Picks and Pans Review: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
Captain Nemo (knowingly): "You are wondering, perhaps, whether there will be an opportunity to test your famous deep-water theory of static evolution?"
Professor Aronnax (professorially): "Precisely so."
Inevitably, this TV movie often plays like parody. If one is intent on retelling Jules Verne's 19th-century adventure tale in 1997, there is nothing to do but tend to the casting and production values and set the course straight ahead. Ben Cross, the gaunt Briton best known for Chariots of Fire, is a most suitable Nemo, the brooding, pompous builder of an undersea empire. But Richard Crenna flounders badly as Aronnax, the distinguished marine biologist who becomes a luxury-class prisoner on Nemo's submarine. Crenna pitches his voice higher, affects a vague accent, even dons pince-nez. Alas, he's hopelessly unconvincing. In this version, Aronnax's assistant is his strong-willed daughter Sophie (Julie Cox), who catches the eye of both Nemo and Ned Land (Paul Gross), a bold whaler unwillingly along for the ride. Of the two, the captain has by far the classier come-on: "Indeed, I find your fearless passion to know the truth intoxicating." Now, that's the way to sweet-talk a scientist.
The underwater-exploration sequences, filmed partly in the Red Sea, are quite impressive. But director Michael Anderson (the 1956 feature Around the World in 80 Days) somehow failed to notice that when Ned marches into the mouth of a leviathan with his trusty harpoon, he looks like a tiny dentist administering a megadose of novocaine.