Saturday, 3 September 2022

Taking a Break

In the interests of preserving my own sanity and enjoying a trip to Glacier National Park in Montana (now that international travel is a thing again!), we're going to be going on hiatus through the month of September. 

Join us back here on October 12 for our Halloween season! 

Wednesday, 31 August 2022

Un Monstre à Paris

In January of 1910, flooding struck the city of Paris. Water saturated the earth and flooded through storm drains, pipes, catacombs, and the Metro, inundating the city for several weeks. Citizens of Paris were forced to travel by boat or build wooden walkways too and fro, while hundreds struck out for refugee camps on the hills like Montmartre, where the famed Basilique du Sacré Cœur was nearing completion. And, in the cinematic world created by Bibo Bergeron, a monsterous man-sized flea won the hearts of Parisians through song.

French trailer for Un Monstre à Paris.

Wednesday, 17 August 2022

Aviation in the Year 2000

The following series of humourous postcards were sold in France around the turn of the century, imagining the foibles of flight in the decades to come. 

Differing from the others in the series, this one purports to show hunting in the year 1915.

Wednesday, 3 August 2022

Master of the Octopus by Edward Olin Weeks

The inventive genius of the 19th century must, of course, contend with the rapacious interests of 19th century robber-barons. In The Master of the Octopus, published in the October 1899 Pearson's Magazine,  Edward Olin Weeks describes the tragic encounter between the two over a perpetual light machine. Click on the pages for a larger version.

Wednesday, 6 July 2022

Mr. Penney's Aerial Submarine by E.J. Rath

Pity the frustrated inventor, who has a remarkable idea that must be shaped to sheer dumb fact. Such is Mr. Penney, latest in the line of Darius Green and other hayseed inventors. Formerly of the city, forced to the countryside for his health, Mr. Penney cannot acclimatize to the condition of being a farmer. His workshop lures him ever onward to misadventure, undaunted by his numerous setbacks.

Written by E.J. Rath, pseudonym of Edith Rathbone Jacobs Brainerd, Mr. Penney's Aerial Submarine appears here as it originally did in the August 1908 edition of Cosmopolitan Magazine. Brainerd was a well-established author, many of whose stories had been adapted to film. Tragically, she died at the age of 37 when the roof of the Knickerbocker Theater in Washington D.C. collapsed under heavy snow on January 27, 1922. The incident also claimed the life her husband Chauncey and 200 others. Illustrations for Mr. Penney's Aerial Submarine are by Horace Taylor. Click on each image for a larger version. 

Wednesday, 22 June 2022

Midnight in Paris (2011)

Nostalgia for idealized visions of the past is pretty much the motivating ethos of this blog, devoted to Scientific Romances, adventure stories, history, and aesthetics of the Victorian and Edwardian Periods. In what is widely considered one of his best films in years (if not decades), Woody Allen gives his own take on nostalgia in Midnight in Paris. With Owen Wilson in the lead role that once would have been his own, Allen explores both the motivations and the complications of too readily losing oneself in the past with sensitivity and gentle humour. In a film that seems like it is directed almost exactly at me, I don't come out feeling hectored or made fun of. Instead, it is a film that I can watch again and again.

Trailer for Midnight in Paris.

Wilson stars as Gil Pender, a Hollywood screenwriter unfulfilled with the drivel he is forced to write for modern audiences. He longs to be a real author of authentic literature, like his idols of the "Lost Generation." The so-called Lost Generation were those youth who came of age during the First World War. Some were young enough to have served, others narrowly escaped that horror, but all shared the challenge of having to find themselves and their life's meaning in a world where the notion of inevitable upward progress had died in the trenches. Paris was a hotbed of activity for artists of the Lost Generation, including Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, Salvador Dali, Jean Cocteau, Man Ray, William Faulker, T.S. Eliot, and Pablo Picasso, many under the watchful eye of Gertrude Stein. Assuming that Gil is the same age or younger than Owen Wilson, that would place him in Generation X, another "lost generation" between the Baby Boomers and the Millennials currently engaged in mutual recriminations. Perhaps that is part of why the Lost Generation resonates so well with Gil. Pursuing his nostalgic ambitions, Gil finds himself in Paris on a vacation with his fiancee Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her conservative parents who disdain the French (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy).

