Missing Nemo: Berkeley Breathed says new movies are missing magic and drowning in pixels [UPDATED]

Nov. 19, 2009 | 5:49 p.m.


20000 Leagues under the Sea poster green

Last week, at the precise moment on screen that millions of screaming, tanned Angelenos tumbled down into a mile-deep cataclysmic crack in the planet’s exploding crust along with their high-rise condos and labradoodles,  a man’s phone rang in the row of seats behind me. In a voice rising even above the sound of continental plates and Hummers scraping on each other, he discussed dining options with his caller.

2012 bad day

“Szechuan!” he spouted. “It’s spicy!”

I looked around at my fellow multiplexers.  I’d need help strangling him.  I only had licorice twists. But the others didn’ t seem to notice his conversation. Worse: They didn’t care.

As I studied their faces, lit up with the shockingly realistic images of their own burning city disappearing down into the bottomless black depths of both hell and the accounting department of Columbia Pictures, I spied a common expression on them all. No, no, not rapt fascination or terror.  But not exactly boredom either. Something else.  It took me a moment to identify: Numbness.

Then this thought:  HungryBoy behind me would not have taken that call in 1954 if he’d been watching the tentacles of a giant squid wrapped around the riveted tail fin of the Nautilus submarine, yanking James Mason toward its snapping, slobbering maw amidst a howling Technicolor typhoon. Sorry. No way.

In 1954, the only numbness in that theater would have been in beguiled eyeballs, extended out from skulls an inch more than normal.

With the release of “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” 55 years ago, Walt Disney stumbled upon a mostly unexplored emotional response from movie audiences.  This unique feeling had been lurking in cinema’s murky, black and white depths, waiting to emerge and attack moviegoers and their imaginations in a way that tears, laughter and fear – the emotions of radio, theater and books — could neither match nor compete: Awe.

Walt Disney and the Natilus 2

As in Awesome

Awe as in slack-jawed and struck dumb: The Red Sea parting before C. Moses HestonSteven Spielberg’s mothership rising behind Devil’s Tower, reducing it in scale to an overturned Frappuccino.  The Imperial Star Destroyer lumbering over our heads in the first seconds of “Star Wars.” Each provoked a collective, adolescent “whoooa” from dazzled audiences.  Remember that sound? I do. Heard it lately? Many of you just watched Africa slide over and smash into Brazil on screen last weekend. What’d you hear?

I heard, “Szechuan! It’s spicy!”

Awe.  From the latin Awesemonus, or Aw, man did you see that? A subjective reaction to visual stimulus that would, like that giant squid — the most tenacious of sea beasts — wrap itself around the Hollywood blockbuster until finally, reluctantly letting go in the late 1980s. It was hit square between the eyes with not a harpoon but something far deadlier: A pixel.

The blockbuster remains busting ever bigger blocks every weekend.  But with the smothering ubiquity of magical computer effects in even commercials selling products to battle talking toe bacteria, too often we emerge from the modern action spectacular pummeled and numb,  the only residual awe being in yawn.  Or awful. Or prawfits.

 By now, we and our children — flooded daily with pixels — have simply seen it all. Yawn.

Or too much. Numb.

The old school, spine-tingling adolescent movie wonder may have had its last gasp somewhere in the neon-lit hallways of  Darth Vader’s Death Star… but I submit that it was born, fresh, new and exciting,  in the dank blue steel passageways of Captain Nemo’s Nautilus, decades before.

Now, it’d by churlish not to suggest that lots of respectable, fantastic stories had found their way to film by then.  I’m sure you remember 1951’s “Flying Disc Man from Mars.” And no, I don’t forget 1933’s King Kong. Nor do I forget Willis O’Brien’s smudge of lunch peanut butter on Kong’s two inch shoulder in one shot. I can see it. Please don’t write me.

