Michael Palin: Around the World in 80 Days (DVD)
Michael Palin started another career in the late 1980s: explorer. The former Python
brings humor, humanity, and class to the genre of filmed travelogues with Around the World in 80 Days
, his first and best journey. The genesis of this BBC series is a sly side-bet: can someone travel via 19th-century means around the world in 80 days like Jules Verne's fictional Phileas Fogg did in 1872? As Palin travels around London asking experts about world travel, it seems to be a 50/50 chance at best. The reliance on air travel makes shipping schedules very tentative, and in some ways just slowing down may be a hardship for a 20th-century traveler. As Palin notes, air travel is about viewing airports; no one really "travels" anymore.
Armed with his inflatable globe, Palin starts off by train across Europe before problems arise: missed connections, labor strikes, language difficulties, and the like. But Palin is adorable company to have for the seven-part, six-hour series. He manages the impossible, always making us believe we are in the moment, even though some scenes had to be shot to accommodate the camera (he enters a taxi alone, the next scene we are with him in the cab). Palin is light on his feet, with quick humorous jabs, which comes in handy as his schedule is always on the brink of disaster. He offers round remarks on the countries he visits and often has amusing side trips: garbage man in Venice, bit actor in India, and cook aboard a freighter.
The highlight is the third episode, set almost entirely on a dhow slowly moving from Arabia to India. Here Palin is introduced to a life slowed down to its basics with a crew of mostly non-English speakers. The segment is so distinct the producers asked--and were granted--permission to add an additional episode instead of cutting most of the dhow footage.
Although Palin continued his adventures (Pole to Pole, Full Circle), nothing is as nimble or kinetic--there is a ticking clock element--as this first voyage. His entourage or Passepartout--Fogg's righthand man--grew with each voyage. There were usually two to four production folks with him on 80 Days, but they are rarely seen. The end result is the best travel "slide show" anchored by one of world's most amusing men. For couch potato and traveler alike, this is compelling viewing. --Doug Thomas