Genre: Adventure and Comedy Running Time: 2 hrs. 55 min.
Release Date: October 17th, 1956 MPAA Rating: G
Director: Michael Anderson Actors: David Niven, Cantinflas, Finlay Currie, Robert Morley, Noel Coward, John Gielgud, Trevor Howard, Harcourt Williams, Shirley MacLaine, Robert Newton
hileas Fogg (David Niven) is the sort of rigidly entitled gentleman who refuses to read the newspaper at his exclusive Reform Club in London if it’s been previously handled by anyone else (he’s even accused at one point of being too British). It helps, of course, to be surrounded by likeminded, equally wealthy men. So it’s no wonder that he’s regarded as an eccentric tyrant by commoners, whose cold and methodical approach to everything from the height of his bathwater to the temperature of his toast has disgusted so many valets (not unlike the setup for “Mary Poppins”) that the local agency can barely supply enough new recruits. But former trapeze artist and ladies’ man Passepartout (Cantinflas), who is just as unorthodox, is the right candidate for the job.
And he couldn’t be assigned with more fortunate timing. The same day that Passepartout begins work, Fogg accepts a wager from club member Stuart to do the unfeasible. “Nothing is impossible,” insists the calculating adventurer (who speaks of bank robberies and crimes like Sherlock Holmes), who bets 5000 pounds that he can tour the world in a mere 80 days. Before the evening dwindles, Fogg and his assistant depart, hoping to catch a train that can speedily initiate their journey. But right from the start, unexpected hindrances threaten to stop the grand voyage in its tracks – an avalanche has blocked the locomotive route for a week. Not to be deterred so early on, Fogg purchases a giant gas-powered balloon to sail across the skies, taking almost nothing with them but a carpetbag of cash, a few shirts, and a bottle of champagne (and his top hat and umbrella).
Passepartout’s constant flirtations with beautiful women seem conspicuously incompatible with Fogg’s demanding schedule and insistence on proper behavior, but somehow Fogg doesn’t reprimand him at every turn. The little companion does prove coincidentally useful when what should have been a severe language barrier is of no consequence at their first accidental stop in Spain. Although not harrowing, their unintended side visits provide a travelogue of culturally colorful locations. To the stuffy Englishman (and to viewers unfamiliar with foreign stereotypes), everything is an occasion of wide-eyed wonderment – or politically incorrect horror, particularly when Passepartout is coerced into a bullfight after performing a dance with a red tablecloth.
The numerous misadventures continue to delay the trip, but are entirely necessary to create drama and action; without them (though several are drawn out much longer than they ought to be), there wouldn’t be much of a film (despite its three-hour runtime, complete with entr’acte). The bullfight, for example, becomes repetitive in its efforts to supply comic relief. In addition, each extra impediment allows for a who’s-who of celebrity cameos (including everyone from Marlene Dietrich to Buster Keaton). Shirley MacLaine furnishes a touch more than a special appearance, as she’s the love interest for Fogg, even if it seems incredibly unlikely that an Indian princess (a stretch in itself, coupled with the 24-year age difference) could manage to effectively communicate with her savior, let alone be absorbed by his monotonous tales of whist-playing.
The massive assemblage of extras, the enormous sets, and the bright costuming at times seem fitting for an epic MGM musical. Victor Young’s music is similarly majestic (and cues audiences in on territory changes with its focus on patriotic motifs), paired with the widescreen cinematography of Lionel Lindon, which makes excellent use of the natural beauty of scenic environments (so much so that several sequences are quite appropriate for a wildlife documentary). The screenplay, however, adapted from the Jules Verne masterpiece, provides few real surprises, especially when the coming impasses (such as the existence of Thuggees) are spoken about shortly beforehand, during the acquisition of a knowledgable general who just so happens to have the expertise in plotting an infiltration and rescue plan (though the eventual feat is far more absurd than even that).
Since the first half of the campaign is undergone in the extravagance and leisure that bundles of banknotes can accommodate (the travelers acquire a transportation elephant on a whim), it’s a welcome series of predicaments when Scotland Yard, sabotage, and a spontaneous shanghaiing interfere with smooth sailing. And the United States is presented as its own special brand of barbaric obstacle (with rowdy barfolk and marauding Native Americans), forcing Passepartout to don a Mexican revolutionary outfit to prove his formidableness. But the pitfalls, many of which are practically comical in their devising (even Passepartout’s capture by the Sioux possesses the gravity of a Benny Hill sketch), are never significant enough to impart genuine danger or suspense; it’s a truly unconvincing adventure, crafted to be more of a lighthearted, comic advertisement for tourism than a courageous epic of resourcefulness and daring. Had Fogg ever lost his bag of money, the result would have been drastically different. Nevertheless, the predictable conclusion, which brings the success of the odyssey down to the wire, still contains a hint of satisfaction – despite the punchline being the shock of a woman’s presence in a men-only club rather than seeing Fogg appear at the very last second.
– Mike Massie