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Around the World in 80 Days (2004)

Those who would believe that tampering with Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days would be comparable to shuffling chapters of the Old Testament might think twice — the classic adventure novel has been beloved in three centuries by readers of all ages, and it's inspired Michael Anderson's 1956 film starring David Niven, a 1989 miniseries starring Pierce Brosnan and Eric Idle, a German silent way back in 1919, and a pair of animated adventures as well. Put simply, a lot of folks won't pay movie-ticket prices to once again see Phileas Fogg and his valet Passepartout circumnavigate the earth in Verne's proscribed manner. Frank Coraci's 2004 picture takes several refreshing liberties with the source material, but ultimately it failed — at least on the ledger sheet. An international shoot that took six months and cost a reported $110 million resulted in a meager $7.5 million domestic opening weekend and a theatrical tally of $24 million, making it (along with The Alamo) a financial disaster on Disney's 2004 books. Which, it should be said, is a shame. While not the most memorable of family films, it seems likely that this 80 Days will fare much better in the home-viewing markets. Steve Coogan stars as the intrepid English gentleman Phileas Fogg, in this rendition a restless inventor who combines the insight of Leonardo da Vinci with the sheer doggedness of Thomas Edison. However, his latest creation — a steam-powered jet-pack — has sent his latest valet/test pilot packing. Enter Lau Xing (Jackie Chan), a Chinese villager who has traveled to London to steal "The Jade Buddah" from the Bank of England and return it to his people. On the run from the bobbies, Lau takes up residence with Fogg, adopting the name Passepartout. Meanwhile, Fogg's ongoing dispute with the British Academy of Science has boiled over into a sharp wager with Lord Kelvin (Jim Broadbent) — forced to defend his claims of man's ability to criss-cross the globe, Fogg agrees to travel from London to London, going east, in just 80 days. Hoping to find safe passage back to China, Lau/Passepartout joins the excursion, and the pair later meet up with a French artist, Monique La Roche (Célcile De France), who also intends to see the world.

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If there is a lesson to be learned from Around the World in 80 Days' dismal spreadsheet, it's that — once again — the main factor that gets the public to buy tickets to a particular film is the top name on the marquee. A critically panned movie with an A-list star still can recover a good deal of its budget; in this case, a very good family film with Jackie Chan and two virtual unknowns failed to draw its target demographic: minivan families. It's so hard to fault 80 Days that one doesn't even like to suggest that Ralph Fiennes or Hugh Grant or Colin Firth could have put the title in the black (although such certainly would have given moms more reason to take their kids), simply because people who love movies love discovering new stars, and Steve Coogan is as a good a Phileas Fogg one could hope for. A British comedian who's best-known in his native country for radio and television comedy, Coogan's long, boyish face conveys both Fogg's sagacity and his essential innocence, and his sublime gift for verbal comedy allows him to deliver several funny moments with a typically English reserve. Also virtually unknown to American audiences is Cécile De France as Fogg's love-interest Monique — appearing in her first English-language film, she's pretty and more than adequate for the material, although not nearly as memorable as Coogan when the credits roll. Which left Disney to place Jackie Chan at the top of the bill. Chan has never made it a secret that he's wanted to expand his opportunities in the American film industry ("an actor who can fight," as he's described it), and once again he finds his best footing by being paired with another actor (as in Rush Hour and Shanghai Noon), while he also displays his penchant for Buster Keaton lunacy and gets in a few chop-sockey kicks along the way. The entire budget is on the screen, the film clocks in at a reasonable two hours (and no writer ever wants to condense Verne), and the cameo list is huge, including Owen and Luke Wilson as the Wright Brothers, Kathy Bates as Queen Victoria, Arnold Schwarzenegger as a Turkish prince (with a fright-wig that proves he doesn't take his film persona very seriously), John Cleese as an English bobbie, Chan's old pal Sammo Hung, and Richard Branson in a blink-and-you-miss-it gag. It may have gone down like a lead balloon in theaters, but it seems likely that Around the World in 80 Days will survive — and perhaps thrive — on home video, both for its lavish production design and its G-rated sensibilities. Buena Vista's DVD offers a very good anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Supplements include a commentary from director Frank Coraci and star Steve Coogan, the "making-of" featurette "Discovering Around the World in 80 Days" (18 min.), "Around the World of Jackie Chan" (6 min.), eight deleted scenes with director's commentary, an alternate opening, and a music video. Keep-case.

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