Directed by: Michael Anderson
Written by: James Poe, John Farrow, S. J. Perelman
Starring: Cantinflas, David Nivenm, Robert Newton, Shirley MacLaine, Edward R. Murrow, A.E. Matthews
Spectacle over substance plagues certain films in their attempt to wow the audience when nothing worth watching happens in between each set piece. That may be excusable for certain films that are simply bland, but Around the World in 80 Days makes sure that the audience knows about its feelings towards non-white people. Overly long and dreadfully boring, this film deserves to be left in the 50s.
After being challenged on his limitations, Phileas Fogg (David Niven) proposes a wager that he can accomplish exactly what the title suggests. With the help of his valet, Passepartout (Cantinflas) Fogg sets out on his journey to prove himself right and win a pretty penny while he’s at it.
A film like Around the World in 80 Days had the potential to be something special. A story that could have been an epic that showed the common person what it could look like to traverse the entire world in an effort to win a wager. Instead, it fell into the trappings of stereotyping any character that did not happen to white for entertainment purposes. Now, I have never read the book that this film adapted from Jules Verne, but if it’s anything like the movie it inspired then it should be tossed. This may just be a value judgment on my part and that might not bother other people, so let’s take a look at the artistic components of the film.
First, it’s pacing moves at such a slow pace even with it being heralded as a spectacle. Outside of the hijinx the characters get involved in, it becomes quite obvious that this story has no real substance within it. It also certainly does not help that the film runs for over 3 hours. I have no prejudice against longer films, but when one moves at that pace for such a long runtime, it becomes incredibly unbearable. At least long and slow-moving arthouse films actually have something meaningful happening. I could not count the number of times I had to check to see how much was left in the film because I wanted it to end.
It does find success in creating this game of “Can you recognize this celebrity?” Stars like Shirley MacLaine, Buster Keaton, Cesar Romero, Frank Sinatra, and many others appeared in different occasions of this journey. Many of these stars appeared in small cameos with enough time for those in the audience to recognize them and then disappear from the rest of the story. It’s also grand in scale, which it set to do. The film features several set pieces that look intricate and showed some fairly decent stunt work. It pulled all its razzle-dazzle there but could not back it up with a narrative that gives any of these moments actual narrative weight. It leaves the audience just waiting for the next set-piece.
The film’s quality did not stop it from becoming a hit during its time, including winning Best Picture at the Academy Awards. But, I believe in time being the ultimate arbiter of quality and the verdict has landed on this film in that no one speaks about it as even one of the best films of the 1950s. It lost its shine years following its release because other films could pull off the spectacle better than it and the film had nothing else to offer.
I breathed a sigh of relief when the film ended and I knew that I would never want to watch it again. If one wants to watch this film because of the celebrity cameos, then I recommend skipping to them and the set pieces. The characters do little to make you want to root for them or invest in their success, which really does not signify good character work. Around the World in 80 Days rightfully has been widely forgotten and I look forward to stop thinking about it after completing this review.