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The Underground Movie, or Jules Verne knew what he was talking about

The Underground Movie, Les Drew, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

When you were a kid, did you ever dream of going to the centre of the earth? I did. I loved to read adventure books that would take you on spectacular journeys to “hidden” lands buried in the bowels of the earth. Travelling to these places in strange vessels and encountering mysterious creatures was all part of the fun. It is no surprise, then, that when I first saw The Underground Movie, I flashed back to my childhood books. It is an exciting adventure full of humour and clever touches.

Originally proposed in 1966 for the educational market, the film was to be part of a series on earth sciences. The NFB was very interested in the project as there was a great demand for this type of material from primary schools in Canada. Several films came out of this program, including Bill Mason’s brilliant Rise and Fall of the Great Lakes.

The go-ahead for The Underground Movie, which had a working title of Journey to the Center of the Earth, did not come until much later. As the film had to be scientifically sound, there was a great deal of discussion about just how much information a film targeted to 10-year-olds should contain. The script was eventually simplified and the animation started in 1969. Director Les Drew had to stop working on the project at one point because his services were desperately needed on another film. He eventually returned and finished the film in late 1972.

Somewhere along the way, the title was changed to The Underground Movie. I couldn’t find any reason why in our archives, but I suspect it had something to do with the copyright of the classic Jules Verne book Journey to the Center of the Earth. In any case, I prefer Underground Movie simply because it can be interpreted in so many ways.

The film was selected to play at the Annecy Animation Festival in June 1973. It later won an award at the Adelaide International Film Festival for Children. While it was intended for the classroom, the film was also released theatrically. (In those days, movie theatres would show short animated films and documentaries before the main feature.) Over several years it played in hundreds of Canadian theatres and drive-ins in such places as Kerrobert (Saskatchewan), Thunder Bay, Medicine Hat, Hull and Oshawa. In Vancouver, it played at the Odeon Cinema for 13 straight weeks. It was also sold to TV networks in the USA, Scotland, Sweden, Australia, Ireland and Romania, among others.

It is easy to see why the movie was so popular. While it is aimed at kids, the film can be appreciated by adults as it is filled with many jokes that only adults would get. (I especially liked the Do It Yourself Nuclear Bomb Kit!) The film’s omnipresent voice-of-God narration is a parody of the kind of stuffy scientific films we were all forced to sit through in school. And what can you say about Old Chucknose? It comes complete with television monitors, multiple drill bits and highly sophisticated automated equipment. I wish I had one of those.

So strap on your seat belts. Check the pressure. Select a drill bit and let Old Chucknose take us on an adventure to the centre of the Earth. Enjoy. (By the way, don’t miss the final joke during the end credits.)

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