I didn't expect much (well, anything, really) from the new remake of "Around the World in 80 Days." So I was surprised to find that it's an action movie, a pretty funny one, its virtually non-stop donnybrooks giddily orchestrated by the still-inimitable Jackie Chan. Chan, bless him, has little use for the high-floating "wire work" that's become such an eye-glazing cliché in post-"Matrix" martial-arts battles. At the age of 50, he's still doing the stunts himself, and the delirious fight scenes he's choreographed for this movie seem to me more organically rousing than anything in the two "Matrix" sequels (which, as I may have mentioned before, I didn't much care for).
The first film version of Jules Verne's 1873 fantasy novel, "Around the World in 80 Days," won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1956. It cost a fortune to make. In a time when travel abroad was still an exotic concept for many Americans, "Around the World" was actually shot on-location in France, Spain, India, Japan. It was littered with guest-star cameos (46 of them) and released in an eye-popping 70-millimeter, wide-screen format. It was a big deal.
Today, that original screen adaptation of "Around the World" seems entirely underwhelming — to me, anyway. The execution is limp, the humor is strained, and it's lit like a Toyota showroom. I picked up a copy on DVD recently. It's three hours long — three long hours long. Any remake had to be zippier almost by default, and this new one definitely is. It isn't engorged with computer effects, and it uses animation in a fresh and interesting way. It may be a Disney flick, and thus a "family" film, but you don't have to be a kid to find it kind of cool.
The movie opens in Victorian London, where a visitor named Lau Xing (Chan) is trying to recover a small jade Buddha that was stolen from his village in China by a wily female warlord called General Fang. She has deposited this priceless item in the Bank of England. Lau breaks into the fortress-like bank, swipes the Buddha and, amazingly, manages to slip back out again. (I know, I know — but let's get into the spirit here, okay?) With police in hot pursuit, he fortuitously encounters Phileas Fogg, an eccentric inventor, played by the comically suave English actor Steve Coogan ("24 Hour Party People"). Fogg is looking for a new valet, someone to help test-run his inventions. "Would you be willing to risk your life to challenge the laws of physics?" he asks. At that precarious moment, with the law in clamorous pursuit, Lau ... certainly would, sort of.
Fogg, who's always coming up with ahead-of-their-time ideas for things like steam-powered rocket backpacks and in-line skates, is a figure of derision down at the Royal Academy of Science, whose over-stuffed members are of the opinion that everything worth discovering has already been discovered. When Fogg announces his latest nutty conviction — that it's possible to travel all the way around the world in 80 days or less — the head of the Academy dares him to prove it. Fogg takes up this challenge, and the story gets under way.
Trailed by Fang and her band of assassins, the Black Scorpions, Fogg and Lau make their way to Paris, where they're joined, for no particular reason, by a female love interest named Monique (played by the striking Belgian actress Cécile de France). Monique is an aspiring painter who's tired of being looked down upon by such locals as the one-eared Vincent van Gogh. "I'm stifled here!" she tells Fogg. "I need a world journey to inspire me." But of course.
So the three of them set off, first by balloon, later by train, stagecoach and boat. They have many, many adventures. In Turkey, they become entangled with an oud-plucking potentate called Prince Hapi, played with fearless glee by a pre-gubernatorial Arnold Schwarzenegger. (In his big brocade jacket and proto-mullet black wig, Arnold looks like history's most massively unattractive drag queen.) Later, they run into the Wright Brothers (played by Chan's "Shanghai Knights" co-star Owen Wilson and his brother Luke), with whom they have a fruitful, foreshadowy discussion about flying machines. (The film's small roster of pop-up guests also includes Rob Schneider, John Cleese and Macy Gray.)
Through all of this Jackie Chan goes leaping, flying, tumbling and crashing. By now, we know the man is amazing; but he's still amazing. Whenever he spins in mid-battle to grab a bench or seize a nearby ladder, we can be sure he's going to do something balletically inventive with it. And when he's joined here by nine equally kinetic siblings to take on the Scorpions, the wreckage is impressive.
"Around the World" doesn't aspire to be art, but there's art in it. Many sequences are linked by glittering, candy-colored transitional animation that melts one scene into another in a new and gorgeous way. This is the work of the gifted Dutch animation designer Micha Klein, and it's gratifying to see him lending his unique imagery to a movie released by Disney — once the vanguard force in this field. (There's one overhead view in "Around the World" that strongly recalls the glimmery opening of Disney's 1953 animated classic, "Peter Pan.")
Maybe it's a function of the low expectations one drags along to a "family film," but this one took me by surprise. Whether it'll do the same for you, I can't say, but you might want to check it out. Take a kid along for cover.