- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 15, 2004

“Around the World in 80 Days” looks ramshackle and underbudgeted, as if it aspired to become this summer’s equivalent of “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” the sorriest spectacle of last summer.

It also unfolds with a slapdash insecurity that contrasts unfortunately with the leisurely, picturesque and genuinely globe-trotting confidence of the 1956 production, which won producer Mike Todd an Academy Award for best picture.

Then — and even more now — the Oscar endorsement for “80 Days” was on the iffy side. Mr. Todd may have been an irrepressible showman, but it was difficult to make the case that his first movie had decisively outclassed “Giant” or “The King and I” or, heaven help us, “The Ten Commandments.”

He did contrive a bemusing blend of widescreen travelogue, period evocation and star-studded variety show. He also was faithful to Jules Verne in ways that seem to elude and diminish the remake.

On paper, the idea of an “80 Days” revolving around Jackie Chan as Passepartout, the valet who becomes swept up in the ambitious travel plans of his new employer, the English gentleman and man of mystery Phileas Fogg, doesn’t seem untenable. The Mexican comic star Cantinflas played Passepartout for Mike Todd. Perhaps there’s something perversely amusing about a tradition of never casting a French actor to play the principal French character in a famous book by a French author.

Given the vanishing fidelity of the new movie, Mr. Chan might as well be known from the outset as Lau Xing, a resourceful son of the Chinese hinterlands. He has ventured to Europe to retrieve a precious object, the Jade Buddha, stolen from his home village. After stealing it back in London, he’s on the lam when he encounters the severely altered Fogg, entrusted to British comedian Steve Coogan, who may or may not ripen into the second coming of Peter Cook.

It’s a pity to see that his Fogg is no longer unflappable. He becomes an underdog eccentric inventor whose premature contraptions range from the Slinky to the flying machine. (The time frame seems to be advanced about 20 years from the Verne book, first serialized in 1872.)

Mr. Coogan’s revamp is such a bundle of neurotic insecurity that he requires systematic morale boosting.

This Fogg is no longer a self-starter, eager to bet that he can circle the globe in 80 days while playing whist with cronies at the Reform Club. He must be conned into the odyssey by Lau Xing, who has urgent reasons to beat a hasty retreat at least as far as his home village in China.

Fogg is whiplashed between Lau Xing and a tyrannical director of the Royal Academy, Kelvin, embodied by Jim Broadbent as a repository of bluster.

Although the journey does circle back to London, allowing Kathy Bates to impersonate Queen Victoria rather sweetly during the finale, the China side trip would seem to preclude a winning wager for the Fogg party, especially when it detours over the Himalayas to complete Lau Xing’s mission.

As far as one can tell, the means of transportation at this stage have become so pedestrian that the deadline would elapse before Fogg could book passage across the Pacific.

The new version scuttles the rescue of a grateful Indian princess (Shirley MacLaine in the 1956 film), preferring to add a female traveling companion in France. An expendable kibitzer named Monique (Cecile De France, a Belgian), she is encountered at an art gallery, the site of Mr. Chan’s first acrobatic fight sequence. Encores are reserved for China (where he makes impressive defensive use of a small bench) and New York City, where the Statue of Liberty supposedly is under construction.

The Todd sideshow of casting stars in bit roles is borrowed, though only a handful of stars could be recruited this time around. The most stupefying, hands down, is Arnold Schwarzenegger, who appears in a Wendy Wasserstein fright wig while impersonating a crazed Turk called Prince Hapi. Obviously, his new day job holds far more promise.


TITLE: “Around the World in 80 Days”

RATING: PG (Occasional comic vulgarity)

CREDITS: Directed by Frank Coraci. Screenplay by David Titcher, David Benullo and David Goldstein, based on the novel by Jules Verne. Cinematography by Phil Meheux. Music by Trevor Jones

RUNNING TIME: 125 minutes


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