Your persiflage does not amuse.
This film has endured for the same reason it won Best Picture. It was so stupendously big and fantastic that everyone had no choice but to believe that it was a masterpiece. I am here to restore the right of choice to this film, which is many things, but none of those things are ‘masterpiece,’ ‘great,’ or ‘essential.’
There’s a fine suspense film buried in Verne’s original novel, a taut, fast paced race around the world. Not that anyone even considers Verne’s novel anymore; editions of Verne’s novel all now feature a hot air balloon on the cover, purely because the balloon is in this movie, I guess, since there is never even a mention of a hot air balloon in the novel itself. But then that’s what this film is all about, the addition of hot air.
The film was shot in the amazing Todd AO process under the auspices of manic producer Michael Todd, who is a more interesting character than all the characters in this movie wrapped up in one. The stupendous widescreen panorama takes us around the world, through some incredibly intricate set pieces and certainly defines spectacle. But behind all that spectacle, there’s not a single legitimate human emotion or feeling. This is as calculated a film as has ever been released probably; for all Todd’s effusive exuberance about making movies, he had the calculating mind of an accountant when it came to mind blowing. And eventually all the panoramic vistas being swept over and all the exotic animals trotting by become wearying in the same way that overblown CGI makes movies wearying today. One has the same feeling watching this movie as one does watching The Phantom Menace, which is that it would make a fantastic tech demo reel, if it wasn’t three hours long. Since, however, there are none of the general trappings of a movie (actual characters, narrative arc, emotional beats, artistic intentions, some sort of point or meaning) that it ultimately isn’t a movie at all. But sound and fury can only be interesting for so long if there isn’t some sort of emotional or intellectual content buried in it.
It’s as if Todd misunderstands the entire purpose of a motion picture. This is a fine circus, but if I wanted a circus, I’d go to the circus; I came to the movies to see a movie, which presupposes little things like, well, like all those things I listed above, none of which Todd has more than a perfunctory interest in. This has the look of a movie, but it isn’t one. Todd fails to realize that the reason it is generally exciting when a character engages in a gun battle on the roof of a speeding train is that we, as an audience, are invested in the character and want to see him succeed. When Cantinflas engages in a gun battle on the roof of a speeding train in this movie, since we know the character as nothing more than a flat, stereotypical stock character, it isn’t exciting because, frankly, I couldn’t care less about whether he takes an arrow to the face or not. Movies are only interesting and engaging because of the hard work that Todd isn’t interested in: explicating a character, crafting an arc, finding an emotional center. This is a variety show trying to be a movie, but who wants a three hour variety show? I used to watch the Oscars, but I don’t anymore.
The movie did give us, I suppose, the concept of a cameo; Todd supposedly invented the concept in order to get a huge number of big names to come in and make brief appearances and I thank him for the idea, but once again the execution needed some time to marinate. One can only play Where’s Waldo (or Where’s Sinatra) for so long before it becomes dull; three hours is significantly over that line.
I suppose it won Best Picture because of some confusion. The picture is great. It’s just a shame that the picture isn’t of a movie.
1 out of 5 stars.