In the history of Walt Disney Pictures, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is often referred to as “the one that started it all” and for good reason. The first hand-drawn feature from the studio, Snow White changed the trajectory of Disney and American animation. A similar feat was accomplished by the 1954 feature 20,000 Leagues Under the Seaas this adaptation of the classic Jules Verne novel of the same name was the first entirely live-action movie produced in-house by Disney. Combining that with the immense box office success of the feature and it’s apparent why, decades later, 20,000 Leagues holds a special place in the history of Disney.
Such notoriety also means that Disney has attempted to exploit the recognizable 20,000 Leagues brand name many times over the years by remaking this motion picture. Disney has turned remaking old titles into modern-day blockbusters into a factory-like system, which makes it surprising that the studio has yet to produce a feature-length remake of this seminal adventure film.
But it’s not for a lack of trying. Back in January 2009, Disney began its efforts to produce a new 21st-century take on the story of Captain Nemo by hiring McG to helm a 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea remake. Entitled 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: Captain Nemo, hiring McG was reflective of his status in the industry at the time. Having just helmed the then-upcoming Terminator: Salvation, McG was perceived as a somebody who was about to make a big splash as a blockbuster auteur. Major studios were scrambling to get his next production and Disney managed to snag him for their 20,000 Leagues feature. Having him onboard indicated to the world that this was not going to be a throwaway Disney remake like The Shaggy Dog. The Mouse House meant business with this revamp.
A few days after this director was first hired for the gig, IGN reported that McG had informed the outlet that he wanted Will Smith to play Captain Nemo. The outlet observed that Smith seemed like a peculiar choice for the project, for one thing, Nemo is a man of Indian descent. Similarly, the character is usually depicted as being glum and consumed by vengeance, a sharp contrast to the chipper demeanor of Smith. However, McG was convinced that having somebody with Smith’s charisma around was imperative to make this new take on 20,000 Leagues work and get audiences interested in the project. At the time, McG did say that he had engaged in zero conversations with Smith about appearing in the film, which was aiming to start shooting before the year 2009 ended.
McG would never get the chance to fill out the role of Captain Nemo and other characters in this prospective project. In November 2009, this version of 20,000 Leagues was canned, despite the production both being on track for a February 2010 start date for principal photography and having already spent $ 10 million. A key reason for its demise came down to who was in charge of Walt Disney Pictures. Former Walt Disney Pictures head Dick Cook had been fired from the studio two months earlier and Rich Ross had taken over his position. The death of McG’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea came as Ross’s first major alteration to the Walt Disney Pictures slate, with this executive not sharing the same passion for this material as his predecessor.
Just a few months later, though, a new jolt of life was injected into Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea remake when a new iteration of the project was announced. While the previous version of this remake was planned to be helmed by the auteur behind We Are Marshallsthis new version of Under the Sea was going to be a David Fincher directorial effort. To make things even more baffling, the master filmmaker behind Zodiac and The Social Network had been the one who’d reached out to Disney with his idea for how to revitalize the property. This would not be an easy paycheck gig for Fincher, he was committed to delivering a modern vision of this property, which he had been developing with screenwriter. Scott Z. Burns.
By 2012, Steven Zaillian was penning a new draft of the screenplay while Disney was in a state of indecision over whether to move forward on the project. Despite this ominous air lingering over the feature, Fincher decided to approach one of his notable recurring leading men, Brad Pitt, to tackle the role of Ned Land. Pitt ended up passing on the part. This production would end up getting shelved in May 2013, with Fincher later claiming that disagreements between himself and Disney brass on who should anchor the film killed the project. Fincher wanted to have Channing Tatum inhabit the role of Land, while Disney was insistent that Chris Hemsworth be the film’s lead.
Additionally, it’s likely the state of Disney’s live-action blockbusters in this era was also playing a role in the decision to pass on this incarnation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. This production was scrapped just two months before a costly Lone Ranger blockbuster would lose countless millions for the studio. The preceding year, John Carter became a similar money loser for the Mouse House. Disney was still hankering for PG-13 blockbusters, but in contrast to 2010 when Fincher’s Under the Sea was first proposed, now in 2013 they were able to distribute Marvel Studios titles in theaters and had a slew of Star Wars films waiting in the wings. All these elements likely made the concept of doing a costly 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea just seem like a pointless risk.
Temporarily, it looked like a rival version of the project from 20th Century Fox (a studio that would get absorbed into Disney just a few years later) would beat any Disney 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea remake to the big screen. In 2015, director Bryan Singer announced that a new version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea would be his next directorial effort after X-Men: Apocalypse. While a handful of updates, including the reveal that it would take place in the same time period as the original Jules Verne novel, Singer opted to pursue Bohemian Rhapsody instead as his first post-Apocalypse directorial effort. Even outside of the Mouse House, turning this novel into a modern big-budget movie was turning into a task nobody could pull off.
But back at Disney, the studio kept trying its best to bring this remake to life. In February 2016, James Mangold would become the newest filmmaker attached to a 21st-century version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. While the two previous attempts at this remake generated endless discussion and rumors over potential casting choices and start dates for principal photography, there were no such murmurs for Mangold’s vision for Captain Nemo and friends. The filmmaker’s busy schedule, which included finishing up Logan and then moving onto the 2019 title Ford v. Ferrari, ensured that this film was always on the backburner for Mangold. No further news ever emerged on the feature and Mangold has instead moved on to directing another Disney blockbuster, the currently untitled Indiana Jones 5.
In 2021, it was revealed that fans of Disney’s vision of this Jules Verne property would finally be getting a new adventure involving Captain Nemo. Of course, this being a major pop culture production in 2021, it was taking the form of a streaming show. The program, entitled Nautilusstars Shazad Latif as Captain Nemo and has not been given an airdate. With this venture, a 21st-century take on the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea material by Disney will finally be realized.
Even with this accomplishment, it’s still staggering to see how much endless difficulty has faced the seemingly easy concept of a 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea remake. Given that Disney can churn out Lion King or Aladdin remakes like clockwork, what’s kept this production from ever becoming a reality? Part of the issue is that Under the Sea isn’t as big of a brand name with modern younger moviegoers, so there’s less financial urgency to get the project off the ground. Disney’s insistence on working with big-name auteurs like Fincher or Mangold are also big swings that often end up just reflecting how difficult it can be to make movies within this studio’s restrictive parameters. Plus, sometimes, some remakes just aren’t necessary. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was an important film for Disney but that does not necessarily mean a remake would be either as great or impactful.