Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Jules Verne: A Literary Pilgrimage - Part 1

Few Disney live-action films have enjoyed the enduring legacy of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Just as Jules Verne's works entered the public domain, Walt Disney took a gamble on fashioning that novel into his studio's first big-budget, Hollywood-made, live-action film. It was a gamble that paid off beyond anyone's wildest expectations. Walt, director Richard Fleischer, and screenwriter Earl Felton used the backdrop of Verne's original story to meditate on the anxieties of the Atomic Age. They captured the fears and hopes of a generation, and did so on a grand scale, with Cinemascope-sized screen, larger-than-life charismatic actors, beautiful underwater photography, and sheer spectacle. In so doing, Walt Disney helped create a new image of Jules Verne… Verne the icon of optimistic futurism.

Walt and Verne, the two optimists. Photo: Disney.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea spawned a whole genre of movies based on Verne's work, including Michael Todd's Around the World in 80 Days (1956), Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959), Ray Harryhausen’s Mysterious Island (1961), and Disney's own In Search of the Castaways (1962). His adventures also translated well into three dimensions. Disneyland opened in 1955 with an exhibit of props from the film, Walt Disney World opened in 1971 with a 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea submarine voyage, Disneyland Paris opened in 1992 with a new version of Tomorrowland based on Verne's work, and Tokyo Disneysea opened in 2001 with Mysterious Island, where guests can embark on an expedition 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or take a Journey to the Center of the Earth. Trader Sam's Grog Grotto in the Polynesian Village Resort includes leftover props from the submarine ride and a Nautilus-themed drink. Verne has also popped up again, as the founder of a secret organization of geniuses in Tomorrowland (2015). 60 years after the film's debut in 1954, Verne's creations are still furnishing material for theme parks the world over.

Concept art for Trader Sam's Grog Grotto. Image: Disney.

Some of those connections might seem, at first glance, to be incongruous. An American Tiki bar based on French Victorian Scientific Romances? Yet Disney's 20,000 Leagues takes place in the South Seas and features a battle against cannibals on a tropical island. In Search of the Castaways concludes on New Zealand with a daring escape from the Maori across an active volcano. Verne set at least six of his novels in whole or in part in the Pacific, including The Mysterious Island, which ties into both 20,000 Leagues and In Search of the Castaways. At the time in which all three were adapted to film, Tiki bars flourished through North America as the "emotional bomb shelters of the Atomic Age." They provided cathartic release from the tensions of the rat race, the space race, and the arms race. The genius of Walt Disney in adapting 20,000 Leagues was recognizing the potential of the antiquated author to achieve much of the same effect. He used the Victorian setting to explore the threat of atomic power as though it were a thing of the past, presenting an optimistic view that the Fifties would be an enlightened time for the beneficial use of such immense natural forces. Almost to the minute before opening, the 20,000 Leagues exhibit at Disneyland was set to go in the Opera House on Main St.: the "opening act" of the park designed to draw guests into a sense of childlike nostalgia! That location would have reinforced 20,000 Leagues presentation of atomic anxiety as an artifact of history. Instead it ended up in Tomorrowland (mostly because of that area's pressing need for cheap attractions) where it still implicitly reinforced the idea of Verne as ultimately belonging to a happy, healthy, hopeful future.

We come most poignantly in touch with Verne the icon at Disneyland Paris. When designing the park, Imagineers were careful to highlight the connections between French culture and Disney product, no doubt in part to appease France's cultural gatekeepers who were wary of such American "lowbrow" entertainments. The effect conveys an intriguing sense that this is not simply a Disneyland in another language, but that Disney is, in many respects, "coming home" to Europe. Fantasyland has a statue of Cinderella dedicated to Charles Perrault, the Phantom of the Phantom Manor recalls the Phantom of the Opera, and of course, Discoveryland is a version of Tomorrowland based in the Retro-Futurism of Jules Verne. Until 2004, guests could join Verne on a time-travelling adventure in Le Visionarium, soar to the moon in Space Mountain: De la terre à la lune, and investigate the Mysteries of the Nautilus. Discoveryland recreated the colourful atmosphere of an Exposition Universelle like those hosted by Paris in 1889 and 1900, directed by Jules Verne's visionary technological prophecies. Unfortunately Le Visionarium closed in 2004 and Space Mountain was (needlessly) renovated to "Mission 2" in 2005. The Nautilus remains, as does a touching monument to Verne that quotes his famous line: "Tout ce qui est dans la limite du possible doit être et sera accompli"... "All that is within the limits of the possible should be and will be done."

“Tout ce qui est dans la limite du possible doit être et sera accompli”

Disney's adaptations of Verne's stories in theme park and celluloid appealed to, and helped create, the author as a symbol of Nineteenth century optimism and futurism. Nevertheless, the Nautilus of the film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a unique creation of Harper Goff's and the Columbiad canon in Disneyland Paris is far more picturesque than the hole in the ground described in literature. This visualization is stunningly beautiful, as is the park it is situated in, and it is enjoyable and entertaining in its own right, though one must inevitably be aware that it is a myth constructed over time. Le Visionarium was not based on any one Verne book, but instead the conceit of taking Verne on a trip through time to show how he prophesied the fantastic inventions of the present day.

The original Nautilus, by Alphonse de Neuville.
The original Columbiad, by Henri de Montaut.
A vintage postcard celebrating Verne's prognostic power.
A poster for the faux-historical meeting of Verne and Wells
in Le Visionarium. Image: Disney.
Disneyland Paris distills for us the image of Verne the icon. This Verne is, ultimately, the precursor of Walt Disney's own optimistic futurism exemplified in his original vision for Tomorrowland.

Not far from Disneyland Paris, however, we meet Jules Verne the author, Verne the husband and father and civil servant, and Verne the very mortal man with an immortal imagination and Divine hope. An hour on one of France’s high-speed trains takes you from Paris to the charming city of Amiens, in the Picardie region, a short distance from the shores of the English Chanel, where one still finds La Maison de Jules Verne.

Amiens and the Cathedrale Notre Dame d'Amiens.

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