20,000 Leagues Under the Sea appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.55:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Given the age of the material, the picture consistently looked pretty positive.
Sharpness mostly came across well, though some inconsistencies occurred. Wide shots appeared somewhat soft at times. Otherwise, the image appeared nicely crisp and defined. I noticed no problems related to jagged edges or moiré effects, but a little edge enhancement popped up occasionally. Despite the vintage of the movie, Leagues displayed only a few source problems. Grain seemed a bit heavy at times, and that affected unlikely shots like bright daytime images; grain during low-light scenes doesn’t surprise me, but to see so much in these well-lit sequences appeared odd. Otherwise, Leagues offered virtually no print concerns, as it looked very clean and fresh.
Overall, colors looked exceptional. The movie presented brilliant and distinctive hues throughout the flick. I found myself stunned at times due to the lively nature of the tones, as the colors mostly appeared absolutely spectacular. Black levels largely seemed deep and tight, but Leagues offered an image dominated by blues, which tainted the darker tones slightly. Nighttime shots looked especially blue, which seemed to result from the use of sets in those cases. “Day for night” shots appeared mildly dense, but otherwise shadows were reasonably accurate and well defined. Overall, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea often looked fantastic, but the mix of concerns knocked my grade down to a “B+”.
To my surprise, I thought the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea held up extremely well over the years. Music demonstrated very good stereo separation and imaging, and effects spread nicely across the front spectrum. Elements popped up in their appropriate places and moved distinctly around the area. Cannon blasts presented neatly delineated localization and motion. The surrounds mostly added general reinforcement of the elements, but those speakers did so well. Music often popped up back there, and some of the more visceral segments manifested solid activity from the rears. For example, the squid sequence brought the surrounds into the action well.
Audio quality showed its age but seemed fine for the era. A little edginess marred some lines, but speech mostly sounded acceptably natural and detailed. A certain level of tinniness affected the track as a whole, but this didn’t really harm the mix. Music was quite bright and lively for its age, as the score sounded fairly vivid and rich with decent bass response. The low-end came across as a little boomy in regard to effects, but those elements nonetheless packed a more substantial punch than I expect for a movie of this vintage. The effects also appeared fairly crisp and accurate despite the moderate level of thinness. Ultimately, I felt quite pleased with the audio of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, as I felt it remained well above average given the period in which it was created.
Though they apparently abandoned the name after 2002, 20,000 Leagues comes across like another release in the studio’s “Vault Disney” series of two-DVD sets. The majority of the extras reside on the second platter. However, the first disc includes some good pieces. For Leagues, we start with an audio commentary from director Richard Fleischer and film historian Rudy Behlmer. Both men sit together for this running, screen-specific track. Behlmer mostly acts as interviewer and he and Fleischer chat about the movie.
They cover a nice mix of topics. We learn about the use of the then-new Cinemascope technology, how Fleischer got the job, working with the cast, various notes about the effects – with a particular emphasis on the complications of the squid sequence – and other issues, along with many compelling anecdotes. Fleischer adds some historical perspective about the era and working with Walt, and it’s very interesting to learn details about the rivalry between Disney and the director’s animation studio boss Max. Behlmer mostly acts as interviewer, but he kicks in some details on his own. Overall, this commentary seems nicely chatty and illuminating.
In addition to the audio commentary, DVD One provides a classic Disney short. In this case, we find a 1954 offering called Grand Canyonscope. This six-minute and 50-second piece ran along with the theatrical exhibitions of Leagues, and it presents a rare Cinemascope animated short. Unfortunately, the 2.55:1 cartoon doesn’t feature anamorphic enhancement. The clip shows Donald Duck as he tours the Grand Canyon and seems like a moderately entertaining piece.
When you start the DVD, you’ll find the usual complement of advertisements. Here we get commercials for The Lion King, Pirates of the Caribbean, Finding Nemo, the animated X-Men series, and Atlantis II: Milo’s Return. From the main menu, you’ll discover a Sneak Peeks area that includes all of these promos plus trailers for Stitch: The Movie and George of the Jungle 2.
Lastly, DVD One features the THX Optimizer. Also found on many other DVDs, this purports to help you set up your system for the best reproduction of both picture and sound, ala stand-alone programs such as Video Essentials. I’ve never tried the Optimizer since I’m happy with my settings, but if you don’t own something such as Essentials, the Optimizer may help you improve picture and audio quality.
