There were two TV versions of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea made in 1997. One starred Michael Caine as Nemo, Patrick Dempsey (Can't Buy Me Love, Grey's Anatomy) as Professor Aronnax, Bryan Brown (FX, Cocktail) as Ned Land, and Mia Sara (Ferris Bueller's Day Off) as someone who wasn't in Jules Verne's novel. I'm going to have to track that one down, because it's easily the more interestingly cast of the two.
The one I saw stars Richard Crenna (the Rambo movies) as Prof. Aronnax and no one else I've ever heard of. That's not to say that it's a bad movie though. It's certainly got its problems, but I was never bored, which is already a vast improvement over the novel.
Jules Verne's book isn't so much a story as it is a collection of short episodes about life on the Nautilus. It's loosely tied together by events surrounding Nemo's capture of Professor Aronnax, his servant/assistant Conseil, and a whaler named Ned Land, but the book leaves that mostly as a subplot and concentrates instead on describing the undersea wonders that Nemo shows Aronnax on their tour around the world. It's more travelogue than novel and it pretty much sucks.
MOVIE SPOILERS BELOW
The Richard Crenna movie corrects that fault by turning Conseil into Aronnax's daughter Sophie. (I wonder if they didn't do something similar with Mia Sara in the Michael Caine version.) She's still his assistant, but she adds an element of tension missing from the book by giving Nemo and Ned something else to fight over other than Ned's whining about his freedom.
Sophie is convincingly torn in her affections for the two men. Ned is manly and charming, but he's also a rogue and Sophie's not sure she can trust him with her heart. She doesn't really like Nemo, but he's refined, wealthy, her dad likes him, and there's a tragic aspect about him that seems to intrigue her.
The romantic triangle carries us through the story, so that scenes of Atlantis, a sea monster, and a shark attack while diving are all background to the drama. That's exactly opposite of the novel's approach and I liked it a lot.
I wish that the acting had been more exciting though. Ned's the coolest character on the Nautilus and he spends most of the movie locked away so that he can't get to Sophie.
Sophie's a pretty generic heroine. I couldn't figure out what everyone saw in her except that she's pretty and they're all sailors without a lot of women around. Nemo has some women on his crew, but he explains that they're followers; not equals. So Sophie seems to win Nemo and Ned over by being the only available woman on ship. Not exactly the stuff of great love stories.
Nemo's dull as a brick too. Ben Cross plays him really low key. He has moments of passion, but for the most part he's so measured and careful that he's charmless. Nemo ought to be cool. He ought to be romantic and dangerous. I didn't hate Cross' performance, but it makes me sad to think about what it could have been.
Crenna does okay, but with the focus on Nemo, Sophie, and Ned, Aronnax sort of gets left behind. He's much more important in the novel where he has more power over Conseil and Ned, but in this version his role has mostly to do with his approval or disapproval of Sophie's love life. And Sophie is such a strong, independent woman that her father's opinion doesn't really matter to her anyway.
A couple of other things that need to be mentioned in any review of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: the design of the Nautilus and the giant squid fight.
Like the plot, the Nautilus in this version doesn't suck, but it could've been a whole lot better. It's pretty much an oval with a ramming horn on the front and propellers on the back. It's not ugly, but it's not cool either. The Nautilus ought to look cool. But then, Cross' Nemo isn't the kind of guy to build a cool submarine. He's way too reserved. (On the other hand, he did build laser guns for his crew to fight sharks with, so he's got a cool side buried under all that stuffiness somewhere.)
The giant squid fight, disappointingly, doesn't exist in this version. It's replaced by a giant eel, which could have been cool if the CGI had been better. Still, getting away from it involves Ned going inside it's mouth with dynamite strapped to a harpoon, so it's still pretty awesome. It just would've been more awesome if there had also been tentacles.
Three out of five shark-killing laser guns.