Where Gil's vision of Paris is the sultry music of 1920's cabarets and walking in the rain, Inez's mostly has to do with shopping. Inured to her fiancee's wistful dreams, she is very forthright in how he should give up the silly dream of being a poor author in Paris and accept his role as an affluent Hollywood screenwriter. Her dream is to live a lavish but shallow existence in Malibu. While in Paris, the pair meet up with one of her former professors (Michael Sheen) and his wife (Nina Arianda)... A pretentious couple whose presumptive authority on the arts is only matched by their inability to really appreciate it on a visceral, emotional, human level. Art, for them, is not something to be felt or experienced. It is something to be "discoursed" for social status among fellow pseudo-intellectuals. He reaches peak pedantry when attempting to debate a tourguide at the Rodin museum on the particulars of Rodin's life. Gil, naturally, finds all this insufferable, being more deeply engaged in with a Cole Porter 45 found at a flea market stall than in a professor's rambling monologue of questionable accuracy.

After Inez decides to go off and the spend the evening with the professor and his wife, a drunk Gil stumbles around Paris' back streets. At the stroke of midnight, a vintage 1920's Peugeot automobile pulls up beside him. Its Flapper passengers beckon him in, and Gil is transported away to the Twilight Zone.

Midnight in Paris itself offers a nostalgic, idealized look back at the Lost Generation as archetypes rather than well-fleshed out characters in their own right. Gil becomes a spectator to the broken relationship between F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, played admirably by Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill. Corey Stoll plays Ernest Hemingway with intensity (and most of the best lines in the film). Adrian Brody has a memorable cameo as Salvador Dali, in a comic scene where he, Man Ray (Tom Cordier) and Luis Buñuel (Adrien de Van) are totally unfazed by Gil's explanation of his situation because they are Surrealists. As icons more than characters, each delivers a wonderful performance.

The situation Gil finds himself in, which needs explanation, is that through successive visitations into the past - at the expense of nurturing his unfulfilling present-day relationships - he falls in love with the charming Adriana (Marion Cotillard), the (fictional) muse of the Lost Generation who was painted by Picasso and went off to Africa with Hemingway. She is also a woman out of time, in her own way. Like Gil she also longs for another time... Not the vacuity of the 1920's, but the vibrancy of Paris in the Belle Époque. Maxim's and the Moulin Rouge are where she really wants to be, rubbing elbows with Toulouse-Lautrec, Gaugin, and Degas.

Allen doesn't vilify or mock nostalgia. That is left to the pedantic pseudo-intellectual. Nor does he really offer any rule or prescription for life's uncertainties, except to embrace them through courage and the pursuit of our passions. There is nothing wrong with enjoying the beautiful things of the past so long as they inform rather than replace the present, making our lives better in the here and now rather than make the here and now even more unsatisfying. As Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) says in the film: "We all fear death and question our place in the universe. The artist's job is not to succumb to despair, but to find an antidote for the emptiness of existence."

Eventually, in the course of their time-twisting shenanigans, a horse-drawn carriage swings by at the stroke of midnight to convey Gil and Adriana to the 1890's. After meeting Toulouse-Lautrec, Gaugin and Degas pop in and discuss their conversation on what time they  think was the "golden age." After some thought, they agree that it was the Renaissance. Woody Allen gives his characters everything anyone who has held out a torch of nostalgia could want: not only the ability to go into the past, but to do so under the social and economic conditions that are most amenable, with nobody wondering at your strange clothes or manners or lack of money, and everyone speaking modern English. After all, nobody would want to go back to the Victorian Era to live in a slum. Gil gets to go back to the Twenties and actually meet his idols, Adriana gets to go back to the Fin de siècle and meet hers.  But they are also confronted with the irony that every age is nostalgic for another. In every time, there is an envy for an imagined golden age of the past. So will Adriana stay in her golden age? Will Gil give up his golden age to be with her, or will he choose to remain in the Twenties? Or will he yet return to his own time to live his own life there? Could she be content in the Twenties with him? Or can she take a truly brave step into an unknown future?

Paris is a supremely appropriate setting for a film raising the question of our relationship with the past, because Paris is a city where the past carries an almost palpable weight. This may be the mere whimsy of a Canadian whose home town is barely over 100 years old (for a Parisian it might just be "Saturday"), but the sense of history in Paris is as heavy as the stones which built the great city. The steps of Notre-Dame de Paris are worn away with centuries. You can touch by hand the statues carved by great masters. Standing in Place de la Concorde, one can almost hear the guillotine and see the blood seep into the ground. More than anywhere, Paris lives and breathes its past.    

