The Exotic Stuff
“Actually,” Frank Coraci begins his commentary for Around the World in 80 Days, “I never wanted to do a director’s commentary. I like to hear other people do them, but I always thought it was funny to do it myself. But I thought, if that’s going to get the chicken on the beginning of the DVD, I’ll do it.” You won’t know what he’s talking about if you’ve only seen the “version at the cinema,” so termed by co-commentator and star Steve Coogan (who plays Phileas Fogg). What it is, is an animated chicken, in a period suit, clinging to a flying machine zooming through clouds and blue sky under the film’s new and improved opening titles, available only on Disney’s DVD.
In fact, the chicken is old, but tossed before the film’s original release to theaters. Coraci, for one, says he’s happy to have the chicken recovered. Or maybe he’s joking. The commentary track is peppered with such inscrutabilities, as Coraci and Coogan rib one another and recall their terrific experience making the film. They shot, says Coraci, in 10 countries, some, like Germany, standing in for “London, Paris, and parts of Turkey,” and Thailand, which “played for China and India, more of the exotic stuff.”
However you understand “exotic” here, the filmmakers did a lot of traveling to recreate the adventures of eccentric inventor Phileas Fogg (Steve Coogan) and his (now Chinese-pretending-to-be-French) valet Passepartout (Jackie Chan). Watching their first meeting, in Fogg’s London backyard, Coraci observes that he wants, right off, to “really transport people into a period film.” You might be tempted to wonder when you started looking to be transported into a film rather than by one, but Coraci here sounds so enthusiastic, why spoil it? “So,” he continues, “we really pushed the look of a period film, and at the same time the camera placement and camera movement was going to be that of whatever worked really fun, like a cartoon almost, strap the camera to Jackie’s head, fly it around, stuff that you normally don’t do in a period film.”
And so there you have it, the hybrid thinking behind Around the World in 80 Days, inspired in large part by the casting of human cartoon Chan, not to mention at least one of his co-stars.
That would be Arnold, in his last pre-governator film role. As the voluble Prince Hapi, Schwarzenegger appears plopped down in a palace surrounded by beauties and servants, apparently bronzed so as to pass for “Turkish,” with veins bulging and black frizzy-fright wig sticking out on all sides of his crown. Among his most precious possessions are a hot tub and a statue by one A. Rodin, that is, Schwarzenegger’s own massive body posed naked, with chin in hand, as if he’s thinking.
Stumbling onto this alarming tableau are Fogg, Passepartout, and a tagalong aspiring Impressionist artiste named Monique (Cécile De France, of whom Coogan observes, “She brought more than we did,” with regard to what “was not on the page,” for any of the roles), whom they have recently sort of rescued from a career as a hat check girl in Paris. Her eye batting encourages Hapi to deem her wife number seven, and her awesomely bad painting of a man flying through blue sky and white clouds so moved Phileas that he is developing a bit of a crush on Mademoiselle, though he’d never let on, because he’s focused on his mission—to get around the world, and thus win a bet with Lord Kelvin (Jim Broadbent), who has promised him the position of head of the Royal Academy of Science if he makes it to the top of the Academy steps in the appointed time. This even as Kelvin resents the younger man’s ambitions: “We live in a golden age, Fogg,” he sniffs. “Everything worth discovering has been discovered. Yet ridiculous dreamers like you insist on a past filled with dinosaurs and evolution, and on a future filled with motorized vehicles, radio waves, and flying machines.”
All this backstory is drawn loosely from Jules Verne’s famous novel, also the source for Michael Anderson’s gargantuan, star-studded Best Picture Oscar-winner of 1956. That the $110 million Disney version is embarrassing in every way, from Schwarzenegger’s alarming turn to Coogan’s mild ignominy (he being the man who played Tony Wilson so divinely in Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People, and wilted so acutely before Alfred Molina in Coffee & Cigarettes), to Chan’s continuing strange pursuit of period-road-movie stardom, alongside the Shanghai Noon franchise (buddy Owen Wilson pops up for a minute in Around the World, with brother Luke, playing the Wright Brothers, whom Fogg and company meet in the States).
We can only hope that Jackie Chan’s considerable legacy as an action innovator won’t be submerged by these outsized historical revisions. His magnificence is the subject of a DVD extra, the six-minute “Around the World of Jackie Chan,” in which Coogan dryly observes, “He’s very energetic, in that he always wants to be doing something, always wants to be stimulated,” and Coraci gushes, “He’s the master and the most unique master… the guy who meshed martial arts with comedy.” (The DVD’s other extras include [best left] deleted scenes and two featurettes, the 18-minute “Discovering Around the World in 80 Days,” a behind the scenes with cast and crew, who all love-love-love that the whole process of remaking is so “exciting.”)
The film showcases Chan’s comedy, as it should, though it would benefit from more coherent propping up. The travelers’ episodic exploits, much as they have seemed fantastic decades back, now look formulaic, including the cutesy approximate-time celebrity appearances (Toulouse Lautrec, the under-construction Statue of Liberty). They’re chased by an incompetent British agent (Ewen Bremner, subject to many “hits in the head,” as Coraci gleefully notes he tried to get as many as he could in this movie), they meet a shady homeless man (Rob Schneider), they’re locked up, they fight amongst themselves. They hop a hot air balloon, the Orient Express, a car and a ship, before they give up and just build a damn flying machine to cross the last of the Atlantic.
Worse, much worse, they encounter a series of lazy and offensive stereotypes: if Arnold’s groping after cheesy Monique isn’t bad enough, they run into stuffy Brits, lascivious French (and one mother, played by Macy Gray, who is so bleary-eyed and out of it, she doesn’t wake when her apartment is on fire, such that Passepartout must swoop in the window to save her and her adorable baby and impress on her her own incompetence), nefarious martial arts assassins, simple Indian villagers, and a Chinese Dragon Lady named General Fang (Karen Joy Morris, whom Coraci says he cast because he plays video games, and prefers the women villains) has tediously daunting fingernails.
She’s part of the Jackie Chan plot that vaguely intersects with the Around the World plot (that is, the plot lifted from Shanghai Noon), in which Passepartout, whose real name is Lau Xing, must return a jade Buddha to his Chinese village. Stolen by Fang and her minions, said Buddha was housed in the London, where Lau Xing stole it back; he lies outright to Phileas in order to get the ticket home. Once they do arrive in the village, they face down a phalanx of well-trained, deadly assailants. Here Lau Xing has a few tricks of his own up his sleeve, including a welcome appearance by Sammo Hung, as a longtime Xing supporter. Here the film threatens to break open into some wholly other “revisionist” moment, where Xing’s Chinese community, so steeped in tradition and loyalties, overwhelm anyone trying to interfere. But that fantasy soon passes, and the film again picks up its course, back to London, the Academy, and the exaltation of all things Western.