Saturday, November 14, 2015

Around the World again

I saw an ad for this week's Dr. Ken, with Margaret Cho guest starring as his sister. I do miss seeing Margaret Cho a lot, so I finally gave in and watched an episode. I don't really like the show; it's no better than the sitcommy ads for it. The main character is so annoying and him talking to the lamp was not funny. Doctor Wendi implied that her character might return for more appearances later. I do want to see Cho again, but not in this show. I miss Cristela.

Anyway, I finally decided to watch Jackie Chan's version of Around the World in 80 Days. I read the Jules Verne book and saw other adaptations years ago, but I resisted watching the Disney version back then, since it wasn't faithful to the book. But now I gave it a chance and was pleasantly surprised.

I do think that the critics of the 2004 Disney version were over-reacting when they gave it bad reviews. The earlier adaptations, including the classic 1956 film starring David Niven and Cantinflas, did depart from the book in many ways, such as the shitty, unnecessary prologue with Edward R. Murrow. That film also added the hot air balloon ride, which never appeared in Verne's novel, yet has since become firmly attached to the concept much like the meerschaum pipe to Sherlock Holmes. When you learn to be flexible, you can enjoy Jackie Chan's version as a good-natured kids film and world tour. The fight choreography was often very creative and amusing, like the painting that was made with splashed paint at the art gallery.

Rewriting the concept around Jackie Chan as Passepartout is no more radical a transformation than the 1956 epic film being changed to suit Cantinflas as Passepartout. They detoured to Spain and did bullfighting to show off his talents, so why object to Jackie Chan's version going to China to feature martial arts fights? In fact, China's role has been expanded before. Verne's book did include brief stops in China (at the Hong Kong and Shanghai ports), but the miniseries version starring Pierce Brosnan featured a long detour in the Forbidden City, to allow the Princess Aouda to rescue Phileas Fogg from the Empress. Jackie Chan certainly makes a better Passepartout than the buffoony Eric Idle in the miniseries. Seeing the Great Wall of China is certainly worth the effort for the world tour.

One of the best changes is that Jackie Chan's character actually is the bank thief. In Verne's book, it was always a strangely convenient coincidence that somebody robbed the Bank of England just before Phileas Fogg's bet, then was captured just before the end of the bet. Chan's character Lau Xing has stolen back a jade Buddha statue that was taken from a village in China by an evil warlord named Fang. General Fang is a woman who commands the Black Scorpions. For some reason she's working with Lord Kelvin, the British villain of the film. (Rather than the bet taking place at the Reform Club, or even the real life Royal Society, it happens at the "Royal Academy of Science" instead. Lord Kelvin runs it and is strangely somehow also Queen Victoria's "Minister of Science" with unexplained powers to send weapons and military assistance to China. Lord Kelvin is portrayed as an anti-intellectual who does not believe in evolution nor scientific progress; wikipedia says he was a creationist, but the film clearly exaggerates this into Kelvin being skeptical of many other true facts.)

The Disney film makes Phileas Fogg an inventor of steampunk devices and an admirer of Thomas Edison. Fogg was never an inventor before, merely a wealthy English gentleman with no known source of income. (It's why people easily believe that he's the bank thief, because he is so eccentric and secretive.) I do think that making Fogg an inventor gives him more motivation and personality. He's too much of a cipher in Verne's book, focused on making his valet follow his precise rules about baths and tea. The bet is purely for money (and bragging rights) in the novel, but here the bet is for science. If Fogg wins, Lord Kelvin must step down at the Royal Academy, but if he fails, Fogg must destroy his laboratory and never invent anything again. So in this way, the bet becomes far more meaningful and important than money. Fogg is likable despite his moments of gullibility and stiff Englishness. In fact I would say that Inspector Fix is far more of a comic relief in the movie than Fogg.

Fix's role is reduced somewhat, but he is a corrupt Scotland Yard detective being paid by Lord Kelvin to sabotage Fogg. He's a minor bad guy, and I'm glad that they didn't try to redeem Fix too much, considering how the miniseries ruined the ending to include Fix in a triple wedding. Even in the 1956 film, I felt that Fix following Fogg became contrived, especially after Passepartout learned that Fix was trying to arrest Fogg; Aouda suggests that Fogg knows too. It strains credulity to believe that Fogg would just blithely let Fix tag along, often with Fogg paying for Fix's travel tickets; Fogg even declines to punch Fix at the end! The Disney 2004 film avoids this problem by having Fix follow the group only part of the way. They lose him in India, then he travels back the short way (westward) to arrive in time to assist in the ending. That was a good solution.

Now as for the love interest, I don't mind that they replaced Princess Aouda with a Frenchwoman named Monique LaRoche, because she is assertive and not a damsel in distress. Her being an artist that no one takes seriously is a good match to Fogg being an inventor that no one takes seriously. Monique still got to do fun things like fight, and she was smart enough to figure out Passpartout's secrets before Fogg did. I suppose that writing out Princess Aouda also avoids the problem of having to explain the Indian custom of suttee to kids in the audience. In the book and the 1956 movie, I also found it racially awkward for an Indian woman to help shoot Native Americans during the Wild West train attack in Nebraska; the miniseries had Aouda sympathize with the Native Americans instead. Jackie Chan's version of the Wild West actually cuts the train attack out entirely. Instead the group takes a stagecoach, and Passepartout briefly gets lost but rescued. They also skip over the nonexistent Fort Kearney and let the invented vehicle be Fogg's own flying machine. There's no marriage proposal at the end, but a kiss, and it's a nice triumph that Fogg will be able to take over the Royal Academy now.

There were some great cameos like Maggie Q as an agent of the Black Scorpions in India. Luke and Owen Wilson were nice too as the Wright Brothers in America, and Kathy Bates makes an awesome Queen Victoria. Of course, some cameos were bad, like Arnold Schwarzenegger as a Turkish prince who attempts to force Monique to be his seventh wife. There were bad cameos in the other adaptations too, such as the salvation army lady in Todd's film, and Sarah Bernhardt in Pierce Brosnan's miniseries. Overall, I enjoyed the Jackie Chan version as a lively action comedy. It had both strengths and flaws, but so did the other adaptations.

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