This fact benefited the production of Midnight in Paris as easily as it did the narrative. 
It doesn't take much to restore a Paris streetscape or a restaurant to its 1920's appearance when it was already half a century old by the 1920's. In some rare cases, Paris' overabundance of museums helped to recreate what had been lost. Another memorable scene at a carnival was shot at the  Musée des Arts Forains in the old winemakers district of Bercy. Gil is having the time of his life dancing up to the hottest Twenties tunes when he meets up with Adriana, who explicates on the beauty of a pedal-powered carousel from the 19th century.

Like so many films set in Paris, Midnight in Paris cannot but be an ode to the city itself. In addition to overt monologues in worship of Paris ("You know, I sometimes think, how is anyone ever gonna come up with a book, or a painting, or a symphony, or a sculpture that can compete with a great city. You can't. Because you look around and every street, every boulevard, is its own special art form and when you think that in the cold, violent, meaningless universe that Paris exists..." "That Paris exists and anyone could choose to live anywhere else in the world will always be a mystery to me." "This is unbelievable! Look at this! There's no city like this in the world. There never was.") Allen takes care to showcase the best of the city in loving montages and scenic shots. It resonates with anyone who has been there and fallen in love with the city, or anyone who loves to hear people talk about the passions that enflame them.

Wednesday, 8 June 2022

René Clair's Phantom of the Moulin Rouge

Le Fantôme du Moulin-Rouge (The Phantom of the Moulin Rouge) was the first full-length feature film by one of France's great silent film directors, René Clair. His very first film was the short subject  Paris qui dort, in which a negligent scientist creates a ray that freezes the residents of Paris in their tracks, except a small handful who happened to be above the ray's beam at the time. That 1924 production was joined by Entr'acte, to be shown as part of a Dadaist ballet. 

Clair's interest in this early phase of his career lay in the surreal aspects of film, as one might except from his Dadaist connections. His plots are thin means to an end of experimenting with special effects and plays with perception. Le Fantôme du Moulin-Rouge begins with a former politician brought to heel by the editor of the most yellow newspaper in Paris. The editor wants the hand of his daughter - already betrothed to another man - or else he will expose a hidden political scandal that will ruin the former politician's reputation. The marriage is called off until they can get this sorted out, sending the jilted lover into a spiral of depression that lands him into the thrall of a scientist experimenting with hypnotism and out of body experience. Several days later, mysterious events start occurring all over the city, courtesy of Clair's trick photography.   

Wednesday, 25 May 2022

A Tale of Negative Gravity

A Tale of Negative Gravity was written by Frank R. Stockton and debuted in the November 1884 edition of The Century magazine. In it, an inventor cracks the problem of anti-gravity, much to his wife's chagrin. Conspiring to keep it a secret for personal use, it ends becoming quite handy in settling a matter of the heart for the inventor's son. It is presented here as originally published. Click on each page for a larger version.

Wednesday, 11 May 2022

Ward Kimball and the Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin

After a lifetime of cigarette addiction, Walt Disney was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer on November 7, 1966. Doctors gave him only six months to live. He didn't even make it that far: Walt collapsed at home on November 30, was taken to the hospital adjacent to his beloved movie studio, and passed away on December 7. His sudden parting left the studio bearing his name in mourning, but the show had to go on. There was still a full slate of films that Walt had been involved with that were in production and due for release. One of those films, debuting on March 8, 1967, was also one of Disney's most inspired comedies, The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin.

The Disney studio never drifted far from 19th century historical romanticism, even in the decades since Walt's passing. The "Gay Nineties" was a favourite aesthetic sensibility for the company, returned to again and again through The Nifty Nineties (1941), Casey at Bat (1946), So Dear to My Heart (1949), The Brave Engineer (1950), Crazy Over Daisy (1950), Football Now and Then (1953), Pigs is Pigs (1954), Lady and the Tramp (1955)Pollyanna (1960), and Summer Magic (1963). The very last live-action film on which Walt Disney worked was The Happiest Millionaire, based on true-life philanthropist and eccentric Anthony J. Drexel Biddle, which was released on June 23 of 1967. Disneyland's Main Street USA was a physical manifestation of this fascination, and every Disneyland park around the world since has had a Main Street (or an ersatz version of it) as its opening act.