Without real movie stars, without meaty themes of war and loss and villainous angst, without saturated color and Cinemascope, without the budget, the exotic shooting locales and sweeping elegiac score and without much concern to hide the black wires holding the spaceships up … neither awe nor wonder nor even atomic-powered Victorian submersibles could fully surface below the lid of cheese that capped that era’s typical science fiction cinema.

That in mind, Walt Disney and director Richard Fleischer risked the entire fate of the Disney studio, as well the plans to build Disneyland, in rolling the budget dice — flinging them, really — at Jules Verne’s classic but plotless novel.  It was Walt’s first live-action picture, his inexperience reflected by a talky, episodic script that couldn’t, for the first time, fall back on the crutch of a comedic sidekick cricket or dwarf.

20000 Leagues Under the Sea meeting Nemo

All forgiven though, with the other cinema luxury he delivered that was otherwise unseen in the fantasy genre up to that point: razor-cool production design. Nemo’s outrageous ship, spontaneously carved from a foot-long piece of pine by Disney designer Harper Goff one inspired spring day.  That marvelous, malevolent submersible of anti-war vengeance that looks like what every kid knows a proper submarine should resemble but does not: A pissed-off fish alligator. 

Fifty-five years later, it’s what everyone remembers. Poor Kirk Douglas.

My mother — who remembers nothing from film —  thinks that “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” is a motto on cans of tuna fish.  And she swears on the lives of her dogs that Spartacus simply could NOT have kissed a seal in any movie.

But she knows she’s seen that submarine before.

Kirk may have chewed up the scenery in every shot, but he couldn’t take a bite out of the dominating profile of Goff’s wonderful underwater sub — native warriors leaping off its electrified cannibal-repelling hull as it sliced through both the Pacific ocean and the movie-soaked cerebellums of young boys like me.

Full disclosure: The home office in which I’m presently writing this has been fashioned after the interior design of the Nautilus – all paneled colonial cherry wood, faux arched steel I-beams overhead, steam tubes, rivets, red velvet upholstery and flickering Victorian lights.  A suitable creative environment for an  arrested adolescent but one also compelled to cook up fantastic stories and call it respectable work. 

Where better, I ask, than within the romantic innards of the Nautilus?

20000 Leagues poster

A padded cell, my wife would answer.

Alas, no pipe organ, but my outer studio doors feature a child-repelling electric current that is always switched on. (This is wholly believed within the family and I’d like to keep it that way.)

Ever anxious to bury an ironic lead, I should add that with the 55th anniversary of “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” Disney’s new studio head Rich Ross just sank the nearly-to-production revival of Captain Nemo.

It would have been stuffed like a haddock, no doubt, with CG spectacularityness. I sort of suspect it would have been all Disney could do to resist the temptation of showing Captain Nemo destroying, in photo-real detail,  the entire solar system.

And maybe, just maybe, they sensed this. And maybe they came back up to the surface to take a breath and rethink just exactly whence the wonder of their new Nemo movie should flow: From the dazzling story, characters, production design and — did I mention story?

Or from its CG images of computer-processed, over-the-top liquid action?

Go.  Hold your breath and dive deep, Disney.  But remember, we’ve pretty much seen it all before.
And probably in a Depends commercial.

— Berkeley Breathed

Berkeley Breathed is a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, illustrator, novelist and screenwriter. A Disney adapation of his book Mars Needs Moms! will be released in 2011. He lives in Santa Barbara, and, in a home office designed in homage to “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,”  looks out on the sea and waits for Nautilus to surface.


Berekely Breathed

Berkeley Breathed’s “Bloom County” regrets

Disney deep-sixes “20,000 Leagues” revival

Berkeley Breathed says Opus is “alive and well”

Breathed will end Opus: “I’m destroying the village to save it”

Director McG hopes “Terminator” will get his career back on course 

Is the “Pirates” franchise sailing into rough waters?

 Surprised author Tim Powers finds himself aboard “Pirates” ship

Photos: Vintage images courtesy of Disney. Bottom: Berkeley Breathed and his dog and his bike. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times.

