Movie Review: Around the World in 80 Days
By Mark Caro, Chicago Tribune Movie Writer
The world seems a smaller place since the three-hour "Around the World in Eighty Days" took home the 1956 best picture Oscar. That movie looks pretty shaggy now, but back then it wowed crowds with its international locations, celebrity cameos and producer Michael Todd's new Todd-AO widescreen, multispeaker format.
Spanning the globe on film no longer feels like such a big deal, celebrity cameos are routine, and so is the new "Around the World in 80 Days." This comedy is billed as being "based on the novel by Jules Verne," but "suggested by" or "borrowing the title and character names of" would be more accurate.
In this "film by Frank Coraci," the director of "The Wedding Singer" and "The Waterboy," the persnickety late-19th century English gentleman Phileas Fogg of Verne's novel and the earlier movie (as played by David Niven) has been transformed into your standard absentminded inventor, played by Steve Coogan.
Meanwhile, Fogg's valet Passepartout, a Frenchman in the novel and a Mexican in the first movie, has become a Chinese guy, with Jackie Chan receiving star billing and most of the attention. Basically, a standard Jackie Chan plot has been grafted onto this adventure tale, but the transplant never really takes.
Yes, Fogg once again has accepted a bet to travel around the world in you know how long - this time the stakes are his membership in the Royal Academy of Science - but the more pressing matter is Passepartout's effort to return the stolen Jade Buddha to his home village in China. Passepartout (pronounced "passport too" - as a lame pun explains), whose real name is Lau Xing, is being pursued by martial-arts warriors led by the fierce, female General Fang (Karen Joy Morris), who's in cahoots with the Royal Academy's corrupt, pompous leader Lord Kelvin (Jim Broadbent).
Why remake "Around the World in 80 Days" if you've got to throw in this Jade Buddha nonsense? You get the impression that the filmmakers didn't really believe the world-circling premise would hold water anymore, so they tried to offer two movies for the price of one.
But Passepartout's quest to reach his village takes the air out of Phileas' balloon, as the inventor becomes a bystander in his own story for large chunks of time. Chan, as always, is an affable presence, and his fight scenes, though not as elaborate or quick as in his earlier films, remain fun. No one uses nearby objects, such as a bench or even a British inspector, as slapstick weapons like Chan does.
But we've seen Chan do his fish-out-of-water act before; he's just doing it in a greater variety of ponds this time. Meanwhile, Coogan never seems completely comfortable stripping away the ironical knowingness that made his performances in "24 Hour Party People" and "Coffee and Cigarettes" so effective.
Coogan essentially is playing the Hugh Grant role, and while he's likable enough, you can sense him straining to make his love plot with cute-as-a-button French artist Monique (Cecile de France) work. It doesn't, perhaps because the filmmakers are unwilling to grant Passepartout any competing sexual energy to make things interesting; Chan's just playing the asexual Asian teddy bear watching the two attractive Europeans hook up.
About an hour shorter than the 1956 version, "Around the World in 80 Days" is brightly colored, spiffily designed and easy to sit through in a harmless Disney sort of way, but the comedy never accumulates any momentum. The jokes are hit and miss - more miss - and some of the broad performances are cringe-worthy, particularly a pencil-thin Ewen Bremner as shrill human punching bag Inspector Fix and Broadbent's ever-harrumphing Lord Kelvin.
As for the cameos, Arnold Schwarzenegger's is the most highly publicized, but take away the implicit humor of this guy now being California's governor, and his turn as a groping, mop-topped Turkish prince isn't exactly wit city. As for the other "surprise" appearances, one gave me a chuckle (I won't spoil it), and old-time Chan fans should appreciate Sammo Hung kicking into action, but suffice it to say Coraci hasn't lined up A-list talent to pop up around this world. (No, Rob Schneider doesn't count.)
At the very least, "Around the World" should work as a travelogue, but it's hard to have an eye-opening experience when you're only being shown what's already familiar.
"Around the World in 80 Days"
Directed by Frank Coraci; written by David Titcher, David Benullo, David Goldstein, based on the novel by Jules Verne; photographed by Phil Meheux; edited by Tom Lewis; production designed by Perry Andelin Blake; music by Trevor Jones; produced by Hal Lieberman, Bill Badalato. A Walt Disney Pictures/Walden Media release; opened Wednesday, June 16. Running time: 2:05. MPAA rating: PG (action violence, some crude humor, mild language).
Passepartout/Lau Xing - Jackie Chan
Phileas Fogg - Steve Coogan
Lord Kelvin - Jim Broadbent
Monique - Cecile de France
Inspector Fix - Ewen Bremner
Col. Kitchener - Ian McNeice