20,000 Leagues Under the Sea {1954}

This definitive big screen big budget adaptation of Jules Verne’s 1870 science fiction novel is a handsomely-staged family adventure mostly remembered for Kirk Douglas star performance and fabulous design. Yet there’s also a surprising degree of Cold War concerns bubbling beneath the surface, making this hugely entertaining version far more interesting than most subsequent adaptations.

Running at just over two hours, the filmmakers sensibly abandon the vast majority of Verne’s self-aggrandising scientific posturing in successful pursuit of huge box office success.

Broadly faithful to the wide-eyed adventurous spirit and plot of Verne, we follow a Professor, his servant and a harpooner, who’re kidnapped at sea by the mercurial and revenge-driven submariner, Captain Nemo, and join him for several escapades onboard his submarine, the Nautilus, while plotting their own escape.

The trio were recruited by the US government in San Francisco, a reassuringly ‘Western’ opening location for the audience, before sailing to the South seas to confirm or deny the existence of a sea monster which has been sinking ships. 

The smooth but shady US recruiting agents want to to beat other nations in capturing this sea monster in order to establish and exploit any military capability it may possess. And thus the 1950’s audience is immediately plunged into an allegory of the post-war arms race with the Soviet Union.

Whereas the French writer Verne had the US government employ Professor Aronnax in order to have a compatriot hero to appeal to Verne’s home readership, here Aronnax is not only valued as a scientific advisor but his nationality offers the cover of political neutrality to a US military expedition in contested overseas territory.

This accurately reflects the use of other nation proxies to project US power and further its national interests during the then developing Cold War and establishes a degree of paranoia which the film later develops when it deploys mushroom cloud imagery. 

However while the film demonstrates the destructive power of nuclear weapons, it also offers an argument in their favour and sympathy to those who developed them. More of which later.

Peter Lorre is a wonderfully cowardly cynic as Conseil, servant to the dull Professor Aronnax, played by Paul Lukas, who’s performance suggests the Hungarian actor fully understands he’s not there to upstage the top-billed star, Kirk Douglas, who plays the two-fisted harpooner, Ned Land.

Already a household name and a double best actor nominee for 1949’s Champion, and 1952’s The Bad and the Beautiful, Douglas perfectly understands the material, and delivers a wonderful cigar- chomping, scenery-chewing and scene-stealing performance, which screams ‘movie star’.

A role tailor-made to demonstrate his athleticism, humour, charisma and boisterous comic ability, Douglas also commits fully to the required singing and dancing, and if he’s not the greatest at either, well I doubt there was anyone on set with the authority or nerve to tell him.

It would be hard to find a scene in his career more joyous than the one where he shares a song and kiss with a pet seal, and their duet is a piece of wonder that is comic, angry and tender. If only Douglas had always been this generous to his co-stars.

And in the fight scenes you have to worry for the stunt team as the 38 year old Douglas, still six years from  playing rebellious Roman slave, Spartacus, seems determined to never pull his punches. At times he seems to be auditioning for a live action version of Popeye the sailor.

Director Robert Fleischer would re-team with Douglas two years later with The Vikings, and in a lengthy career, Fleischer would go on to make 1967’s serial killer drama, The Boston Strangler, 1973’s sci-fi conspiracy thriller, Solyent Green, 1980’s musical remake, The Jazz Singer, and 1984’s Sword-and -Sorcery sequel, Conan the Destroyer.

The mysterious Captain Nemo is revealed by turns a brilliant scientist, ruthless, an intellectual and a sympathetic victim, an ‘other’, i.e. a non-WASP, who serves his ‘guests’ ‘unusual’ food.

All this is true to Verne, but although early film incarnations of Verne’s novel recognised Nemo’s royal identity as an Indian prince, here Nemo is played by white British actor, James Mason. His other major role that year was alongside Judy Garland, in A Star is Born.

Here the template is set for subsequent interpretations to whitewash the role and those who follow in Mason’s footsteps include the very non-Indian actors, Herbert Lom, Michael Caine and Patrick Stewart.

But Mason’s character is more interesting than many later interpretations, with Nemo’s non-white otherness being coded as Jewish, and Nemo’s struggle for revenge on the British empire being substituted for the fight to use nuclear power to defend the state of Israel.

Verne’s Nemo wants revenge for the slaughter of his wife and child by the British during the 1857 Indian War of Independence, but Mason’s Nemo is a widowed state-less refugee, a survivor of slavery in a mine producing phosphate for war weapons. 

We later see the mine which is visibly intended to evoke the Holocaust of the Second World War. Nemo was sent there after refusing to divulge the secret of the power source of the Nautilus, implied as nuclear power. Anyone with a passing knowledge of the European Jewish emigre scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project and its development of the first nuclear bombs, will be able to see the intended parallels.

