Judge Bryan Pope needed 80 days to get through the Special Features on this release.
It's a wonderful world, if you'll only take the time to go around it!
How the frothy Around the World in 80 Days managed to float away with the 1956 Academy Award for Best Picture remains one of the most confounding Academy Award injustices ever, and one for which Oscar will forever have to answer. Even when placed next to its weak competition (The King and I, Giant, Friendly Persuasion, and The Ten Commandments also made the cut), its flaws are indicting. Rich, pretty and full of empty calories, Around the World is the cinematic equivalent of a chocolate éclair, which does nothing to explain how this ginormous movie winds up being so darn fun.
Facts of the Case
In 1872 London, the ever-punctual Phileas Fogg (David Niven) speculates that the latest travel technology makes it possible to circumnavigate the globe in exactly 80 days. Fogg's fellow members of the prestigious Reform Club propose a wager, and off goes Fogg with his new butler, Passepartout (Cantinflas), to prove his theory. Their amazing race is complicated by Inspector Fix (Robert Newton), who has linked Fogg to a large-scale bank robbery and wants to incarcerate him the moment Fogg steps foot on British soil.
Based on Jules Verne's classic adventure novel, Around the World in 80 Days is bound and determined to whisk us away on a dizzying, whirlwind tour of the world—and that it does. At just over three hours, the film has plenty of time to stop in France, Spain, India, China, Japan and the United States before high-tailing it back to the Mother Country. Along the way, we sail over London in a hot air balloon, engage in a little flamenco dancing, rescue a princess, speed through the wild, wild West on a locomotive, and outwit Scotland Yard.
In the hands of master showman and first-time producer Michael Todd, whose Todd-AO film process was used to glorious effect for this enterprise, BIG was the order of the day. According to the supplemental materials provided with this package, Around the World called for 140 sets, 74,685 costumes, 68,894 extras and 90 animal handlers to manage the record 8,552 animals (3,800 sheep, 2,448 buffalo, 950 donkeys, 800 horses, 512 monkeys, 17 bulls, 15 elephants, 6 skunks, and 4 ostriches). As if that's not impressive enough, the cast and crew traveled a whopping four million miles during the shoot, visiting 13 countries. Amazing. Simply amazing. But it's all there, and it looks spectacular.
But just in case the sheer spectacle isn't enough, Todd shrewdly packs in enough cameo appearances (a term that Todd himself supposedly coined during the making of this film) to ensure that even the most jaded classic film enthusiasts will stay glued to the screen. (There's Marlene Dietrich as a San Francisco saloon hostess! That Japanese steward looks just like Peter Lorre! Is that Glynis Johns having tea with Hermione Gingold?) The gallery of stars may just be window dressing on an already gaudy bauble of a movie, but it does add an element of fun.
Along with the stargazing and colorful geography, the film's blithe spirit is its chief asset. It's certainly not the story, which is amusing but threadbare; the pacing, which is poor (Passepartout's bullfighting scene allowed me enough time to microwave some popcorn, take a potty break and walk down the street to check the mail); or the camerawork, which is pretty but unimaginative. But thanks to a cast of professionals who throw themselves into their roles with energy and gusto, the adventure generates enough momentum to carry you cheerfully to the closing credits.
The huge film rests on the shoulders of four actors who gamely dash from one elaborate set piece to the next. A very young Shirley MacLaine is lovely, if oddly cast, as the almost-flambéed Princess Aouda, and Newton is appropriately frazzled as the bumbling Inspector Fix, who's always one step behind Fogg. Cantinflas, meanwhile, delights as Fogg's harried personal assistant. But this is Niven's show, and he makes a prickly, persnickety, perfectly British Fogg, sallying forth over obstacle after obstacle, always in high style and always with one eye planted squarely on his pocket watch. Whether he beats the clock is not for me to say, but the story concludes with a nifty-and entirely logical-twist, plus one of the most intricate and colorful closing credit sequences I've ever seen. Michael Todd gives us quite a show.
As has become customary with its popular older titles, Warner Bros. rolls out the red carpet for Around the World in 80 Days with a two-disc release, and, as my grandmother would say, it's the berries. The film, split between the two discs, is presented in 2.20:1 anamorphic widescreen, and the transfer is a beauty. The picture is almost entirely clear of specks and scratches, and the colors are vivid and strong. I detected a wee bit of edge enhancement, causing the picture to occasionally look soft, but those instances were few and far between. Overall, the film looks spectacular. I imagine Todd would be proud.
The package's Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack makes fine use of all speakers, especially the surrounds, giving Victor Young's humongous score an appropriately lavish presentation. The dialogue and wide array of sound effects were usually crystal clear. English, Spanish and French subtitles are included.
Now we get to the really good stuff. After a brief welcome from Turner Classic Movies regular Robert Osborne, we dive into a splendid commentary by Brian Sibley of BBC Radio. Working from a script but never dull, Sibley provides a mountain of information about Around the World in 80 Days. For film buffs, it's well worth a listen. The next most pleasant surprise is "Michael Todd's Around the World in 80 Days Almanac," which can be accessed using your computer. I'm not much for text-based extras, but, at more than 60 pages in length, this booklet (which I assume was provided to audiences during the film's original release) provides colorful and exhaustive notes about the making of the film. Thankfully, it also includes a brief bio for every actor who made a cameo appearance. Next up is the 1968 documentary "Around the World with Mike Todd," which is hosted by Orson Welles. A nice addition, the documentary gets a lot of mileage out of Elizabeth Taylor, who talks about how she met and eventually married Todd. Less interesting and overlong are the excerpts from "Playhouse 90's Around the World in 90 Minutes," which chronicles the film's infamous one-year anniversary celebration. Of interest to film historians is the 1902 short "A Trip to the Moon," which is notable only for being the first time Jules Verne's work was brought to the screen. An excerpt serves as a prologue to Around the World in 80 Days, but here you can see the film in its entirety. The package also includes newsreel footage from the film's premieres in Los Angeles and Spain, as well as footage from the 1957 Oscars, outtakes, a photo gallery, a list of the film's cameos, and trailers.
This release is too much fun to resist. Loaded with an exceptional transfer and a wealth of extras, the $27 list price is a bargain.
Michael Todd is found guilty of robbing more substantial films of Oscar glory, but his film is released on the strength of its many charms.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Introduction by Robert Osborne
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