(by Dustin Putman
In the nearly three hundred years since the release of late author Jonathan Swift's 1726 novel "Gulliver's Travels," it has become a staple of high school English class curriculums. I myself read it in the eleventh grade, and it's safe to say it did not include any robot battles or dancing sing-alongs to Edwin Starr's "War" and Prince's "Kiss." This, then—the live-action debut of animation director Rob Letterman (2009's "Monsters vs. Aliens")—is very much a modern reinterpretation of the classic source material. Viewed as such, it's surprisingly not all that painful, adding some cutely original comic spins to the tale. The narrative is more notably pedestrian (even at 85 minutes, it feels padded), but at least a person of go-getter enthusiasm like Jack Black (2009's "Year One") is along to make the mediocre ride more pleasant that it otherwise might have been. Article continues below
When longtime New York Tribune mail clerk Lemuel Gulliver (Jack Black) is called upon to train new employee Dan (T.J. Miller), only to learn that the 20-year-old has already worked his way up to being his boss by the end of the day, it serves as a harsh reminder that his own life and career are going nowhere. Aware that he needs to start taking chances, Gulliver works his way into the office of his crush, reporter Darcy Silverman (Amanda Peet), and before he knows it is spinning white lies about his talent as a writer and his desire to be a travel correspondent. A few plagiarized writing samples later, Gulliver is out on his first assignment, sailing through a storm smack-dab in the middle of the Bermuda Triangle. When he shipwrecks and comes to, he finds himself on the island of Lilliput, populated by action figure-sized little people and ruled by King Theodore (Billy Connolly) and Queen Isabelle (Catherine Tate). The Lilliputians are at first frightened of this giant, but then come to revere him when he saves their kingdom from a fire and subsequently informs them that he is the leader back where he comes from. Gulliver also comes to befriend earnest merchant Horatio (Jason Segel), who longs to win the love of Princess Mary (Emily Blunt). Feeling jilted when Mary shows interest in Horatio, insensitive suitor General Edward (Chris O'Dowd) prepares to seek revenge.
The opening act of "Gulliver's Travels," before the heavy fantasy element is introduced, is the film's bright spot. As played with a likable bashfulness by Jack Black, Lemuel Gulliver immediately ingratiates himself to the viewer's sympathies when his attempts to get closer to Darcy only end in missed chances and tied tongues. Gulliver and Darcy share nice chemistry, albeit with a necessary pall of awkwardness on top, and Amanda Peet (2009's "2012") only helps the equation in her sunshiny—but not pandering—reading of Gulliver's object of affection. Once landed on Lilliput, the movie gets bogged down in more predictably fanciful, child-skewing material. Gulliver's firefighting by way of his own urine is lame even for potty humor standards, and the action climax as Gulliver and the Lilliputians are attacked by Edward inside a giant mechanical suit is more clunky than involving. The visual effects that blow up Gulliver to giant size (or shrink the Lilliputians, depending how you look at it) are hit-and-miss, alternating between plausible and as fake as a 1950s "Godzilla" feature.
More successful is a scene where Gulliver puts on plays for the Lilliputians of classic movies "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Titanic." The choice in films is on the derivative side, but it is funny when, upon learning that Darth Vader is Luke's father, Princess Mary muses in awe, "This is an impossibility, and yet it seems completely inevitable!" There also are passing nods to rock band KISS and a spoof of Times Square that show screenwriters Joe Stillman (2009's "Planet 51") and Nicholas Stoller (2010's "Get Him to the Greek") are at least using their noggins to fill in what is otherwise a grindingly conventional, undernourished family comedy.
"Gulliver's Travels" will not be knocking anyone out who ventures to see it, but it is certainly a more confidently put-together effort than the theatrical trailers would lead one to believe. Jack Black looks like he's having fun, and the sincerity he brings to his performance is charming. The same cannot be said of its miniature supporting players, no doubt growing tired of constantly speaking their lines with their heads cocked back and their eyes looking above them. Jason Segel (2008's "Forgetting Sarah Marshall") and Emily Blunt (2010's "The Wolfman") are surely slumming it as Horatio and Princess Mary, but at least they put on happy faces as they waste their time in second-tier love interest roles. Since "Gulliver's Travels" is far from a faithful rendering of Jonathan Swift's tome, maybe it should have been abandoned altogether and a more down-to-earth story formed around the Gulliver and Darcy characters and their tentative, ultimately winning relationship. They're the best part. The rest is strictly in take-it-or-leave-it territory.Note:
The post-converted 3-D version of "Gulliver's Travels" being released to many theaters should be strictly avoided. I Hate 3-DFor a motion picture dealing with a normal-sized man finding himself in a world of tiny people, one would think that the format would lend itself well to the story, playing with perspective and spatial dimension. Instead, it's so ineffective it doesn't even feel like 3-D; one can watch most of the film without their glasses on and the picture remains mostly clear throughout, proof-positive that this is a shoddy 3-D rendering whose only purpose is to finagle the extra money of premium ticket prices from unsuspecting consumers. Don't be fooled by the negligent, money-hungry folks at 20th Century Fox who are behind this scam!