Next we move to DVD Two, where we launch with a new documentary called The Making of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. At a whopping 87 minutes and 36 seconds, “Making” features some clips from the movie along with lots of footage from the set and mostly contemporary interviews with various participants. In the latter category, we hear from director Richard Fleischer, actor Kirk Douglas, special photographic effects artist Bob Broughton, designer/illustrator Harper Goff, Walt Disney Company Vice Chairman Roy Disney, film historian Rudy Behlmer, John Kuri, the son of set decorator Emile Kuri, matte artist Peter Ellenshaw, Sr. VP Creative Department John Hench, science fiction illustrator Vincent Di Fate, stunt divers Bill Stropahl and Al Hansen, movie memorabilia collector Bob Burns, and Leslie Iwerks, the granddaughter of special photographic techniques developer Ub Iwerks.
A nicely detailed program, “Making” covers many bases. It starts with Walt’s early concept for the tale as an animated film and its transformation to live action, Fleischer’s start on the project, story problems, risks due to the high budget, casting, reflections about the actors, working with the seal, Douglas’ singing work, problems with Lukas, multiple stage sets at Disney, Universal and Fox, Jamaican unit, underwater shooting, equipment challenges, diving equipment and issues, weather interference, other underwater challenges and dangers, shooting “dry for wet” with the principals, use of rear projection and matte paintings, animated shots, the creation of the Nautilus, Nautilus sets and their design, acquisition of props and the organ, making the squid sequence, the need for more money to finish the flick, and the film’s reception.
At times, “Making” concentrates a little too heavily on the technical aspects. While we get some information about other creative endeavors, most of the program focuses on the nuts and bolts of the flick’s effects and other special processes. Nonetheless, it provides a lively and informative piece that offers quite a lot of useful information. The archival footage seems wonderful, especially since it helps illustrate topics under discussion. For example, we don’t just hear about an encounter with an eel – we see it as well. We also get particularly good demonstrations of rear projection and matte painting techniques. Overall, this documentary covers its subject well and is fun and entertaining.
After this we find Jules Verne and Walt Disney: Explorers of the Imagination, a 16-minute and nine-second program. It looks at the ways these men’s paths crossed. We get some shots from movies and archival materials plus comments from science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany, science fiction illustrator Vincent Di Fate, University of California at Riverside Professor George A. Slusser, science fiction writer/astrophysicist Gregory Benford, Rudy Behlmer, collector/editor Forrest J. Ackerman, and collector Bob Burns.
“Explorers” starts with some history on Verne and then moves chronologically until it gets to Disney’s career. From there it relates the similar interests the pair shared and delves into some matters related to Leagues and other Disney works with a Verne bent. A more comprehensive look at Verne’s life and career would have been more useful, but “Explorers” manages to offer some nice moments.
An attempt to provide some factual background, The Humboldt Squid: A Real Sea Monster runs seven minutes, seven seconds. It features comments from filmmaker/explorer Scott Cassell as he talks about ocean life and the giant squid. The program includes a lot of shots of real squids as well, and it gives us a succinct examination of the inspiration for the movie’s monster.
In the “Lost Treasures” area we get one clip: The Sunset Squid. This three-minute and 16-second piece shows the original shoot of the famous squid fight from League. As noted in DVD One’s audio commentary, the filmmakers altered this scene notably from its original conception, and this snippet lets us see how the first intended it to look. It’s a very valuable addition to the package.
The Disney Studio Album gives us a montage. It runs for four minutes and eight seconds and provides a snapshot of the studio circa 1954. We find out what they did during that year, and the information covers a wide range of topics; in addition to movies, we look at TV, the theme parks, and even projects then in developments. It’s a cool little bit.
Inside the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea Production Archives, we locate scads of materials. When we move to the Production Gallery, we get a three minute and 23 second running program that shows a mix of photos. This section is solely for the lazy, as the material it contains appears elsewhere in stillframe form. Watch this one only if you don’t like to bother with frame-by-frame access.
For information about the film’s composer, we go to The Musical Legacy of Paul Smith. The 10-minute and 37-second program features new interviews with composers Alexander Rannie and Richard Sherman as well as some older tidbits from the late Smith himself. Rannie dominates this fairly solid discussion of Smith’s career. We learn about his start in the business and his work at Disney. We get good examples of his work, and Rannie ensures we learn something about the music theory behind it. Overall, “Legacy” helps shed some light on Paul Smith and his music.
A fairly weak piece, Touring the Nautilus pops up next. This offers a five-minute and 21-second glimpse of the sub. It uses computer graphics, movie clips, and archival materials to take us through the vessel. It includes no narration; instead, we just hear movie audio and music. Some of the stills seem decent, but otherwise this feels like a waste of time.
