Around the World in 80 Days (4/10)

Copyright © 2004 by Tony Medley

Whenever I see a remake, I wonder about the logic. If a film was terrific, like Casablanca (1942) or Gone With the Wind (1939), why remake it? Do the producers think they’re going to top Humphrey Bogart or Clark Gable? If the movie stunk, why remake it? It failed the first time, what causes producers to think they can do it better? If it was mediocre, maybe there’s an argument for trying to make it better, but not much of one.

Two remakes do stand out in my mind as rivaling the original. High Society (1955) was much better than Philadelphia Story (1940), but there was a reason. They turned Philadelphia Story into a Cole Porter musical. That’s a good reason for a remake. The other one was The Jackal (1997), the Bruce Willis remake of Day of the Jackal (1973). I liked both. And don’t forget A Star is Born, which has been remade more than once.

Now Disney and Walden Media are releasing a remake of the Mike Todd Around the World in 80 Days (1956), which won the Oscar as best picture (beating out The King and I and The Searchers, which wasn’t even nominated), along with lots of other Oscars. But Todd was faithful to Jules Verne’s book in that Phileas Fogg (David Niven) was a staid, supremely confident, unflappable Victorian snob who made his successful trip because of his ingenious ideas and the Herculean efforts of his valet, Passepartout (Cantinflas).

In this version, directed by Frank Coraci and written by a bunch of guys named Ticher, Benullo and Goldstein, they changed the joke. Instead of being above the fray like Niven, Coraci has made Fogg (Steve Coogan) into an unsure, peripatetic inventor who is hyperactive in making the journey. Passepartout (Jackie Chan) has been converted into a martial arts expert running away from the police in a tiresome subplot about a statue that was stolen from his village in China. Just as in Cheaper by the Dozen last year, when you change the premise and eliminate the joke, you harm the end product. It was funny to watch the stiff, upper class Fogg as portrayed by Niven, get through all the scrapes he endured to get around the world. Watching Coogan’s Fogg is not nearly as funny.

This version is similar to the original in that there is a myriad of cameos, even multi billionaire Richard Branson. Incidentally, Todd’s ’80 Days was where the term “cameo” originated. He wanted lots of stars, like Frank Sinatra, Red Skelton, Buster Keaton, and Marlene Dietrich, to appear in minor roles. In order to entice them, he coined the term Cameo Role, and the stars lined up. Sinatra didn’t utter a line, just played the piano.

Unfortunately, some ridiculous martial arts fights, in which Passepartout takes on innumerable bad guys and gals and always emerges unscathed, mar Coraci’s ‘80 Days. If you like this sort of thing, I guess you’ll find it entertaining. I don’t and didn’t.

Todd’s film concentrated on the journey and showed how our heroes got from place to place. In Coraci’s film, they just magically appear in China and San Francisco and New York with no explanation as to how they got there.

Another minor point that irked me was that the Production Notes quote Will Forte, of Saturday Night Live, as it being “awesome” to work with John Cleese. “He’s always been an idol of mine, and a comedic inspiration. He’s so funny in this—it was hard not to laugh while we were doing the scenes.” Maybe I blinked and missed something, but I saw Cleese in only one scene and these where his lines, “Some people will believe anything.” Beat. “See what I mean?” Cleese is a genius, but somehow I wasn’t falling into the aisles holding my sides laughing.

Todd’s film was also enhanced by Victor Young’s magnificent score (for which he won his first and only Oscar, posthumously, after 19 nominations). The music in Coraci’s film (Trevor Jones) doesn’t compare.

In 1956 Robert Newton’s Inspector Fix was a captivatingly devious scoundrel who would do anything to arrest Fogg. Coraci has Ewen Bremner as Fix who’s pursuing Passepartout rather than Fogg, and plays him as a near maniac. Definitely no improvement here.

This has some good scenes, so it’s not a bad travelogue. Coogan’s performance is good and Chan is appealing, despite the meager script. Even so, I didn’t find it riotously funny. People actually applauded at the end, so there were those who liked it.

But I close as I began. Why?

June 15, 2004

The End