Why do they do it? Why do filmmakers continually try to improve on things that either don't need improving or don't deserve improving in the first place?
"Around the World in 80 Days" is a case in point. In 1956 producer Mike Todd already made a definitive movie version of the classic Jules Verne novel. So, why did filmmakers in 2004 decide to do it all over again? Because they could? Because they thought they had a better story or better stars or better technology? Wrong on all counts.
Verne's basic plot and setting remain the same, a bet to circumnavigate the globe in eighty days at a time when such a feat was considered impossible, so nothing much has changed here. The new movie has the estimable Jackie Chan in the co-starring role of Passepartout, and he brings considerable energy to the part; but the old movie boasted Cantinflas, Mexico's most-popular comedian, as Passepartout, and it had David Niven in the lead role of Phileas Fogg. And while modern, digital special effects may initially seem impressive, they are really no great improvement over the old-fashioned, real-life effects in the older movie. If anything, the older film is still more spectacular to look at. And, what's more, the older film boasts a larger number of cameo appearances by stars of the time than does the new production.
Put it this way: Disney spent over $200,000,000 in 2004 remaking "The Alamo" and "Around the World in 80 Days." The two films together took in a total of less than $50,000,000 at the box office. You'd think that with a $150,000,000 in losses, the studio would get the point and leave well enough alone.
Essentially, the new "Around the World" is just another adventure comedy built around Jackie Chan, with Verne's travelogue tenuously holding the action scenes together. Chan plays a fellow named Lau Xing who has just robbed London's Bank of England of a jade Buddha that he intends to return to its rightful place in his village in China. But he needs a quick escape from the country, so he pretends to be a Frenchman, calling himself Passepartout, and becomes the valet to Englishman Phileas Fogg (Steve Coogan), who is obviously leaving the country on a bet. In Paris they meet a beautiful young artist and hatcheck girl named Monique La Roche (Cecile De France), who gets involved with the expedition to escape her own boring life, and together the three people traverse the globe.
Of course, if that's all there were to it, it wouldn't be much different from the 1956 version, so this time the bet is between Fogg and England's villainous Minister of Science, Lord Kelvin (Jim Broadbent), a wager that involves Fogg becoming the new Minister at the Royal Academy if he wins or giving up science altogether if he loses. In addition, there's a bumbling Police Inspector named Fix (Ewen Bremner), hired by Lord Kelvin to follow Fogg and keep him from winning the bet; and an evil female General named Fang (Karen Joy Morris) and her gang of Black Scorpions chasing Xing to retrieve the jade statue.
Somewhere in all the exaggerated chasing and fighting, the original Verne story line gets rather lost. As does the music, the wonderful old musical score of the original movie replaced by a far more mundane one. As does the beauty of the older movie's photography, here replaced mainly by CGI special effects of flying machines and such.
Chan is his usual friendly, carefree, happy-go-lucky, loyal, and agile self. Coogan, on the other hand, portrays Fogg as an eccentric crackpot inventor rather than as the snooty but elegant gentleman Niven represented. As far as buddy movies go, this one is about what we have come to expect from Chan of late, since he always seems to be teamed up with somebody else. And Ms. De France plays the love interest formerly occupied Shirley MacLaine. On the whole, this new team seems more practical and businesslike than the charismatic trio from the older film.
And where the older movie had a ton of cameos (producer Mike Todd credited with having invented the idea of placing famous stars in brief appearances), the new movie makes only a nod in that direction with a relative handful of cameo roles. Rob Schneider appears as a beggar in San Francisco. Luke and Owen Wilson play the Wright brothers. John Cleese is a Police Sergeant. Kathy Bates plays Queen Victoria. Sammo Hung shows up as Wong Fei, an old friend of Xing. And Arnold Schwarzenegger has the biggest cameo of all, a purposely silly role as the horny Prince Hapi, who is determined to make La Roche his seventh wife.
I wish any of this worked, but I'm afraid you have to be a dedicated Jackie Chan fan to appreciate what most of us have seen the man do dozens of times before. The fact is, the filmmakers appear to have tailored the whole film around Chan, for better or for worse, and employed Frank Coraci to direct, a filmmaker whose previous efforts were "The Wedding Singer" and "The Water Boy." I think you get the idea.
Trivia: You would think that a film set in a specific historical era would at least attempt to get some of its facts straight, but I suppose the filmmakers felt that since Jules Verne often wrote what we today would call science fiction, they could take some fictional liberties of their own. Never mind that Verne's "Around the World in Eighty Days" was as realistic as the author could make it for its time.
