Produced for television in 1997 but only now making it onto DVD, Rod Hardy's adaptation of Jules Verne's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" was the second version of the story televised that year. The first was a movie, the second was a two-part miniseries. Both were part of a larger boom that had networks (both broadcast and cable) scrambling to air event productions based on classic literature. (Think "The Odyssey," "Gulliver's Travels," "Merlin," etc., etc.) I don't remember this one at all, despite its high profile casting of Michael Caine as Captain Nemo. Catching up with the title reveals why it's been forgotten.
For starters, it's dreadfully dull, with all the excitement of Verne's underwater fantasy travelogue sapped, replaced with a tedious effort to slog through the material with very little interest. Even Caine seems indifferent toward the material, pretty much sleepwalking through the role. (Who knew Captain Nemo could be such a bore?)
So what happened? Mainly, it's the script, from Brian Nelson (who somehow was able to go from this to the recent revenge thriller "Hard Candy"). Nelson (on his own or under pressure from the producers, it's difficult to say) changed so much about the story that it hardly seems the same tale. In this telling, Professor Arronax is now a struggling twentysomething scientist (played by a woefully miscast Patrick Dempsey) who's desperate to escape the shadow of his famous father; he finds a father figure of sorts in Nemo, although Papa Arronax makes an appearance, too, going so far as to get into a fight with Nemo. (Yes, it's even dumber than it sounds.)
Meanwhile, Nemo has a daughter, Mara (Mia Sara), an addition which seems forced just to add a little romance to the proceedings. You can smell the "Tempest" influences seeping in at all the wrong spots. Oh, and then there's Cabe Attucks (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), another character concocted for this version - created, I think, to fill the role of Ned Land (Bryan Brown), who in this version is more of a loony bad guy than a squarejawed hero.
As for Nemo, he's given these metallic super-gloves that push the project into the realm of total nonsense. I can see it now, a Hollywood office with some clueless producer saying to Nelson: "You know, it'd be really cool if Nemo could be, like, a cyborg or something."
Now, I'll be the first to admit that a screen adaptation does not need to stick to the source material, provided the final result is something that works on its own terms. Here, "Leagues" fails at every turn, getting dumber and dumber each time it strays from the book. There's simply no meat to the story to justify the alterations, no thrilling high seas adventure to keep our interest. Hardy does little to keep things moving, content with plowing through on autopilot. And with Caine unwilling to breathe life into his character, it's up to Dempsey to carry the show. Not a good sign.
There are a few scenes that stand up on their own, mostly in the moments where the wonders of the deep blue sea overwhelm the story. But these are far too few to make the miniseries worth it, especially when you toss in some embarrassing melodramatics near the end, a ridiculous subplot involving Arronax's recurring nightmares, and a steady supply of some truly abysmal special effects. Disney proved that you can stray from the story and still wind up with dizzying adventure. Hardy seems to be going out of his way to prove that straying from the story will ruin you.
Warner Bros. combines the miniseries into a single three-hour presentation, with fades to black for commercial breaks and the credits at the end of the first episode (and at the beginning of the second) edited out. It's done so cleanly that you'd never know this was intended as a two-night TV event, thinking instead that it was made to be a single film. Still, purists might have reason to grumble over this alteration.
"Leagues" consistently looks grainy and soft, with colors often becoming drab and muted. Several of the effects, produced on video, look cleaner, but that only goes to emphasize their awkwardness. Presented in the original 1.33:1 broadcast aspect ratio.
The soundtrack is supposed to be in 5.1 Dolby Surround, but there's so little use of the rear speakers that they might as well just have offered up a stereo mix instead. For what it's worth, the sound is clear, the dialogue, music, and effects blended just fine. Optional subtitles are available in French and Spanish.
Ron Hardy once directed "Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD," a TV movie that featured David Hasselhoff as the rugged comic book hero. I have no point to this, other than to suggest that we're not in the most capable of hands here. Avoid if you can, although curious Verne fans may feel the need to Rent It.