Film-Forward Review: [AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS]

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Directed by: Michael Anderson.
Produced by: Michael Todd.
Written by: James Poe, John Farrow & S. J. Perelman.
Director of Photography: Lionel Lindon.
Edited by: Howard Epstein & Gene Ruggiero.
Music by: Victor Young.
Released by: Warner Home Vido.
Country of Origin: USA. 188 min. Not Rated.
With: David Niven, Cantinflas, Shirley MacLaine & Robert Newton.

DVD Features: Commentary by: BBC Radio's Brian Sibley. Introduction by: Robert Osborne. Documentary Around the World with Mike Todd. Excerpts from Playhouse 90's Around the World in 90 Minutes commemorating the film's one-year anniversary. Newsreel footage from the 1957 Oscars, and the premieres in Los Angeles and Spain. Outtakes. Photo gallery. Short: "A Trip to the Moon" (1902). Trailers. DVD-ROM: Michael Todd's Around the World in 80 Days Almanac. All-new digital transfer and remastered soundtrack. English & French audio. English, French & Spanish subtitles.

Today, it sounds like disaster: a three-hour candy-colored extravaganza, with more cameos than any film should be able to sustain, a Mexican comedian playing his first English-speaking role (as a Frenchman), and Shirley MacLaine as an Indian princess. But Around the World in 80 Days won the Best Picture Academy Award in 1957. It remains an entertaining spectacle (even if the also-nominated Giant deserved the Oscar more), and for all its deficiencies, there's no other film quite like it.

Producer Michael Todd and director Michael Anderson assembled a lavish concoction out of a simple narrative: Phileas Fogg (Niven), on a wager, attempts to circumnavigate the globe in 80 days, accompanied by his servant Passepartout (Cantinflas). "Best picture" might be literally true here: Around the World is rapturously shot, exploiting a wide-screen format developed by Todd. The extended flight of Phileas Fogg's balloon over the skies of Paris and the French countryside is a lyrical ode to ingenuity and daring, and a tracking shot of a bicycle ride through London wonderfully evokes the bustle of the Victorian capital. Even the intersecting lines of a ship's rigging are converted into visual poetry.

The main performers - aside from a flat and almost superfluous MacLaine - acquit themselves well: Niven with his genteel cool and Cantiflas, his Chaplinesque athleticism. For the most part, the many cameos - including Frank Sinatra, Buster Keaton, Marlene Dietrich and Noel Coward - seem to fulfill producer Todd's idea that the performances should enhance the film, rather than merely startle contemporary viewers.

Unfortunately, the spectacular sometimes overwhelms and cheapens the drama. The further the story gets from Europe, the more it descends into pure spectacle, its momentum gradually deflating. And as it gets further from the United States, the clichéd depictions of its settings become more apparent. After the gentleman's clubs, tea, and punctuality of England, we are soon in a Spain of flamenco dancing and bullfighting, an India of sacred cows and Kali-worshipping murderers, and a Japan of geishas and kabuki. Even the American segment involves an overly-long pursuit by wildly-ululating Sioux. A product of a less sensitive time, the stereotypes suck some of the drama - and comedy - out of an otherwise astonishing film.

Extras: The DVD package overflows with extras. Robert Osborne provides the same companionable and informative comments he lends to his introductions for Turner Classic Movies. The commentary by Brian Sibley is, likewise, engaging and knowledgeable. Of course, with so many cameos, much of this commentary is spent on various biographies, somewhat to the detriment of information about the film and its shooting. Still, the bios give a good sense of how many disparate paths crossed in the making of Around the World. As a true bonus feature, the entirety of Georges Méliès' silent 1902 classic “A Trip to the Moon” (the first film based on a Jules Verne novel) is also included. The rest of the features, although mildly interesting, are really for devoted fans: a decent, if drawn-out, 1968 documentary about Michael Todd; footage from the 1957 Academy Awards; a televised one-year anniversary party, which is interminable unless Todd fascinates you; a series of very short, soundless outtakes; and a couple of period trailers from 1956 and 1983, respectively. Arthur Vaughan
June 12, 2004



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