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Original ‘80 Days’ a trip worth taking

David Niven and Cantinflas charmed in this Mike Todd-produced spectacular. By Michael Ventre

In the imagination of Jules Verne, a trip around the world conjures images of balloons, elephants, bullfights, princesses, trains, boats and two fun-loving guys. Nowadays, a journey like that would require one trip to a travel agent and a few airport connections. Thankfully, Verne’s classic novel found a kindred spirit in producer Michael Todd, who turned it into one of the grandest spectacles in movie history.

Winner of the Academy Award as Best Picture of 1956, “Around the World in 80 Days” tells the story of Phileas Fogg, an English adventurer who wagers that he can indeed make the trip in the allotted time frame. He grabs a satchel full of cash, enlists the aid of his servant Passepartout, and sets out to see the globe and make it back in time to collect his winnings.

David Niven as Fogg and Cantinflas as Passepartout are one of Hollywood’s most inspired pairings. Todd, an entrepreneur who had never produced a movie before, and who later married Elizabeth Taylor, nailed it in his one stab at epic filmmaking. The picture is full of joyous life from beginning to end, due in no small part to the skilled direction of Michael Anderson, a relative unknown at the time, and a grin-inducing script that was partly the brainchild of famed humorist S.J. Perelman, who years earlier collaborated with the Marx Brothers on “Monkey Business” and “Horse Feathers.”

The two-disk DVD special edition features a gorgeous transfer in widescreen, and the usual Dolby Digital sound. It also contains an introduction by Robert Osborne that is worth taking in, although it segues into something called “A Trip to the Moon” prologue, which is tedious and should be skipped. There is also a feature-length commentary by Brian Sibley of BBC Radio.

On the Disk Two bonus features, there are several cool items. Of special note is a featurette called “Around the World of Mike Todd,” narrated by Orson Welles, which gives some fascinating insight into a remarkably accomplished man and his ideas. There is also a look at a gala in 1957 that celebrated the one-year anniversary of the movie’s release, which included such luminaries as Frank Sinatra and Walter Cronkite, as well as highlights of the 1957 Academy Awards ceremonies.

This movie is often overlooked in Hollywood annals despite its success, primarily because it’s a light, fun, carefree three hours’ worth of entertainment with little in the way of thematic importance. But that just might be why it’s so celebrated by its admirers. And if there’s a message somewhere, it’s in the determination and perseverance of Todd in getting it made. Although he had a one-movie career in Hollywood, it was successful enough to provide him with lasting respect from around the world.

Warner Home Video, $26.99