The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin pushes the date back a few decades, to the same mid-19th century period as Song of the South (1946) and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), but retains that same fascination with the Gilded Age. Specifically, Bullwhip Griffin is set to the California Gold Rush of 1848, and the challenges and opportunities experienced by the sourdoughs who sought fabulous wealth along the Golden State's shining waters. 

Wednesday, 27 April 2022

The Diamond Maker of Sacramento by Noah Brooks

Published in the July 1868 edition The Overland Monthly, volume 1 and issue 1, The Diamond Maker of Sacramento by Noah Brooks defies the convention one might expect of a California Scientific Romance. Namely, it's not about the Gold Rush of '49. Whereas earlier Scientific Romances like Aurifodina: Or, Adventures in the Gold Region (1849, available in Science Fiction of Antebellum America; An Anthology) were transparently based on the gold rush, it serves more as a conceptual backdrop for The Diamond Maker of Sacramento. It's roll is to demonstrate the atmosphere of lawless ambition on America's westernmost frontier, and the ready availability of capital by which the mad scientist can indulge his foolhardy experiments. Yet even the mad scientist learns that there are limitations on even the most liberal frontiers, including the most ultimate limitation.

The following is The Diamond Maker of Sacramento as it appeared in vol. 1, issue 1, of The Overland Monthly. Click for a larger image. 

Wednesday, 13 April 2022

900 Metres sous le Niveau de la Mer with Liebig Meat Extract

The following series of cards was produced by Liebig, a company selling canned meat extract, in 1937. It depicts the voyage of a bathysphere 900 metres below the waves of the Caribbean and comes from the private collection of Paul Maeyaert. 

Wednesday, 30 March 2022

The Mysterious Island: The Original Silent Film

At the end of what is unarguably his most famous novel, Jules Verne sent his tortured mariner Captain Nemo to an apparent death in a mighty maelstrom. The tempest echoed the tempest in Nemo's own soul, but it left behind the question of what might have happened to him after that. Did he survive? How? And what was his story? Why did this mad genius declare war on war, and who was he that he could afford so extravagant a machine of vengeance as the Nautilus?

The answer came a few years later in The Mysterious Island. The story begins much like the Robinson Crusoe type of story does, with a group of Union soldiers and their Confederate prisoner who escaped from a Confederate POW camp via aerostat, only to be blown out to the Pacific and washed ashore on the titular volcanic spit of land, south of French Polynesia and East of New Zealand. While enjoying their tropical getaway, an anonymous observer constantly supplies the Crusoes with the necessaries of survival. Eventually this benefactor is revealed to be Captain Nemo, who survived the maelstrom and has lived out his remaining years in a secret lair beneath the island. 

The novel's first adaptation to film came in 1916's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Though under the title of its predecessor novel, this film fused the two together. The sequences from Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea imparted some good action scenes and made use of the still-new technique of underwater photography. The sequences from The Mysterious Island provided the dramatic gravitas. After The Great War, the works of Jules Verne unfortunately fell into some disrepute. 

Verne had always suffered from poor English translations that excised much of his literary and dramatic achievement in favour of two-fisted adventure and technological innovation that would be most appealing to children. By the end of WWI, most of Verne's predictions came true and his work gathered the reputation of simply being outdated... The simple artifacts of grandfather's simpler times. That reputation, despite being consistently overturned in academia since the Sixties and Seventies, still holds a lot of sway, as when Science Fiction author Robert J. Sawyer accused Verne languishing in obscurity because "nothing is less interesting than old technology" (supposedly).  

Consequently, the majority of Verne's books to be adapted to film between the two World Wars were his spy thrillers. The most popular of these was Michael Strogoff: The Courier of the Czar, adapted no less than six times between 1914 and 1943. Luckily for Verne, his body of work was diverse enough to lend itself to non-Science Fiction films. Only 20 of his 84 novels and short stories involved any kind of technological speculation. Verne supplied a wanting, literate public with pedagogical adventure in the far-flung locales of the world, whether the wastes of Siberia or the deeps of the ocean.

There is one outlier to this tendency towards adapting the French author's spy novels: The Mysterious Island, released by MGM in 1929. Whereas Verne was not an author of Science Fiction as we think of it, that genre was becoming established by the late Twenties. There is no bigger example than Fritz Lang's masterpiece Metropolis, released in 1927. He followed that up in 1929 with Frau im Mond ("Woman in the Moon"). Tolstoy's 1923 Science Fiction novel Aelita, or the Decline of Mars was adapted in 1924. More poignantly, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's 1912 dinosaur adventure story The Lost World was adapted to film in 1925. There was a distinct possibility that Verne could be rehabilitated as a source for Sci-Fi stories in the age of Art Deco and Radium.

