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A different World

Culture | Movie Review: Around the World in 80 Days

Issue: "Summer Books 2004," July 3, 2004

Around the World in 80 Days is the latest joint venture between Disney and the family-oriented Walden Media. This classic Jules Verne story was filmed before in 1956, winning five Academy Awards, including Best Picture. The Disney/Walden update has merit, but on the whole wastes the potential of this fantastically exotic story.

There's not much objectionable content in Around the World in 80 Days (rated PG for action violence, some crude humor, and mild language), and some of the stunts are fun. But a remake invites comparison to the original, and, by comparison, this new version suffers.

Phileas Fogg remains the central character, but his identity has changed. The original had Fogg (David Niven) as the most proper of proper English gentlemen, exacting and self-controlled to a fault. The new Fogg (Steve Coogan) is a crackpot inventor, good-hearted but misunderstood by the world. (Does every character written for kids these days have to fit that same mold?) Niven's character was calm and unflappable, committed, always, to doing the honorable thing. Mr. Coogan's Fogg is always flapped. He's given a more pressing motivation, too: Rather than simply standing by his word and honoring a bet, the new Fogg is promised the top position at the Royal Academy of Science if he achieves the title feat.

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More frustrating for the story, though, are the changes made to Fogg's loyal valet, Passepartout, played in the original by the winning Cantinflas and in the remake by Jackie Chan. In both films, much of the action centers on this character, not Fogg. But in Disney's version, Jackie Chan's name appears above the title-making this, as much as anything else, a Jackie Chan movie. It's no exaggeration to say that the film is one long string of fight scenes with varied backdrops.

The first film had one battle, with some savage Indians, as the journey took Fogg and his traveling companions through the American West. The rest of the film took time to drink in the fantastic changes in scenery and culture. Jules Verne's stories are as much about the wonder of new, exotic locations as they are about the adventure of reaching them. That sense of wonder is almost entirely absent from Disney's remake. The new version of Around the World appeals more to audiences interested in seeing Jackie Chan work his martial-arts magic and watching "bad guys" get kicked in the crotch.

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