Gulliver's Travels

What It Is

In this very loose adaptation Jonathan Swift’s 18th-century satire, Lemuel Gulliver (Jack Black) works in a New York newspaper mailroom. Though he has a crush on the charismatic travel editor, Darcy (Amanda Peet), he’s reluctant even to speak to her, let alone ask her out, feeling daunted that she has a better job than his, making him feel like one of the “little people.”

Lo! An inadvertent series of hijinks and lies lands Gulliver on a writing assignment for Darcy. Yes, it’s a narrative stretch that he’s sent to the Bermuda Triangle, but it gets him onto a boat, in the middle of a storm, and soon enough, on the shores of Lilliput, where he meets some actual “little people.” Really little.

Their initial fear of the giant Gulliver provides an opportunity for General Edward (Chris O’Dowd) to assert his will and necessity, deeming Gulliver a Beast he must vanquish (the point: Edward is a little person in his mind, too, cowardly and conniving). Captured and wheeled down to the palace, Gulliver meets the blustery King (Billy Connolly), the mostly silent Queen (Catherine Tate), their unhappily dutiful daughter Princess Mary (Emily Blunt), and oh yes, Gulliver’s fellow prisoner, Horatio (Jason Segel), who made the mistake of gazing longingly at Mary.

When Gulliver learns Horatio is in the dungeon because he’s a commoner and she’s affianced to Edward, he decides to right that situation. It’s an obvious way for him to work out his own non-relationship with Darcy, playing Cyrano to Horatio’s Christian (he has him reciting lyrics from Prince’s song “Kiss”) and also advising Mary as to rejecting Edward (and disobeying her parents). Gulliver is able to win over all his new friends because he lies to them (much as he lied to Darcy back in New York), telling them he’s lived the adventures he’s seen in movies like Star Wars and Titanic.

Guess what? Gulliver’s deceit is found out, whereupon he’s defeated by a giant robot and banished to the Land of Giants, where the primary gag features Jack Black in a dress, the plaything of a giant girl who is conspicuously bratty. His eventual (and easily engineered) escape leads — finally — to the movie’s end. Here the film offers a worthy lesson: everyone dances and sings to “War (What is it Good For?).” You know: “Absolutely nothing.”

Why It’s Fun

Alas, the movie’s not much fun. Emily Blunt and Amanda Peet are particularly ill-used, and actually look uncomfortable in their roles. Segel fares slightly better, but still, his part is to play straight man to a very large and loud buffoon who literally takes up most of the screen.

The physical jokes will entertain some viewers, briefly. But the movie doesn’t sustain storylines or characters. Gulliver’s initial development as a lonely, self-conscious Star Wars fan in Manhattan is detailed for a few minutes and then dropped. What follows is a series of goofy situations, without motivation or ingenuity.

Who’s Going To Love It

Jack Black fans will probably want to see him repeat the same performance that he’s offered before, in better, cleverer movies, like Be Kind Rewind, School of Rock, and Kung Fu Panda.

Most everyone else might be better advised to see Tangled again. Or — track down Max Fleischer’s 1939 animated film of Gulliver’s Travels, which is similarly focused on Gulliver’s time in Lilliput, but to much more entertaining effects.

What To Be Aware Of

The film purports to be in 3D, but some scenes feature shots (say, non-special-effected shots) that are not 3D at all, and benefit from removing the dark glasses, so the colors are crisper.

The plot pits two kingdoms at war against each other: they shoot cannons and arrows, and throw some spears. But no one is injured, save for Gulliver’s belly pock-marks, disappeared by the following scene.

The film relies repeatedly on body humor, beginning with Jack Black’s body, which is framed to showcase his large size and flabby physique, making this into a joke in itself. This joke is weak to start, weaker by the minute.

While an early version of this joke has Gulliver patting his torso in an effort to generate an idea for an article, later instances are more aggressive: captured by the Lilliputian’s Gulliver shakes off their little ropes, and as he stands, his butt-crack becomes a gigantic focus, a few times. In another scene, he’s pelted by arrows shot by an enemy fleet, then shakes his bulky tummy to fling the arrows back at their shooters. He declares himself “invincible,” another joke that’s not so hilarious.

Other body humor includes the frankly gross moment when Gulliver puts out a fire in the palace by peeing all over the flames — and also onto Lilliputians like the grateful king and the humiliated Edward.

And when Gulliver battles the giant robot, the machine kicks him in the crotch, as an especially embarrassing and debilitating attack.

The film also teaches a lesson, of sorts: it’s bad to lie. It’s also bad to exaggerate ideas you have about yourself, for instance, that you’ve written an article when really you’ve plagiarized it, or that you’ve actually lived the adventures you’ve seen in movies.

As a corollary lesson, the movie encourages viewers to believe in themselves. But it takes an exceptionally noisy, unfunny route to get to that moral. Gulliver’s inevitable, painfully contrived reconciliation with Darcy is not only unconvincing. It also makes you feel sorry for her.

See-It-Again Points

2 out of 10

Film Information

Gulliver’s Travels
Director: Rob Letterman
Cast: Jack Black, Jason Segel, Emily Blunt, Amanda Peet, Billy Connolly, Chris O’Dowd
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Year: 2010
Rated: PG
US Premiere: December 25, 2010
UK Premiere: December 26, 2010
Official Website
Official Trailer
Movie Pictures


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