Fitting it into that genre was another feat which renders the use of Verne's title somewhat moot. In this version, Count Andre Dakkar (played by Lionel Barrymore) has created a fleet of two submersible craft to explore the depths of the ocean, where he is sure there exists a form of aquatic man. His volcanic island off the coast of the fictional Eastern European nation of Hetvia is a worker's paradise without class distinctions... So much so that Dakkar's sister, Countess Sonia (Jaqueline Gadsden, billed as Jane Daly), and the engineer Nicolai (Lloyd "Lost World" Hughes) carry on a love affair. None of this sits well with the duplicitous Baron Falon (Montagu Love, who played opposite John Barrymore in Don Juan), who wants the submarines as weapons of war and the Countess as his aristocratic bride. What ensues is a submersible chase to the bottom of the sea and back again, where they encounter sunken wrecks, giant octopi, and strange mer-men that occupy the dark and the cold of 20,000 fathoms. 

With the only connections to the original novel being the name of Dakkar and the fact that submarines are in it, one wonders why they bothered to call it The Mysterious Island at all. There must have been some mental loops in the decision to ascribe the name of Verne to it for marketing purposes when that name did not carry a whole lot of weight at that time. Inspiration is also taken liberally from Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and I would imagine that the proliferation of Michael Strogoffs had some influence on the decision to set the story in Eastern Europe and dress the cast in generically Russian clothing. An influential Franco-German production of Michael Strogoff, starring Ivan Mosjoukine, had been released only 3 years before.

There is an underlying theme of Old World, European aristocracy versus New World, American egalitarianism, and the use of technology for scientific discovery or for war, and those sorts of things. Nothing is really said or developed about them. They're just there. Lots of rousing action happens, especially when the Hussars under Falon commandeer the island, suppressing the workers while lying in wait for the first of the two submarines to surface from its first test run. The special effects are quite good for the time, and shine when the two submarines find themselves trapped in the underwater chasms belonging to the ancient lost race of marine men. When one of the submarines begins to flood, as submarines in submarine films are wont to do, effects deftly handle the tragedy. The costumes of the mer-men are a bit silly, but that's par for the course.

What is of particular note is that, just as the 1916 20,000 Leagues was an early experiment in underwater photography, Mysterious Island is an early experiment in sound. 

The advent of Talkies pushed back the completion of the film by several years. Production began in 1926 under the direction of Maurice Tourneur and Benjamin "Witchcraft Through the Ages" Christensen, but after Al Jolson started singing, many silent films were shelved or retooled. Tourneur walked off the set after a dispute with the producers, giving Lucien Hubbard the sole director credit. The entire film had been shot in expensive 2-strip Technicolor (with the coloured print only recently being rediscovered and restored), and then a trio of sound sequences were tacked on to the largely silent film. While it could have been a pointless novelty, Hubbard used sound to great advantage. The first of the sound sequences is right at the beginning: after a short, silent prologue establishing the setting, there is the astonishment of Barrymore and Love talking... Talking!! In the process of wowing audiences with their own voices (thankfully they both had good voices for cinema, unlike many silent era stars), they also got to knock out a good chunk of cumbersome exposition. The next two sequences are ingenious. While on its first test run, Dakkar surprises Falon with a device that allows them to communicate wirelessly with the submarine. They do, to the actual sound of Lloyd Hughes' voice. Later, when all Hell has broken loose, the submarine is lured into a trap by use of the same radio. The communication system is pushed within the film as a wonder of technology, and the theme is driven home by playing the scene out in a wonder of real-life film-making.

