For those confused that the title "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" must have something to do with a sports widow who finds her dream coming true, a quick lesson in measures: the "league" referred to here is an indefinite distance generally defined as about 3 to 3-1/2 miles. This is important to note, because the last time the word "league" was uttered in a non-sports context was, oh, about 43 years ago when the original 1954 Disney feature based on the Jules Verne classic novel was released. The fact that CBS is blowing off such a name remake outside of sweeps is generally a tip-off that the network may feel it has a canine on its hands.
In truth, this “20,000 Leagues” is not quite that bad. For one thing, it features spectacular photography from teams headed by Alan Hume and James Devis, and director Michael Anderson (who also helmed Verne’s multiple Oscar-winner “Around the World in 80 Days” in 1956) lends the production a classy, refined tone.Then there is the story. Silly and claustrophobic, it conveys none of the tension or suspense of the glorious Richard Fleischer-directed original that starred Kirk Douglas, Paul Lukas, James Mason and Peter Lorre. It shows us great underwater pictures of fish, but then so does Sea World. Verne’s basic story (set in 1868) tells of a world-famous New York marine biologist named Professor Aronnax (Richard Crenna, looking pained) who has been recruited to identify a long, black creature (Howard Stern?) that has this nasty habit of opening huge gashes on seagoing vessels by smashing them with its steely whatevers. When the professor and his scientist daughter Sophie (Julie Cox) take to the sea to help find the monster, their ship is rammed, but not by a monster. It turns out to be the hi-tech submarine Nautilus commanded by the vindictive Captain Nemo (Ben Cross of “Chariots of Fire”). Nemo is one strange dude, hoarding gold and paintings and jewels and smoking seaweed cigars. He’s kind of an underwater survivalist. If he had more legroom on his sub, he’d probably try his hand at cult leadership. Instead, he aims to take over the world by slamming ships one at a time, still paying back society for the murders of his wife, children and parents years before. Mason made a truly frightful Nemo in the Disney classic. He was a power-mad maniac with a chilling edge. By contrast, Cross is more anal-retentive than megalomaniacal, more lonely than vindictive — and so stiff he appears on the verge of rigor-mortis. He is a control freak’s control freak but roughly as imposing as Flipper. While Cross clearly is a magnificent actor, he plays Nemo with too much intensity, far too little menace. Joe Wiesenfeld’s tedious script tells of Nemo’s lust for the professor’s daughter, his spiteful relationship with a free-spirited harpoonist (Paul Gross of “Due South,” who supplies the film with its requisite beefcake quotient) and his hot-’n'-cold dialogue with the prof himself. By the time this oceanic tale splashes toward its conclusion with the Nautilus getting swallowed by a huge monster that looks like a really ugly rug, the only remaining issue is how to convince Nemo to get his spiteful backside into therapy. Or at least into some sort of committed relationship. The effects here are splendid, with the computer graphics and technical work particularly exquisite. They almost make the movie worth watching.