"Around the World in 80 Days" sails along on a slipstream of pleasant scenery, amusing incident and the boundless charms of its appealing leading men, Jackie Chan and Steve Coogan: It's an unexpectedly buoyant spectacular. Based on the Jules Verne novel, the basis of a 2-ton turkey from 1956 with David Niven, this light entertainment suggests that the class of movie known as "the family film" — think Fred MacMurray and a talking dog — has yet to be vanquished by product placements, vulgarity and unnecessary violence. It may never be hip to be square, but as this genial film attests sometimes it's sweet relief.
The story, originally published by Verne in 1872, concerns an English stuffed shirt of unknown circumstances, Phileas Fogg (Coogan), who bets some fellow club members that he can circumnavigate the globe in 80 days. To win his wager, Fogg employs horseless and horse-drawn carriages, various trains and one hot-air balloon, a slow-moving boat and a fast-moving flying machine — along with a bag brimming with cash, a head abounding in ingenuity and, courtesy of his valet, Passepartout (Chan), some fancy fist-and-footwork. And, perhaps because the image of two bachelors traveling together in close quarters no longer registers the way it did once upon a movie time, a third globetrotter has been folded into the mix, a French painter named Monique (Cécile de France).
As in the original novel much adventure ensues though with none of the casual affronts and racism; Passepartout no longer calls Fogg "master" for one, and a band of attacking Sioux Indians has, gratefully, gone missing. Instead, in a nod to modern tastes and attention spans, director Frank Coraci and writers David Titcher, David Benullo and David Goldstein amp the action with a purloined jade statue and a Chinese warlord with extremely dangerous press-on nails (played by the delightful Hong Kong actress Karen Joy Morris). It's all terribly silly if eminently watchable, in part because it gives executive co-producer Chan something to do besides spread his mile-wide smile. In the case of a bit featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger — wearing a scary Roseanne Roseannadana fright wig and an even more alarming wolfish grin — it's also downright memorable.
As far as Jackie Chan vehicles go "Around the World in 80 Days" is fairly tame stuff. Serving as the film's stunt choreographer, Chan nonetheless executes a couple of nifty fight sequences, including one in which he uses a wooden bench to battle a blade-twirling opponent. Not since Fred Astaire has a screen performer put quotidian objects to such consistently glorious use. For most American viewers it's likely that the bigger eye-opener will be Coogan, an impudently gifted British comic performer best known here for the film "24 Hour Party People." With a mad stare and jumping eyebrows, Coogan plays Fogg as both an innocent and genius, as a man who after a lifetime of living inside his head is forced to confront the wonderful wide world in order to — of course, of course — discover his truest self.
In Verne's novel, the wager is merely the excuse for the journey; the larger reason is the rapidly shrinking world. (A club member insists that the world "is big enough" for a thief to hide from the law. "It was once," counters Fogg.) Crass commercialism alone explains the 1956 movie, however, a crashing bore and one of the worst films to win the Academy Award for best picture. About all that's worth remembering about this talking-picture mausoleum is a surreal prologue with Edward R. Murrow jawing on about Verne, film pioneer Georges Méliès and the modern age in the same stentorian tones he had recently used to help nail Sen. Joseph McCarthy. The sight of the journalist icon — one hand holding a cigarette, the other caressing a globe — shilling for the film's producer, Mike Todd, is priceless.
Although the 1956 movie was shot on location from Mexico to Thailand it might as well have been produced entirely on a studio back lot given its one-dimensional design and attitude toward the earth's peoples as fearsome exotics and swarthy babes. (Shirley MacLaine plays an East Indian princess, for crying out loud.) The new movie plays down the putative exoticism of other cultures, partly by playing up the strangeness of Victorian England, and does so without tipping into art-and-joy-deadening political correctness. It's also remarkably free of youth pandering pop references that are supposed to play from here to China. Just as happily this "Around the World in 80 Days" proves that even in this day and age it remains possible to travel the world, meet interesting people and, well, not kill them.
'Around the World in 80 Days'
MPAA rating: PG for action violence, some crude humor and mild language
Times guidelines: The action is blood-free; the language no cruder than "hell."
Steve Coogan...Phileas Fogg
Cécile de France...Monique
Jim Broadbent...Lord Kelvin
Ewen Bremner...Inspector Fix
Walt Disney Pictures and Walden Pictures present a Spanknyce Films production, released by Buena Vista Pictures Distribution. Director Frank Coraci. Writers David Titcher, David Benullo, David Goldstein. Based on the novel by Jules Verne. Producers Hal Lieberman, Bill Badalato. Director of photography Phil Meheux. Production designer Perry Andelin Blake. Film Editor Tom Lewis. Costume designer Anna Sheppard. Music Trevor Jones. Casting Avy Kaufman. Stunt choreography by Jackie Chan. In English and in French, Mandarin, Turkish and Hindi with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.