Where The Mysterious Island is also notable is that it is sometimes cited as the beginning of the modern age of Scientific Romances in film. No specific date for The Mysterious Island is given, but it is clearly meant to take place before the proliferation of either submarines or radio. This would place it before the early 1900's, as modern submarines had come into their own in the first decade and were employed to devastating effect in WWI (providing a bit of the subtext for Dakkar's reluctance to see his ships used for violence). Radio was already a significant mass medium by the Twenties. Whenever it takes place, it was clearly not modernized in the same way that The Lost World was. While set in the Victorian Era, much of The Mysterious Island resembles the sleekness of Science Fiction in the Twenties and early Thirties. Nevertheless, Rod Bennett, in his survey Voyages Extraordinaires on Film, argued that it was the first to deliberately set itself in that era:
I think we can say with confidence that the producers of The Mysterious Island were the first filmmakers in history who'd ever dared, with a breathtaking flash of invention, NOT to update a hopelessly out-of-date book. They took Jules Verne's daring predictions about the day-after-tomorrow and turned them into something else entirely—into a huge, elaborate alternate universe story. They created a 19th century of the imagination, where British Imperialists reached the Moon 75 years before Neil Armstrong, and electric submarines prowled the deep while Buffalo Bill was still prowling the West.
Unfortunately that gamble did not pay off for them the way it did for Walt Disney some 25 years later, when his 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was a smash hit that provoked a rash of adaptations from Verne and other 19th century authors. It cost a staggering $1 million to produce (equivalent to $14 million today) and only earned back $55,000. To the minds of Hollywood, this only proved how outdated Verne was and even cast a pall over Science Fiction as a genre for a few years. The USSR would try their own version in 1941, Hollywood gave it a go in a 1951 serial that featured an invading army from the planet Mercury, and it finally got its due in 1961's epic effects film by Ray Harryhausen.

The Mysterious Island, while far removed from Jules Verne, is at least worth seeing as a unique window in the development of motion picture arts and sciences. Without further ado, the complete 1929 adaptation of The Mysterious Island...

Wednesday, 16 March 2022

Tokyo DisneySea's Mysterious Island

The Tokyo Disney Resort opened its second theme park in 2001 to great fanfare. Dubbed "Tokyo DisneySea", it quickly overtook its older sibling Tokyo Disneyland in public esteem. The park is widely heralded as one of the most artistically and technologically sophisticated theme parks in the world, virtually without equal.

Rather than the "lands" one finds in other Disney parks, Tokyo DisneySea has "ports". One of these ports is a dream come true for fans of Jules Verne and Victorian-Edwardian Scientific Romances: Mysterious Island. For American parkgoers more accustomed to the avaricious lusting after hip, current franchise material, basing an entire area off of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea might come as a surprise. When the park opened, the film was close to 50 years old. The book it was based on was almost a century older still. Yet it was a natural fit for a park based on the oceans and a testament to what Disney's Imagineers can accomplish when left unfettered by mercantile demands. Mysterious Island and its attractions are a testament to the legacy of Disney's creative history and the power of well-done rides with well-told stories to succeed even when their source material is "outdated."

The story behind Mysterious Island begins when one enters the park. In place of a Victorian main street, guests to Tokyo DisneySea pass through Mediterranean Harbor, an ode to the Renaissance "Age of Exploration." Across the harbour is a grand castello called Fortress Explorations, home to the Society of Explorers and Adventurers (S.E.A., as in DisneySEA). Towering above Fortress Explorations is Mount Prometheus, a fiery and explosive volcano. 

The approach to Mount Prometheus is littered with the crumbling remains of an ancient Greek-style city. At first these remains may seem an innocuous bit of placemaking by Disney's Imagineers. Their significance becomes more apparent in a mural within the bowels of Fortress Explorations.

The mural in Fortress Explorations is not only an optical
illusion, but an important part of the park's story.

Departing the castle, guests pass through the caverns of Mount Prometheus (and several centuries in the process) to enter the bubbling, roiling caldera of the volcano. In this harsh and forbidding environment, we discover the home of Captain Nemo and his wondrous submersible, the Nautilus.

Seen very briefly in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, in the few minutes before it was raided by the surface world's armies and subsequently consumed in a nuclear explosion, Mysterious Island recreates Vulcania in the "alternate history" of 1872 (some three years after the date given in the film for Vulcania's destruction and Nemo's death). Taking its name from the Verne book of the same name, this Mysterious Island is ruled over by the kinder, gentler, and apparently much more alive Nemo.

One of the most compelling things about Tokyo DisneySea is the park's overarching theme. Rather than being driven by situations of violence and conflict, DisneySea's narratives are driven by themes of adventure and exploration. Elsewhere in the park, one can join Sindbad's Storybook Adventure, help out Indiana Jones, or join the various exploits of the Society of Explorers and Adventurers. In keeping with this theme, Captain Nemo has been rehabilitated into an enigmatic and eccentric scientist single-mindedly devoted to discovery.