UPDATED: An earlier version of this post misidentified the author of “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” but an angry squid fixed it.


20 Responses to Missing Nemo: Berkeley Breathed says new movies are missing magic and drowning in pixels [UPDATED]

  1. Randy Varcho says:

    A wonderful column, Berkeley. I couldn't agree more. And that picture of Walt Disney holding the model of the Nemo — all I can say is, "Wow." Disney's smile is prescient and telling.

  2. Randy Waage says:

    Wow, he's right on the money with this. The blockbuster that is 2012 and many of the new blockbuster movies lack any sort of heart. I personally was bored (or as he called it numb) when I went to go see it a few days ago. It was more like watching a videogame than a movie. To me less CGI/eye candy/pixels & more focus on the script is better. Perhaps that doesn't translate into money at the box office though.

  3. wmoseley says:

    Um,could you repeat that?

  4. Zoey says:

    Yes, I agree, no magic. Even the movies that are touted as award winners or potential award winners, not just the blockbuster movies, have a "ho-hum" air to them. You walk away from the theater thinking that was good acting, good filmmaking, yet, you don't feel that uplifting feeling that makes a movie great and worth watching again. I think studios and filmmakers are missing the reason we go to the movies in the first place, because we don't really need to go anymore, we want to walk away feeling better than when we came in, not just entertained and that takes magic, not necessarily more special effects or $20 million actors. It's story, story, story.

  5. megan says:

    fantastic guest essay. I would have laughed more if it wasn't so true.

  6. Breecheese says:

    This is why I like Guillermo del Toro's films so much: he often uses "old" technology like animatronics, makeup, and puppeteering, and employs CG only when it can achieve better results than or enhance these. Of course as an animator I'm a sucker for some beautiful CG, too (hello Transformers), but nothing inspires awe quite like the tangible effects of yesteryear.

  7. Nils says:

    wmoseley ……to busy ordering your own spicy Chinese to listen perchance ?

  8. I'm not much for old Disney flicks unless they're animated. Too much exposure to Donn Knotts as a fish during my childhood, I suppose. But on the word of the first funny cartoonist I encountered in those same years, I'll give this the benefit of the doubt.

  9. wmoseley says:

    No, I'm in the cheese of the month club, actually.

  10. Mike says:

    Great article. The original "20,000 Leagues" is an amazing film, and I'm happy to see it won't be remade any time soon. However, I don't agree that CGI has ruined modern spectacle films. There were plenty of pre-CGI films that felt done by committee and lacked a sense of humanity, and there have been quite a few CGI-fueled films that have succeeded on an emotional level. I think it's just those films that rely on visual effects alone, whether it's pre-CGI or not, that feel so dissapointing.

  11. Nico says:

    In this age of globalization, Reality TV and Youtube, what CAN we see anymore that will really blow us away? I was upset with myself to realize after watching it that I wasn't even that moved by 'Precious,' as I feel like I've seen or heard of enough horrible things on this planet by now that I wasn't even that surprised or shocked by her horrible story. I don't know..we're post-post-modern right? What can ya do..?

  12. bebe says:

    Speaking of drowning in pixels, apparently Mason nearly drowned filming that squid fight. (But being James Mason, he walked away from the experience, relatively "unperturbed" to quote Fleischer.) No computer generated tricks there. Which reflects a difference between movies back then and now – special effects weren't so easy to do well back then. Now it's easier to lay on effect on effect so you end up with sensory overload – hence the resultant numbness.