After this we move to a Storyboard to Scene Comparison. This seven-minute and two-second segment uses a split-screen format. The movie resides on the bottom while the storyboards appear on top. It covers the scene in which the interlopers first see Nemo’s crew at the undersea burial and the one in with the squid battle. It’s a good piece for fans of storyboards.
An excerpt from a 1955 Disneyland TV show, Monsters of the Deep lasts six minutes and 38 seconds. Walt introduces the subject and then sends us to the set to hear from Kirk Douglas. He starts to chat about the storyboards but eventually hands the reins to Peter Lorre. He then leads us into some movie clips. The program includes far too much of the latter to be really useful, but the shots of Walt, Douglas and Lorre make it fun to watch anyway.
Another look at the past comes with Movie Merchandise, a nine-minute and five-second featurette. We hear from collectors Paul and Larry Brooks as they lead us on a tour through their roster of Leagues memorabilia. Though the presentation seems a little dry, it’s very fun to see all this old stuff, especially if you’re a like-minded collecting geek like me.
During other extras, we learn of Unused Animation created for the film. Here we see three minutes and two seconds of this footage that depicts sea life. A mix of color and black and white shots, I think it’s very good the images failed to make the movie, as I can’t imagine they’d have blended well with the live action. Nonetheless, it’s nice to get a glimpse at them now.
More unused material appears in the Trims section. This includes eight minutes and 50 seconds of footage not used in the film. Actually, that’s a little deceptive, as the clips don’t come from the original Cinemascope takes. Instead, we learn that a 16mm camera captured parts of the shoot for potential use on a Disney special, so these silent snippets come from those sessions. Some look like excerpts from the movie, while others present a more traditional behind the scenes appearance. Nothing terribly fascinating shows up here, and the lack of sound makes them less interesting. I’m sure fans will really dig the bits, though.
This area ends with a theatrical trailer that runs a lengthy four minutes and 33 seconds. Next we locate scads of stillframe materials. In the Galleries area, we find a whopping 422 “Production Stills”. There’s some good stuff here, and most – if not all – of it gives us a clearer version of the footage in the “Production Gallery” montage. Too bad the DVD’s producers didn’t see fit to use the thumbnailed presentation found on other Disney discs; it’d make this huge set of photos easier to manage. “Production Art” splits into three areas: “Concept Art” (137 frames), “Costumes” (32 shots) and “Storyboards” (84 stills). “Biographies” provides listings for actors James Mason. Peter Lorre, Kirk Douglas, and Paul Lukas plus director Fleischer. Basically, these offer annotated filmographies; they lack much depth.
Within the “Advertising” domain, we locate eight “Lobby Cards”, 65 shots of “Posters”, 33 stills of “Publicity”, and 33 shots of Leagues “Merchandise”; that domain mixes images of related records and a comic strip adaptation. Nicely, some frames in the “Posters” area isolate the many pieces that make up some of them. In “Documents”, we see 212 screens of “Production Documents” plus 32 frames that form a “Harper Goff Letter” to a magazine editor to discuss issues related to the film’s production. The latter seems especially cool, since it comes in Goff’s original handwriting, misspellings and all. (He really thought it was spelled “thot”?) Lastly, the “Screenplay Excerpt” offers the “Nemo’s Death” scene. The text runs 10 screens, and the scene itself can be viewed from here, which I thought was a nice touch.
Within the Audio Archives we get some cool material. First we find three “Radio Spots”; these last a total of two minutes, 37 seconds. “Peter Lorre’s ADR Tracks” runs six minutes, and 13 seconds as it presents a looping session with the actor and the director. “Captain Nemo’s Organ Music” takes five minutes, 21 seconds and offers exactly what it describes: recording sessions for these elements. The ADR piece is easily the coolest part of this domain. While most of us know about looping, we don’t usually get to hear the way the sessions work, so this demonstration seems very fun.
Menu oddity: though the studio doesn’t list Leagues as part of that collection, the menu on DVD Two clearly refers to the “Vault Disney” series. Note that DVD Two uses menus absolutely identical to those on the four “Vault Disney” packages from 2002; obviously they intended to continue the line but decided to drop the moniker at the last minute.
Personally, I don’t care what they call the discs; as long as Disney continues to make excellent releases like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, I’ll feel happy. The movie holds up fairly well after almost 50 years. I think it moves a little slowly at times and seems somewhat erratic, but it presents enough excitement and spectacle to function nicely. The DVD offers quite good picture and audio along with a simply excellent roster of extras. An absolutely splendid DVD, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea will make many fans very happy.