You might think that with the technological advances in moviemaking since 1956, this new version of Around the World in 80 Days would at least look better than its predecessor did. You could not be faulted for believing you'd be wowed by the Rube Goldberg gadgets of inventor Phileas Fogg, the whirligigs and whatchamacallits that fill his London home and the contraptions with which he uses human guinea pigs as sacrificial lambs. And surely a studio as desperate for a hit as Walt Disney Pictures would be willing to invest some small fortune in its one best shot at a summer kiddie hit; after few roamed to see Home on the Range, and with Princess Diaries 2 looming on the horizon like a threat, the beleaguered studio needs at least something resembling a success. But expect nothing from this $110-million movie, because that's all it delivers. Arriving in theaters smelling like a carton of milk left for days in the summer sun, it returns scant pennies on each dollar invested. Rarely has the phrase "special effects" felt like such an oxymoron.
To borrow a phrase from Moulin Rouge, whose Jim Broadbent shows up here as the corrupt and shortsighted head of the Royal Academy of Science who bets Fogg he can't complete the titular trip, the new take on Around the World in 80 Days is demented enough to believe itself a spectacular-spectacular of epic globetrotting proportions. Yet among the several iterations of Jules Verne's novel about the inventor's adventures whilst traipsing through England, Asia and the Wild West, this new one is the least impressive and most depressive. Even the 1989 made-for-TV version starring Pierce Brosnan possessed more spark and steam than this lazy, lackluster take.
And do not even think of comparing the 2004 variant with the 1956 film that won Academy Awards for, among other things, Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. That movie, with David Niven as Fogg and Cantinflas as his valet Passepartout, was many things -- overlong, overblown and overcooked -- but at least it looked opulent and possessed a wry screenplay co-written by S.J. Perelman, who had penned two of the Marx Brothers' Paramount classics. It took three people to write this one and claims as its director the man who made The Waterboy. Even its cameos are bargain-bin: Where the original boasted Frank Sinatra, Marlene Dietrich, Peter Lorre and John Carradine, this one has to make do with Rob Schneider, Will Forte (a featured player on Saturday Night Live, no less), Owen and Luke Wilson as the Wright Brothers and, most distressingly, Arnold Schwarzenegger as a lecherous prince with a dyed-black Carrot Top wig. The whole sordid affair is craptacular-craptacular.
This is barely an adaptation of the Verne novel at all, but a Jackie Chan vehicle shoehorned into hoary material that steals its central plot from, of all things, Shanghai Knights. In this film, as well as that one, Chan plays a devoted son who has to return to his father an ancient artifact stolen from his village -- in this case, a jade Buddha swiped by General Fang (Chinese film star Karen Mok, with razor blades for fingernails) and her gang of kung-fu thugs. Here, Chan plays the role of Passepartout, and Steve Coogan is his employer. At this point, Chan's American movies all look and feel the same -- some more dreary than others (The Tuxedo, say), but all more or less mundane action comedies in which Chan engages in a few elaborately and amusingly staged fight sequences while playing sidekick to someone for whom English is not a second language.
But Coogan's decision to appear in this film is particularly distressing, because it suggests a bald-faced desire to swap hipster respectability for the easy paycheck that comes with making summertime cotton candy. It might have been different had Coogan been allowed to inject the role with even a dollop of the smirking mordancy that made him famous on British television. The star of 24 Hour Party People and one of the highlights of Jim Jarmusch's new Coffee and Cigarettes has been emasculated by screenwriters who reduce him to Chan's cardboard straight man and force him to utter cross-dressing jokes so often even he seems to weary of delivering them. At least Johnny Depp was allowed to ham it up in Pirates of the Caribbean, which was made for children but played far more grown-up; Coogan's merely generic, an Everybrit whose wit is drowned out by the din of a movie collapsing all around him.
Everything about this new 80 Days feels cheap and smells musty: It looks like something filmed on a studio back lot that's been closed for years, where everything that's supposed to weigh a ton has been fabricated out of Styrofoam and spray paint, and every brick wall is made of plywood. And there are scant scenes of Chan and Coogan -- and Cécile de France as Coogan's love interest -- actually traveling from one country to another. Instead the transitions are entirely computer-generated, with France and India and San Francisco made to look like neon approximations of a Disneyland ride. It gives the impression that none of the actors ever left the studio, save for some scenes in which a lush and mountainous Thailand serves as a stand-in for China. You're thankful for the fresh air after the stale stench of everything surrounding it.