Anyway, the current film plays fast and loose with factual information. For instance, at the beginning of the film, we are told the story is set "Before the Turn of the Century." But how long before? 1899? 1880? 1870? One has to suppose that the story is taking place around the year 1872, however, since Verne published his novel in 1873, and that would be the author's own setting. Moreover, Queen Victoria would have been in her early fifties in 1872, about the same age as Kathy Bates, who plays the Queen in the movie. In addition, we are told by policeman Fix that in London all vehicles "must be powered by horses," which would make sense in 1872 but not much later in the century when automobiles became quite common. Meanwhile Fogg and Lau Xing drive a steam-powered vehicle much like one that was actually invented in 1871.
But if the date is, indeed, 1872, and there is no reason to suppose it isn't, how to explain that as our intrepid heroes fly off in a hot-air balloon from Paris, the Eiffel Tower is seen dominating the landscape? The Eiffel Tower was not built until 1889. Moreover, we meet the Wright brothers wandering in the American desert, the pair of them in their early thirties. The actual Wright brothers would have been one and five years old in 1872. Another: Fogg's laboratory is filled with what he says are the inventions of Thomas Edison, the well-known American inventor. But Edison was only in his mid twenties in 1872, he was in financial trouble working for the fledgling telegraph industry, and he had not yet become famous or invented any of the things we know him for today. And another: The team arrives in what is prominently labeled Istanbul, Turkey, at a time when the city was almost universally known as Constantinople. (The name would officially be changed to Istanbul in 1930.) And yet another: The team finds and recognizes a Rodin statue of "The Thinker" sculpted in the likeness of Big Arnold, but Rodin didn't create "The Thinker" until 1880. A last one: While in New York, the heroes venture upon the various parts of the Statue of Liberty stored in a warehouse, awaiting assembly. The trouble? The Statue of Liberty was not shipped from France to the United States until 1885.
My guess is that "Around the World in 80 Days" is being purposely vague and coy with its dates, wanting it all ways at once. The screenwriter tries to fit as many historical characters into the story as possible, regardless of whether they conflict with reality. The movie should not be relied upon as a history lesson any more than it should be considered an honest interpretation of Jules Verne's novel. It may be entertaining for younger children, but great storytelling it ain't.
Given the film's extravagant budget, you would expect Buena Vista to lavish some attention on the disc's video quality, and they do. The film's original theatrical-exhibition dimensions are largely preserved in an anamorphic widescreen that extends to a ratio of approximately 2.13:1 across my normal-sized HD television. The bit rate is slightly above average and helps supply colors that are deep, rich, and bright. Facial tones can lean toward the purplish, and darker areas of the screen are a tad murky, but otherwise the hues are fairly natural, with proper definition all around. I could see no marked problems with digital transfer artifacts like excessive grain, halos, pixilation, or jittery lines.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound in the English audio track does its job with commendable efficiency, even if it doesn't do anything to make one want to invite the neighbors over to demo this or that scene. It's good, clear sound reproduction, with very little deep bass and only a hint of surround activity. Some musical ambiance reinforcement is used in the back speakers, and a few subtle noises like those of a whirling chain pass overhead, but these moments are few and far between, despite the continued physical action on screen.
There is a decent if not very original set of extras that come with the disc. The first, of course, is the mandatory audio commentary, this one with the director, Frank Coraci, and the costar, Steve Coogan, who keep up what appears to be a nonstop set of observations and reminiscences on the film, although I did not listen to more than a few minutes of it. Then, there's a never-before-seen, animated alternate beginning, mostly affecting the opening credits. Next, there are two featurettes, the first called "Discovering Around The World In 80 Days," eighteen minutes of typical behind-the-scenes promotional material; the second called "Around The World With Jackie Chan," six minutes of behind-the-stunt scenes with the film's costar. After those items are nine deleted scenes that can be played with or without the director's commentary; plus a music video, "Everybody All Over the World," performed by Dave Stewart and the Sylvia School Children's Choir. Finally, there are twenty scene selections and several Sneak Peaks at other Buena Vista releases. English, French, and Spanish are offered as spoken language choices, with French and Spanish subtitles, and English captions for the hearing impaired.
I can't help continuing to compare this film to its 1956 counterpart, where the older film comes out ahead on every count. For one thing, the older production featured glorious cinematography, while the new film, for all its technical know-how, bogs down in the commonplace. Two, where the older movie was relatively calm and leisurely, the new one feels frenetic, even chaotic. Three, while the old film had a wonderful theme song that is still instantly recognizable after five decades, the new film has a mostly forgettable musical soundtrack. And four, where Verne's novel was a model of realistic plausibility, the new film makes up anything it wants for comic effect.
The 2004 version of "Around the World in 80 Days" is not a bad film as such; it's just an ordinary one and a fairly typical vehicle for its star, Jackie Chan. Oh, the costly budget and the spectacle may be things new to one of Chan's movies, but basically it's still chase and fight, fight and chase, with Chan his usual disarming self and everybody else pretty much disappearing into the woodwork.