DVD Review: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1997)

“The sea is everything.”

1997 was either a good year or a bad year for Jules Verne enthusiasts.  It saw the release of two versions of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea – a TV movie and this 3 hour mini-series.  This is the one with the more star power, but both were flawed.

The year is 1886, and ships are being “attacked” throughout the oceans.  Assistant Professor Pierre Arronax (Patrick Dempsey) has the theory that the attacker is a giant narwhale.  His father (John Bach – who ironically played Nemo in a television series based on Verne’s Mysterious Island), which blames Pierre for the death of his mother in childbirth, scoffs at his theories. 

Pierre is hired by the Cunard line to assist in an expedition on the warship Abraham Lincoln to pursue the monster.  During the attack on the monster Pierre realizes that his theories are wrong and the monster is manmade.  However, he is thrown overboard with two of his crewmates, Ned Land (Bryan Brown) and Cabe Attucks (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a newly freed slave.  The Abraham Lincoln is crippled in the attack and limps back to port and the three men find themselves aboard the attacking ship. 

The ship is the submarine Nautilus and commanded by the mysterious Captain Nemo (Michael Caine).  However, Admiral McCutcheon (Peter McCauley) of the Abraham Lincoln swears revenge on the mysterious craft that crippled his ship and eventually enlists the elder Arronax.  Meanwhile our “stowaways” are exposed to the wonders of the deep and the technologically advanced Nautilus.  Pierre even discovers that Nemo is hiding his daughter (Mia Sara, token love interest for Pierre) aboard, but what is Nemo’s ultimate use of the Nautilus?

Michael Caine as Nemo

Michael Caine as Nemo

Okay, this is not the ultimate Jules Verne adaptation, and is stretched to a mini-series length.  Unfortunately, to do the stretching they added a lot of clichés.  Both of the 20K adaptations felt the need to add female characters (Nemo’s daughter and a girl pearl diver stowaway love interest for Cabe in this one, and Arronax has a daughter in the other).  This version also adds the Cabe character – in an effort to attract African American viewers perhaps?  There is also the addition of the father and son dynamic between the Arronaxes and the surrogate father that Pierre finds in Nemo.  The eventual Darth Vader resemblance between Nemo and Pierre is…..well if you’re gonna steal, steal from the best. 

The effects are also a mixed bag.  Some look great, I particularly like the model work done for the Nautilus, but I think that it is too big and technologically advanced for what Verne describes.  I also liked the set for Nemo’s library.  A lot of the deep sea diving scenes involving the “stars” are shot dry for wet with CGI added water bubbles. During those scenes the diving helmets look extremely plastic.  The acting should be better considering the stars, but it is a mixed bag. 

Caine was doing an odd speech pattern and am not sure what he was trying to accomplish.  I hate to say it but it reminded me of the time he did the Steven Segal movie.  I didn’t exactly hate his Nemo, but wish for more of the James Mason style.

Fans of the novel will be greatly offended by this version and the screenwriter’s tinkering (perhaps especially with the Ned Land character).  This version does have the Nautilus trapped in the arctic – which most adaptations don’t cover.  However, to a degree if you turn off your brain and just go along with it, the mini does have some entertainment value. 

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is presented in fullscreen as it was originally shown on television.  Special features are nonexistent.  I’m sure that maybe some promotional material was produced to promote it for the network showing and it’s a shame that none of that could’ve found its way onto the DVD.

Patrick Dempsey as Pierre Arronax

Patrick Dempsey as Pierre Arronax


However, I should note that the version I bought did come with a free ticket to see the new remake of the Poseidon Adventure (it drops the Adventure, we’ll have to wait and see if the movie follows that pattern though I doubt it, looks action packed).  Some online retailers list the version with the ticket as a limited edition (and charge $5 or so dollars more for it!) but the only difference between the discs is the ticket.  The store that I picked up my copy at only had copies with tickets enclosed since it was a promotional in their weekly flyer.

Verne fans should keep repeating to themselves “it’s only a television miniseries” and might find some entertainment value.  The true adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is yet to be made (I still prefer the Disney version) but this might make a rental for the curious.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is now available at Amazon. As of yet, there is not a release date for the UK. Visit the DVD’s database for more information.

Note the date on this article may be incorrect due to importing it from our old system.