In some ways, probably unintentionally, this mirrors the arc of the character in Verne's own writings. As Mike Perschon observes of the novel Mysterious Island:
At the close of 20,000 Leagues, Aronnax wonders at the fate of the Nautilus and its Captain, with the hope that "the dispenser of justice will die, and that the man of science will … continue his peaceful studies of the seas" (388). Unbeknownst to Aronnax and Verne's contemporary readers alike, the dispenser of justice had died, while the man of science survived, abandoning his quest for revenge and retreating to Lincoln Island in self-exile. Here, he is "no longer…unreconciled to God and man" (Mickel 496). Nemo's benevolence toward Cyrus Smith and his castaway companions is evidence of a "man at peace with himself, one who has overcome the inner hatred which consumed him" (496).
Though Walt Disney gave Nemo the unequivocal death denied him by Verne, the company to bear Disney's name has given the mariner his chance at healing and redemption. To further his cause, Nemo has thrown open the doors of Mysterious Island and invited the peoples of the world to explore the ocean depths and centre of the earth along with him.

Therein, Nemo has provided the best in amenities. Handy signboards point out the various marvelous sights of Mysterious Island, like the volcanic Mount Prometheus and the Nautilus at berth. Of the former, the sign declares that:
The powerful forces of nature that created this island are still active beneath our feet. It is my quest to harness that power and utilize it for the future of mankind.
And of the latter:
Behold the Nautilus -- Perhaps my greatest creation! It is the world's first and only self-contained and powered submersible boat.

He has also opened up two eateries. The foremost is the Vulcania Restaurant, which serves serviceable Chinese food. Like the rest of the park, this restaurant is impeccably themed, in this case to the base's power plant. The other is the counter-service Nautilus Galley. Of the restaurant, the signage reveals:
Heated steam from deep within the Earth's core rises to the surface under great pressure. It provides an infinite source of energy that powers this entire island. It is even used to cook the food we eat.

Recognizing his visitor's desire for souvenirs, Nemo has also constructed Nautilus Gifts. Unfortunately, the gift shops in the Tokyo Disney Resort have bitten the same bullet as those in the United States. Nearly all the shoppes sell the same goods, which in Japan are an even more constrained collection of sweets and frumpy hats. Once upon a time, Nautilus Gifts had a vast array of statues and goods bedecked with the Nautilus. Nowadays the selection is much poorer: toys cars of the ride vehicles, park soundtracks, and pins of Mickey and Minnie in crew uniforms.

The pressed penny contraption inside Nautilus Gifts.

Even the water fountains are in Nemo's industrial style! 

But the main attractions are, of course, the big attractions: Journey and 20,000 Leagues. Together, they are perhaps the two finest examples of Imagineering in the world. 

On the signage throughout Mysterious Island, Nemo himself outlines the mission of the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea attraction:
The sea has many secrets and much to teach us. I have devised a fleet of submarine boats to expedite my exploration of the sea's bounty.
One such sub-pod can been seen hanging from the chains of 20,000 Leagues' spiraling outdoor queue.

Beneath the surface, the entrance to the sub-pod bay winds past Captain Nemo's private offices and the diving suit staging area. Though evidently savvy to the Japanese language, a self-portrait in his office indicates that this is none other than the original Nemo from the film, portrayed by James Mason.

The line eventually brings you to the sub-pod bay, where you load into your boat and are dropped into the briny depths. At this point, Tokyo's 20,000 Leagues resembles those that have come before. Aboard your craft you visit the underwater farms, ship's graveyard and have a fateful meeting with a giant squid. One unique feature of the attraction is that searchlights periodically turn on that can be controlled by the joystick in front of your seat. With them you can focus your gaze on the funny and frightening fish of the various settings. After electrocuting your way out of the squid's grasp, you once again sink to depths beyond which man has not travelled.

Sure enough, the remains of Atlantis are to be found there. Here we finally complete the mystery of the Greek ruins flanking Mount Prometheus and the Fortress Explorations painting depicting the city's destruction. Then this 20,000 Leagues takes a turn into the weird, for something else lives in Atlantis now. Training your searchlight on the frescoes, you see the story of Atlantis' abandonment and occupation by a new species that may, in fact, be from beyond the stars.

