Jules Verne’s 19th century tale of adventure and invention got a 20th century big screen makeover in 1956. Now it’s getting a 21st century one, à la Jackie Chan.
In it, Phileas Fogg, an ahead-of-his-time inventor, has figured out a way to break the 50 mph speed barrier, turn off electric lights with a whistle and maneuver on a shoe-based prototype of what would eventually become the inline roller skate. He’s also working on human flight. It’s the late 1800s, and at London’s Royal Academy of Science, Fogg is dismissed as a crazed wacko, an embarrassment to those creating genuine technological advancements.
Admittedly, Fogg is a bit of a bumbler and an eccentric, and he’s not beyond taking perilous risks to test an invention. So it’s no surprise when his personal valet walks off the job unwilling to put his life on the line to break a velocity hurdle that contemporaries consider life-endangering. Just as the valet is dropping out of Fogg’s life, Lau Xing drops in—literally—from a tree where he’s hiding out from London’s police. Lau, as it turns out, has just robbed the Bank of England, not for gold or money, but to regain possession of a jade Buddha that was originally stolen from his village in China.
Meanwhile, Lord Kelvin, president of the Royal Academy of Science, publicly belittles Fogg as a fruitcake in front of his scientific peers. Kelvin is so convinced Fogg is off his rocker that he offers a wager to prove it. Fogg isn’t interested in his 10,000 pounds, but eventually agrees to bet his future as a scientist (he’ll give it up if he loses) against Kelvin’s position as president. What does he have to do to win? Circumnavigate the globe in 80 days.
Kelvin is convinced Fogg’s full of hot air. But just in case he’s wrong, the Academy president pull off some pretty shady shenanigans to hedge his bet. And Fogg doesn’t just have Kelvin to deal with; Lau’s motives for joining his worldwide tour are self-serving (to return the Buddha to his village and escape arrest in England). Then in Paris this mismatched pair meets Monique, an attractive up-and-coming painter who believes traveling around the earth sounds globally more exciting than continuing her current employment as hatcheck girl, so the duo becomes a trio. And that just might slow Fogg down even more! It’s just a battle against time, circumstances and Lord Kelvin’s henchmen.
There’s a message here about ignoring one’s critics, dreaming big and persevering against insurmountable odds. Also, what begins as Lau accepting employment with Fogg as a means of flying under radar eventually becomes a genuine friendship. The same is true with Monique. When separating for good seems the most logical course of action, Lau and Monique let their concern for Fogg motivate a Pacific crossing to rejoin Fogg in San Francisco. When Lau views a fire in an apartment he risks his own life to extinguish it.
Buddhism is the only religion given screen time, and the treatment of it comes across as something of an endorsement. Not only does Lau describe the jade Buddha as a “very sacred object” that “protects [his] village,” but when the idol is returned to its shrine, the townsfolk gather around it, bowing low in reverence. What makes this scene additionally troublesome is that Monique (a French woman) worships in the same manner—although nothing previous in the film would suggest she is a Buddhist. This act of veneration comes across as much more than mere respect for another religion or culture—it’s as if Monique has experienced some type of conversion.
When viewers first encounter Monique in Paris, she’s an aspiring artist working as a hatcheck girl in a gallery. One of her own paintings features a naked, flying man (shown from the waist up). In a conversation with Fogg she asks, “You dream of naked men?” to which he replies in the affirmative. Then realizing what he’s just confessed, he quickly changes it to flying. Observing red-light district “professionals” showing affection to their customers, Lau becomes so enamored with the sight that he scales down the rope of the hot air balloon to which he’s clinging to extend his voyeurism (patrons and prostitutes are clothed). Later, Lau loses his trousers when his pants get stuck on a large statue. (He’s shown in bathing suit-looking underwear.) Scantily clad belly dancers entertain their guests during a stopover in Istanbul. With wanted posters everywhere in India, Lau and Fogg hide from authorities by dressing like women. Several times afterwards Fogg remarks that he likes women’s clothes.
