Gulliver’s Travels (2010) 20th Century Fox
1 hr. 25 mins.
Starring: Jack Black, Jason Segel, Amanda Peet, Emily Blunt, Billy Connolly, Chris O’Dowd, Catherine Tate
Directed by: Rob Letterman
MPAA Rating: PG
Critic’s Rating: ** stars (out of 4 stars)
Director Rob Letterman’s feeble fantasy Gulliver’s Travels is nothing more than a witless wasteland for Jack Black’s usual over-the-top oafish shtick where one may have permission to insert wherever the empty-headed chuckles apply. As if this is not bad enough, Letterman’s turgid tale based on the classic Jonathan Swift novel has the nerve to boast incidental 3-D special effects that make the film somewhat visually bouncy (and other times ineffectually flat) but nevertheless stiff in its creative straitjacket of lamebrain laughs.
Aside from the larger-than-life lunatic Black trampling over the tiny utopia of Swift’s beloved Lilliput equipped with some of his life-saving gigantic urine-producing waterfall (hey, the ominously massive Lilliputian fire had to be extinguished somehow, right?), there is not much that one can dump on the achingly pointless action-adventure Gulliver’s Travel . Letterman’s big screen adaptation of the cherished author/humorist’s legendary children’s story (causing us to almost label the Gulliver creator “Jonathan Not-So-Swift”) is devoid of anything constructively satirical or profoundly moving that was originally conceived in Swift’s imaginative juices. Instead, this trivial posturing puff piece merely serves as means to skewer modern-day pop cultural platitudes. Uninspired and labored, Gulliver’s Travels (with the buffoonish presence of Black in tow) is about as adventurous as a creaky turn-of-the-century wooden merry-go-round.
Lemuel Gulliver (Black) is a withdrawn New York-based mailroom clerk stationed at a big-time publishing company. The child-like Gulliver harbors an immense crush on the publication’s travel section editor Darcy (Amanda Peet) and will do almost anything to impress the capably pretty print-media princess. Thus, an opportunistic Gulliver finds himself accepting a travel-oriented writing assignment from his object-of-affection Darcy. The destination: the Bermuda Triangle. Naturally, the goofy-minded Gulliver is victimized by a freakish whirlpool as he is sucked into the watery grave and…inexplicably is somehow transported to another dimension in time.
Strangely, the curious-minded Gulliver is shocked to see before his eyes an 18th century environment where notoriously diminutive people-the size of his darn thumb-are roaming the island as if he were in some surrealistic dream sequence. Equally, the little people are mesmerized by the hugely-sized spectacle of the playful stranger. Soon, Gulliver and his pint-sized on-lookers manage to accept each other’s humiliating quirks and of course physical differences. The Lilliputians, appreciative of Gulliver’s attempts to immerse them in his “New World” rituals (the video game Kiss Guitar Hero, informing them about film favorites that range from Titanic to Star Wars, telling them tall tales of his existence outside of their closed community, etc.), in return try to make their visiting hulking hero at home by accommodating him with live-action versions of his hobbies and interests on a spacious stage.
Cleverly, the entertaining Gulliver wins over the conservative royal colonials that previously thought of him as a monstrous menace to their safeguarded haven. King Theodore (Billy Connolly) and his queen (Catherine Tate) are relieved by Gulliver’s “gentle giant” persona. Princess Mary (Emily Blunt) and her lovesick suitor Horatio (Jason Segel from TV’s “How I Met My Mother”) are drawn to his charm, too. Predictably, the local villain General Edward (Chris O’Dowd) would prove to be the constant thorn in Gulliver’s side. Plus, what would be a true Gulliver’s Travel staple if they didn’t have mini melodious villagers prancing every which way, right?
Interestingly, Gulliver’s Travels could have used more of Black’s zaniness and he feels underused here in an otherwise overblown fantasizing fable that is supposed to be broadly boisterous. Black has incorporated his brand of bombastic bits effectively in comedic ditties such as School of Rock, Tropic Thunder and Nacho Libre. Here, Black is stifled by a restrictive screenplay that is plastered in cheap laughs, obvious sight gag gimmickry and slow-footed plotting. The movie basically needs Black’s orchestrated man-child motivation to lift the sluggish storytelling beyond it shuffled shenanigans. The kids, in particular, may be amused periodically by the contrasting imagery and situational sequences (the aforementioned Gulliver pissing out raging flames that threaten the region and his encounter with a full-sized robot, etc.). For the most part, Gulliver’s Travels never fully fleshes out the good-natured insanity based on this reductive romp.
Some may point to the rousing ending number where Black’s Gulliver entices his mini-sized minions (and moviegoers no doubt) in a chorus of “War” (What Is It Good For…Absolutely Nothing) but the spontaneous musical number simply feels like an added element out of desperation-something that could have helped the pedestrian Gulliver’s Travels if it had more of these cheeky tunes to compensate for the uneventful lapses throughout the meager narrative. After all, one can only stomach so much watching ant-sized cannonballs bouncing off of Black’s blown-up beer belly in slow motion.
Look, it’s safe to say that Black’s Gulliver was not the only one feeling confined and shipwrecked by this fickle-oriented farce during this relentlessly tame travelogue.