The world’s first nuclear-powered submarine, USS Nautilus (SSN-571) was delivered to the US Navy in 1955. Thus Nemo using nuclear power for world peace dovetails nicely with contemporary US military policy, he’s also trying to protect his island sanctuary from assault, a haven which can be read as a proxy for the recently established state of Israel. Nemo repeats, ‘There is hope for the future, when the world is ready for a new and better life then all this will someday come to pass in God’s good time.’

There is hope for the future, when the world is ready for a new and better life then all this will someday come to pass in God’s good time.

The giant squid which threatens the Nautilus is direct from Verne’s novel, but allied to the theme of nuclear power aligns 20,000 Leagues with sci-fi monster movies of the day, which saw humanity threatened by insects and other creatures mutated to enormous size by nuclear sources.

Nuclear paranoia of sci-fi classic, The Day The Earth Stood Still, had been released in 1953, and Ray Harryhausen’s 1955 The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, saw a hibernating dinosaur released by an atomic blast to terrorise the world.

Released the same year as 20,000 Leagues, Them! saw huge radiation-affected ants bring terror to the US, and Godzilla stomped into cinemas in 1954. The US was threatened by aliens in 1953’s It Came From Outer Space, and by giant spiders in 1955’s Tarantula! Whether aliens, monsters or giant insects, and whether nuclear powered or not, 1954 was hotbed of paranoia about the Soviet nuclear threat.

It must also be noted that 1954 was the height of McCarthyism, the Red Scare, and the communist ‘witch-hunts’ in Hollywood. Ever the patriot, Walt Disney had testified before the HUAC hearings in 1947, and it’s interesting that the ultimately sympathetic Nemo argues in favour of the benefits of nuclear power, and the film ends on an audience-reassuring note in faith in god, science and the future.

The nuclear subtext is dressed up in art direction and special effects and 20,000 Leagues deservedly won Oscars  in both those categories, as well as scoring a nom for the editing. 

The sets, model ships and submarines are great and the locations are epic, representing Hollywood at the top of its game. If the Nautilus is more a metallic fish than the tube of Verne’s imagination, the submarine is a gorgeous steampunk creation, with brass fittings, red upholstery and a magnificent organ. And long before Spielberg’s 1993 dinosaur adventure Jurassic Park, the animatronic work of the giant squid is spectacular.

Although stock footage of whales and dolphins is occasionally mixed in with scenes on deck clearly filmed in a studio, there’s an impressive commitment to the underwater diving sequences, made when aqua diving was a novelty not an easily-accessible holiday activity. 

These sequences were filmed in the photogenic waters of the Caribbean, as was the silent 1916 version of 20,000 Leagues, and if that gives some sections the air of a travelogue, it’s worth remembering foreign travel was an expensive luxury at the time and this form of visual escapism was very much intended to drive box office. 

Still, the shark attack is very impressive and the location work helps retain Verne’s tone of wide-eyed wonder and his view of the sea as a resource to be worked. Mind you, the man-handling of crabs and giant turtles by the underwater performers wouldn’t be allowed today.

Sadly the same couldn’t said for the depiction of the South sea islanders, who Nemo describes as ‘cannibals’, and whose appearance is played for laughs, and their portrayal is no less sophisticated than similarly portrayed people in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. 

And though Nemo drolly asserts the ‘cannibals’ right to attack the Nautilus, true to the book he then defends the Nautilus with electric shock treatment. 

Similarly to the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, there’s no denying the scale of the action is impressive, perhaps ever more so than then, in our CGI era. And seeing Douglas run through the jungle reminds us of his son Michael, in 1984’s Romancing the Stone.

Despite the film throwing a series of grandly staged set-pieces at us, it’s possible a modern multiplex audience may find the pace plodding. Yet the crowd-pleasing ticking clock plot and punch-ups of the finale are pure Hollywood entertainment, harking back to Flash Gordon serials of the 1930s, and anticipating the missions of 007 of the following decades.

And though the final scene of the novel is downbeat, the filmmakers compromise by cleaving closely to Verne yet also providing a note of uplift, in which Kirk Douglas’s seal is seen to survive, and Nemo is given the last word.

To do this a cinematic sleight of hand is used which would be echoed two years later in Elvis Presley’s big screen debut, Love Me Tender. The enduring fascination with and longevity in popular culture of Verne’s greatest creation, Captain Nemo, lies with his mercurial nature which allows for continual reinvention. However, never did I think when I began writing this that I would end with a comparison with the King of Rock ’n’ Roll.

Available on Disney+.

Love classic sci-fi? Check out my website HERE

Verne returned to Captain Nemo in his 1875 novel, The Mysterious Island, which has been filmed several times. Read my review of 1961’s Mysterious Island, HERE

You can read my review of the 1916 adaptation of Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island, HERE

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

Read my review or the 1941 Russian adaptation of The Mysterious Island, HERE

And you can read my review of 1951’s Mysterious Island, HERE

And my review of 1973’s version HERE

@ChrisHunneysett

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.

Love classic sci-fi? Check out my website HERE

Read my review of Disney’s fabulous 1954 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, HERE

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

You can read my review of 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

And my review of 1973’s version 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