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Around the World in 80 Days (2004)

Reviewed By Robert Flaxman
Posted 11/23/04 04:24:44

"Read the book instead."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

Usually the question when discussing a filmed adaptation of a written work is what has been changed from the original text. A better question concerning the 2004 adaptation of Around the World in Eighty Days, however, is to wonder what *hasn't* been changed.

The names of the main characters are the same - Phileas Fogg and his servant Passepartout. Their relationship is totally altered, however. In the Jules Verne novel, Fogg is suspected of a theft of 55,000 pounds from the Bank of England by the noble if misguided detective Fix, who follows him around the world. In the film, Passepartout (Jackie Chan) is the real thief, the theft is of a jade statue that had been stolen from his village in China, he pretends to be half-French, and Fix (Ewen Bremner) is a bumbling fool employed by the immensely over-the-top villain Lord Kelvin (Oscar-winner Jim Broadbent, doing his best Cuba Gooding Jr. post-Oscar role-picking imitation) to stop Fogg (Steve Coogan), rather than someone who honestly believes Fogg to be guilty of a crime.

The book, it must be said, is infinitely more fascinating than the film - this adaptation of it, at any rate. Around the World is sometimes effective with its humor, but mostly it is a display of Jackie Chan's martial artistry and a lot of slapstick, along with a modicum of dry wit from Coogan. Coogan's Fogg is several steps down from that of the novel; like the novel, the film seems to operate more from Passepartout's point of view even as it is told in the third person, but the novel's Fogg is an interesting enigma - even as the reader watches Fogg coolly perform heroic feats, we cannot shake the idea that perhaps he is indeed guilty of the crime of which he is suspected. After all, he lives alone and enjoys a respectable wealth of unknown origin.

Furthermore, Verne ratchets up the tension by leaving nothing out, seeming to show every minute of Fogg's quest. The film cuts parts of the voyage by necessity, but it's shocking how much is left out - we skip from Paris to Turkey to India to China to San Francisco to New York, with only enough time in each area for Passepartout to fend off the agents of a Chinese warlord intent on taking over his village. A sense of urgency is never established, which is problematic for a film whose title voyage should inspire nothing but. (As far as cutting time goes, the film is also an hour shorter than its 1956 counterpart, though director Frank Coraci should probably be thanked for this courtesy.)

It's somewhat understandable in this day and age that changes had to be made - many of the novel's most important moments are no longer very politically correct, or are just outright dated. However, most of the replacement plot elements aren't any better. While Fogg rescues an Indian woman from being burned alive as part of an outlawed ritual in the novel, the film's love interest is a gratingly perky French woman who is along for the ride from near the beginning.

The worst change occurs with the installation of so many villains and a complicated plot to explain their machinations. Broadbent's Lord Kelvin and the Chinese villains are all working together in an attempt to gain a large amount of jade, or something. It's a bit cloudy. The villains always manage to arrive in one place in time to meet Fogg and crew, and sometimes even get there first, which leads to the question: if traveling around the world in eighty days is so hard, why does everyone seem to be able to do it?

Of course, it's a bit unfair to judge the movie exclusively on its failure to live up to a famous novel, but on most other counts the film doesn't fare much better. The acting ranges between middling and passable all around, though at least that's not a cardinal sin in this sort of film. A bigger problem is the uninspiring nature of the martial arts scenes. The plot was tweaked quite a bit from the novel but most of the changes were to work Chan into the plot and thus accommodate various fight scenes - the scenes are hardly boring but there's nothing very standout about any of them. A scene in which Sammo Hung and the rest of a group called the Ten Tigers appear to help Chan repulse the village's invaders gives the whole affair the feel of a crossover movie - "Phileas Fogg Meets the Ten Tigers" conjures up memories of "The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island".

The film's various slapstick sequences at least afford a few cheap laughs, but nothing ever rises to the level of inspired. The barrage of cameos, intended to ape the 1956 version of the film, grow tiresome, as do the cutesy historical references (the Wright Brothers selling bicycles, for example - and what were they doing in the Arizona desert anyway?). The filmmakers clearly thought that making Fogg a dreamer and inventor who risks losing the ability to invent ever again if he loses the bet would spice up the narrative, as the novel's bet was made solely for money, but they don't seem to realize how much drama they lost by way of all the changes. When the film attempts moments of gravitas, it's blissfully unaware of the fact that it has done nothing to earn them.

I'd like to say there isn't much that's truly awful about Around the World in Eighty Days, but its mangling of a classic novel is enough - the book's excitement is neutered and its strong characterizations have the life cut out of them; the destruction of the Fix character alone, and he's truly an awful character in this film, should be worth five to seven years in the prison for cinematic bad ideas.

Around the World in Eighty Days might be a passable diversion for easily-distracted youngsters, but a fifth-grade reading level is all the excuse you need to steer clear of this one and pick up the book instead. When even Jackie Chan has a hard time being entertaining, you know you're watching a movie that just isn't very good.

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