  13. David says:

    I have never been frightened by a CGI "critter" in a movie, no matter how realistic it is. Nor have I seen an audience be frightened by one. One or two teenage girls maybe. Probably pretending.
    Impressed by the computer work, perhaps. Truly frightened, no.
    By contrast, I played my DVD of the 1959 Vincent Price opus, House on Haunted Hill, last Halloween and a room full of teenagers screamed, covered their eyes and/or jumped out of their chairs when the camera panned over to the old lady with the wild look on her face in the basement and when the obviously gloved hand reached around the door and almost grabbed the young woman.
    And I'm talking about just an actress with the kind of expression you'd plaster on your face before saying "boo" to an 8 year old and just some crew member wearing a rubber glove.
    Something about an effect, no matter how cheesy, having been fashioned or operated by the touch of a living human being and not in response to a keyboard stroke, I think.

  14. Cliff Burns says:

    Yes, when will there be an end to these superficial, vacuous CGI-fests and comic book adaptations? If the target audience Hollywood is trying to reach is a twelve year old video gamer, currently recovering from a severe head injury, it is succeeding with flying colors. The number one movie in America last year? "The Transformers". This cinephile shudders every time he passes the "New Release" section at the local movie rental outfit. A total dearth of originality, intelligence, all the plot holes and lousy scripts glossed over with a hundred million dollars worth of state of the art effects. PLEASE let us have an end to the Michael Bay/JJ Abrams mindset and start treating a venerable art form with the respect it deserves. Enough of the mind candy, let's vote with our film dollars by holding out for better films and not trying so damned hard to meet Hollywood's lowest expectations…

  15. ucrsue says:

    I just finally saw "A Night to Remember" about the Titanic. Great special effects and with no computer. And as a former SoCal Gal, I know earthquakes. The best depiction of an earthquake I've seen on film is from 1936's "San Francisco." Even on TV you can hear the growing rumble of the quake and the sounds of buildings and windows coming apart. 'course, this was just a few years after the Long Beach quake and I'm sure most of the crew remembered the San Francisco quake.
    Breathed is right. I don't care for "sci-fi" films, but the first "Star Wars" and "Close Encounters" are stunning. If you can, see them on the big screen.

  16. Polomoche says:

    Story!!! Story!!! Story!!! And who has ruined story? John Truby et al and their gibberish that every story from The Illiad to Ulysses can be reduced into a banal, formulaic structure (queue massive climactic conflict 7/8ths of the way through… and… punch in cliche resolution!!!). Screenwriters treat this like the gospel, happily waving goodbye whatever shred of creativity they once possessed as it swirls down the Truby (but Joseph Campbell inspired!) toilet and produces…. the SAME STUPID STORY told over and over and over again to a swirl of pixels. Audiences are thus bored to death (or rather, sadly, 'amused to death' as Neil Postman might say). Anyway good article.

  17. SoCalMan says:

    It is still interesting to see "art" predicating future events, and I suppose modern film does that to some extent, but I suppose I would rather be in the know then to have a lot of friends — I'm not even suggesting the predilection for doomsday type film: it doesn't take a genius to recognize that at the present course of humanity, insanity will reign.
    The ride “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" at Disney World was one of my favorites, simply because "in my mind" it brought the book to my light. I have wondered at times how your stuff would translate to pixels, seeing as I did not care for the voice overs in the "Boondocks" art form, even thou I very much preferred "Huey" ranting to the powers, then a Mike Moore propaganda piece — all of which have never altered my train of thought, its just entertainment.

  18. Just as a matter of historical record, Disney produced several live-action movies before "20K Leagues". "Treasure Island" (1950) was the first all-live-action Disney film, followed by "Robin Hood" and a couple more before "20KL", and there were few partially-live-action (e.g. "Song of the South") even before that.

  19. Eddie Sotto says:

    I think the Sub was the real star in that film. It's an aspirational environment. Tom Scherman was the ultimate Vernian 20K fan, he had his apartment riveted to death till the landlord found out, but we lost him. He reproduced the Nautilus full scale in Disneyland Paris. BTW-There are quite a few people interested in living in Nemo's world too. We specialize in designing insanely detailed Vernian home environments for secretive clients, so it's not so bad…if you're sick of CGI, you just build it for real.

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