With Jackie Chan’s reputation preceding him, filmgoers know there’s sure to be a lot of karate-style kicking, punching, jumping, chopping, sword-and-knife fighting and flipping. Most of it has a slapstick quality to it. A frying pan to the noggin. Barrels rolling off a cart mowing down pursuers. Lau catapulted into the air and hitting a street lamp (landing essentially unscathed). Lord Kelvin throws objects about his office. A nosey policeman burns his hand on an exhaust pipe. Plus, there’s lots and lots of rapid hand-to-hand combat in which seemingly no one is hurt or bloodied.
For the most part it’s eye candy. But one scene in particular stands out as intense, cold-blooded and savage. In it, General Fang, a woman with deadly long nails, is out to kill Lau once and for all. And Lau’s retaliatory kicks and punches go well beyond self-defense. Watching a man viciously battle a woman Daredevil/Charlie’s Angels fashion is most unsettling. As Dr. James Dobson expresses in his book Bringing Up Boys, ”It is occurring more frequently in Hollywood movies today [and] has the potential to be very counterproductive for women. One of the absolutes in culture is that a man is never justified in hitting a woman, and for good reason. Women are not as strong as men and must be protected from male brutality. But when girls are shown holding their own, it undermines the rationale for the prohibition on violence of any sore against females, whether in marriage or anywhere else.”
Other scenes pushing the envelope involve an elderly woman who bites Lau on the shoulder when she mistakes him for a purse snatcher. Later, she falls face first after scaling a rock wall in pursuit of Lau. A rope tethering a large balloon slams Lau in the groin as it ascends. Lau throws scalding water into a pursuing police officer’s lap, then punches him and eventually throws him off a train. (The character reappears later.) General Fang puts a vicious chokehold on Monique (Monique retaliates by film’s end with a knockout punch). One thug goes after the trio with a chain and winds up on the receiving end of its bite. A knife thrown by a villain lodges in Lau’s derriere, where it stays for several seconds. A sea captain talks about losing his nipples to shark attacks.
A handful of mild profanities (“d–n,” “h—”) are joined by putdowns such as “blighter,” “idiot” and ”nincompoop.” The exclamatory “My God!” is spoken in English and French and subtitled.
Not only are alcoholic beverages consumed with some regularity, but intoxication is played for laughs. Fogg winds up inebriated in China when Lau’s mother encourages a drinking game (followed by more imbibing at family mealtime). Afterwards he drunkenly stumbles into bed. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character has a few too many when he joins the traveling trio in a palace hot tub. Monique appears tipsy there as well. A ticket agent smokes a cigarette. One of Lord Kelvin’s associates holds a drink in an office setting.
Lying is frequently used to deceive or escape trouble. Lau claims to come from “a long line of French valets.” He gives Fogg a fake name (Passepartout). Monique and Lau collaborate against Fogg by claiming they are kin. Monique and Lau both lie when Fogg thinks he overhears Lau admitting he’s Chinese. Lau tells his fellow villagers that Fogg works for him. A few items (i.e., the hot air balloon) are considered “borrowed,” although technically they’ve been stolen. When incarcerated in China, the trio discovers a fourth prisoner is there for “urinating in public.” Later, this same man attempts to pull his pants to do it again. It’s indicated that lots of side bets are placed on the outcome of Fogg’s wager. (The queen says she has “20 quid” on his success.)
Walden Media, the company responsible for producing this film, has made a big deal about its desire to “create responsible entertainment … that conveys positive values,” meant to be enjoyed by the whole family. Around the World in 80 Days lives up to that mission statement at times, but not all of the time. It had the potential to be one of the year’s foremost films for the whole family. But it didn’t use it fully, or faithfully. It’s funny, chockfull of action, clever and engaging for all ages. It’s also sprinkled with enough problematic content to prompt me to wave a yellow flag in front of families considering making the journey.