Gulliver's Travels (United States, 2010)December 23, 2010
With the arrival of this "adaptation" of Gulliver's Travels, author Jonathan Swift must be spinning in his grave fast enough to make a top dizzy. If Swift was alive, no doubt he'd demand that his name be removed from the credits. Little of his satirical classic beyond a few names, locations, and general ideas have survived the transition from the written page to the dumbed-down family adventure foisted upon the public by director Rob Letterman and screenwriters Joe Stillman and Nicholas Stoller. Still, the chief sin committed by Gulliver's Travels is not that it's a poor adaptation but that its entertainment value is almost nonexistent.
Only the movie's "high concept" remains the same as the one in the book, and the narrative ransacks no more than Book One of Swift's Gulliver's Travels (with a brief nod to Book Two). So Gulliver's Travels is about the voyage of Lemuel Gulliver (Jack Black) to the mysterious Island of the Lilliputians, a race of six-inch high "little people," where he becomes a figure of great curiosity and becomes embroiled in local politics. There ends any common ground the movie has with the book. In this version, Gulliver is a mail clerk at a newspaper office in Manhattan rather than a surgeon in England. To court favor with Darcy Silverman (Amanda Peet), the travel editor, he agrees to fly to Bermuda to investigate "new findings" about the Bermuda Triangle. Once there, he heads out to sea in a one-man craft, becomes lost, and winds up in the country of Lilliput. After an initial period as a prisoner in which his lone friend is fellow dungeon denizen Horatio (Jason Segel), he finds favor with the royal family - King Theodore (Billy Connolly), Queen Isabelle (Catherine Tate), and Princess Mary (Emily Blunt) - and becomes Lilliput's protector, displaying disgruntled General Edward (Chris O'Dowd). After singlehandedly defeating the would-be invading fleet of the rival country Blefuscu, Gulliver's status in Lilliput soars, but this encourages Edward to commit an act of treason in an attempt to bring down his big rival.
To make Gulliver's Travels more "modern," the filmmakers have injected pop references to Star Wars, Titanic, and KISS, while having Gulliver build a replica of Times Square in Lilliput. The climactic battle pits the local giant against a Transformer - something not even Jules Verne would have conceived. Gulliver's visit to Brobdingnag is limited to a five minute sequence in which he finds himself captive in a doll house. None of Swift's themes about government, religion, and human nature make their way into the cluttered mess of a screenplay, and any satirical elements have been blunted beyond recognition to leave room for the fatuous, unfunny humor of the leading man. In short, for fans of Swift and good cinema, Gulliver's Travels is a disaster.
Once again, Jack Black proves himself incapable of playing someone other than Jack Black. He's like the drunk, annoying cousin who shows up at a family reunion and engages in a series of outrageous antics to display how cool and funny he is when, in reality, he's merely irritating. The problem isn't simply that Black is miscast, but he believes he's hilarious and, by foisting this faux amusing personality on us, he transforms Gulliver's Travels into an almost unendurable 85 minutes. The filmmakers succeed in making Chris O'Dowd's Edward more dislikable than Gulliver - an approach that succeeds only in ensuring that viewers have no rooting interest in the final smackdown between man and Transformer. Emily Blunt reportedly turned down the Scarlett Johansson role in Iron Man 2 to make this film, which indicates she needs to fire her agent.
The only arena in which Gulliver's Travels plays an adequate game is in visual effects. The interaction of big Gulliver with the tiny Lilliputians is handled without major gaffes. It looks like Jack Black is approximately twelve times the size of his co-stars. My requisite comment about the box office-inflating 3-D is that it's largely inconsequential but non-intrusive. One of my first thoughts on leaving the theater was to wonder why anyone would pay a surcharge for the meager benefits provided here for 3-D viewing. Upon further consideration, I amended that: Why would anyone pay anything to see this movie, regardless of how many dimensions it's being shown in?
Gulliver's Travels (United States, 2010)
Cast: Jack Black, Jason Segel, Emily Blunt, Amanda Peet, Billy Connolly, Chris O'Dowd, Catherine Tate
Screenplay: Joe Stillman and Nicholas Stoller, based on the book by Jonathan Swift
Cinematography: David Tattersall
Music: Henry Jackman
U.S. Distributor: 20th Century Fox