Loosely based on Jules Verne’s 1873 science-fiction romance, this PG-rated Disney kid flick begins rather abruptly on the streets of London as bobbies chase a Chinese thief, played by Jackie Chan, who has stolen back his native village’s Jade Buddha from the Bank of England. On the lam, Chan literally falls into the domain of disconsolate inventor Phileas Fogg. Seizing his opportunity to escape from the police, Chan gratefully accepts employment as Fogg’s valet, adopting the alias of Passepartout. It quickly becomes apparent that Passepartout, ostensibly Fogg’s man Friday, is much savvier than the round-shouldered scientist. When accompanying Fogg to the Royal Academy of Science, Passepartout easily maneuvers Fogg into accepting an outrageous bet with Lord Kelvin (played with over-the-top abandon by Jim Broadbent) that he can circumnavigate the globe in 80 days. This foolish wager will afford Passepartout passage to China, where he can return the Jade Buddha to its rightful place.
After a jaunt to Paris, where Fogg meets his love interest and traveling companion, Monique, the trio begins a great race across the globe not only pursued by a bumbling police inspector and the nefarious gang who stole the relic in the first place, but harassed by the full power of the British Empire under the influence of the scheming Lord Kelvin.
The film’s visual designers opted to go for less obtrusive studio effects than could have been realized with Chan, placing most of the action in a physically real, if historically unrealistic, world. For instance, Fogg’s mansion is tastefully outfitted with steam-powered gizmos, electrical light and Rube Goldbergesque machinery. At least the requisite martial arts sequences are believable and filled out with classic comedic Chan flourishes, such as fights that inadvertently create art or battles with unusual implements such as furniture.
The screenwriters do their best to add gags that will appeal to grown-ups. There’s no blood, but there’s a certain amount of voyeuristic schadenfreude, strangely out-of-place in a kids’ film, as when an old woman falls flat on her face and cries out in pain, or when an adversary-turned-friend falls down a flight of stairs screaming in agony. At one point Passepartout loses his pants. (At least there are no fart jokes.)
The film wrings its humor from an unlikely source: absolutely bizarre cameos. We see Arnold Schwarzenegger in his weirdest role yet (possibly besides the one as California’s current Republican governor), as a far-out Ottoman ruler who has a hot tub, jams on his mandolin and has some funky-looking Jheri curls. Owen and Luke Wilson appear as the Wright Brothers (who would have been toddlers in 1873) out in the middle of the desert for no apparent reason. Other cameos to keep adults amused include John Cleese, Macy Gray, Rob Schneider and Kathy Bates.
A history lesson this isn’t. Even Verne’s knack for presaging future inventions is dialed-down, as when Fogg invents in-line rollerskates or a version of the Clapper.
Yes, the kids will laugh, but to say this is a comic book of a film would be too much of a compliment. Does trying to turn a romantic classic into a hip kids’ comedy require draining the dignity from the text? Must we give this material to the director of The Wedding Singer and The Waterboy?
If Disney is going to send their lawyers to Washington every ten years to extend the copyrights on Mickey, Goofy, Donald and the gang, is it too much to ask that they show a little more restraint when strip-mining the public domain like this?
Michael Jackman is a writer and copy editor for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.