Narrowly escaping a bizarre threat, your sub-pod returns to the dock and you make your way to exit. Waiting for you there is a friendly word from Captain Nemo's corporate sponsor:

20,000 Leagues is a dry-for-wet attraction much along the same lines as Peter Pan's Flight. The submarine pod suspends from a wire monorail and the water effects are all self-contained within the vehicle's bubble windows. The effect, however, is quite convincing. It also bears another, more subtle similarity, in that 20,000 Leagues is more an heir to the Fantasyland darkride in its mechanics than to previous 20,000 Leagues rides. As the pod swims through blacklit sets, your searchlight scopes out fluorescent fish sculpted in a cartoonish, often comedic style. For example, in the ship's graveyard, Venus statues are given back their arms and heads by the careful positioning of a comic eel. Several fish find themselves adorned with pirate hats. The... somethings... that now occupy Atlantis also have a cartoon style that almost seem to transpose 20,000 Leagues onto the medium of animation.

To overcome the language barrier of the ride's narration, Tokyo Disney publishes "story papers" for many attractions. "Story papers" are free slips of good stock paper printed in a selection of languages and with excellent graphics that tell the premise of the ride for the non-Japanese portion of the audience. Most attractions in Tokyo Disneysea have a story paper that is readily available for the asking (usually at the ride loading area) and they make fantastic mementos that really ought to be common at every park. The following is the story paper for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (click to enlarge):


To fill out the menu of attractions in Tokyo Disneysea's Mysterious Island, Imagineers turned to the other works of Jules Verne for inspiration. I do not doubt that it would have been fascinating to be a fly on the wall of those meetings, hearing the debate and brainstorming over whether to have Captain Nemo take visitors on a journey Around the World in 80 Days or to have him become a Master of the World like he was a master of the sea. Maybe they would take a queue from Disneyland Paris and have a new invention take them From the Earth to the Moon?

The winning entry was Journey to the Center of the Earth, which in Disney's hands was given a heavy technological make-over. This is Captain Nemo's journey, after all. As he outlines in the signage leading up to the ride:
My first exploration of this volcano and the mysteries at the center of the Earth began with my creation of this amazing drilling device. It opened the door to the unexplored forces beneath the Earth - forces that can move the Earth... or destroy it.
Far from Lidenbrock's meager expedition, Nemo's excavation of the centre of the earth is a full-fledged scientific endeavor. Throughout the first part of the queue are laboratories filled over with crystals, rock samples and organic life culled from the dark depths. The careful observer - with lots of time on their hands - can even find foreshadowing clues to the ride's climax under the microscope and recorded in sketchbooks.

Adorning the walls of the queue's carved cavern are paintings reflecting the key moments of Nemo's explorations, echoing those of the original novel. 

At the end of this first queue is the Terravator, an elevator that takes visitors thousands of feet into the earth. Once there, you disembark and line up along catwalks that circle drilling machines and bottomless pits before loading into your exploration vehicles.

Then you're off, descending into the interior of the earth. Much of the ride is akin to the darkride format of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. You pass through blacklit scenes from the book populated by almost cartoonish characters. The crystal caverns wow you, the giant mushroom forest is populated by strange glowing creatures unknown to science, and the underground ocean takes your breath away.

But things go wrong as they are wont to do. A cave in prevents your vehicle from going down the safe route carved by the drilling machines, diverting you into unexplored caverns. Grotesque egg-sacs hang from the ceiling and rumbling behind the walls tells you that something is chasing you. Then you burst onto a lava pit in which a horrifying, unknown beast swims. Avoiding it hungry lunge at you, the vehicle speeds off, up and up, spiralling through the tunnels at a rapid clip until you burst out of the side of Mount Prometheus. After going weightless for a thrilling moment, the vehicle careens to the unloading area where, once again, Nemo's corporate sponsor gives you a word of wisdom.

Also like 20,000 Leagues and countless other attractions at Tokyo Disneysea, Journey to the Center of the Earth has its own story paper (click to enlarge):


Mysterious Island is, without doubt or parallel, the fullest expression of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea's influence on the Disney parks. It would certainly have been amazing to have seen the original attraction at Disneyland, 50 years ago, which housed the original set pieces from the film. Walt Disney World's submarine ride is long since gone and Disneyland Paris' follows the Disneyland model of a walkthrough of Nemo's amazing craft. While such a walkthrough would be very welcome at Disneysea, the visitor still enjoys a chance to immersively enter the whole world of Captain Nemo and Jules Verne on an incredible scale. Mysterious Island is the height of Imagineering.