abuse and extended bouts of moping. Identity, culture and language are all touched upon but sadly not explored.

And after a sure footed sprightly start,it becomes a long slog under the weight of some heavy emotional baggage. Plus the presence of Patel reminds us another, finer film. At times it feels like we’re watching Slumdog Millionaire 2: The Backpacker Years.

Ultimately, what the film says is just because you’ve gone to Oz, there’s still no place like home.

@ChrisHunneysett

Swallows And Amazons (2016)

Director: Philippa Lowthorpe (2016) BBFC cert: PG

There’s a steady hand on the tiller of this handsomely crafted old fashioned family adventure.

It’s a sincere adaption of Arthur Ransome’s classic childrens book, though the liberties it takes with the plot don’t hold much water.

Setting out a steady pace, the sailing sequences are impressively staged. It paints a picture of privileged England at play in a gorgeous rural setting.

It’s 1935 and in the looming shadow of the Second World War, Mrs. Walker takes her baby and four children to the Lake District farmhouse for the summer.

Kelly McDonald plays mother to young actors Dane Hughes, Orla Hill, Teddie-Rose Malleson-Allen and Bobby McCulloch. They are are an enthusiastic, fresh faced, well scrubbed bunch who seem to be sporting a vintage nautical range from the Boden catalogue.

The four children embark in their small boat, the Swallow, and head off to Undiscovered Island to camp for a few days.

Once there they feud with the children of another boat, the Amazon. Sporting home-made masks and pirate costumes, the bickering sisters also have a claim to the island. But they join forces when the Amazon’s mysterious uncle is kidnapped.

Teddie-Rose Malleson-Allen as the younger sister Tatty is the stand out performer. Her name was changed from the novel’s Titty, to prevent titters.

Rafe Spall and Andrew Scott are unfairly given top billing above the kids. In a silly espionage plot not in the novel, they play a pair of spies engaging in a game of cat and mouse about the lake.

Jessica Hynes and Harry Enfield gently spar as Mr and Mrs Jackson, the bucolic owners of the Walker’s holiday farmhouse.

The orchestral soundtrack enforces a bracing tone of jolly derring do, soaring with as many peaks as offered by the glorious countryside.

There’s a refreshing absence of CGI and an empahsis on outdoor activity as the kids learn how to make fire and pitch a tent. They also swim, fish and star gaze.

Swallows And Amazons is a pleasant enough time spent messing about on the water. And if it encourages kids to aspire to technology free activities, then it’s all the more welcome for that.

@ChrisHunneysett