Directed By: Rob Letterman
Screenplay By: Joe Stillman, Nicholas Stoller
Based (sort of) on the novel by Jonathan Swift
Produced By: Jack Black, Ben Cooley, John Davis, Gregory Goodman
Cast: Jack Black, Emily Blunt, Chris O'Dowd, Jason Segel, Billy Connolly, Catherine Tate
MPAA Rating: PG
Runtime: 85 minutes
Release Date: December 25, 2010
Review Date: December 26, 2010
I’ve never read an angrier novel than Gulliver’s Travels, which has become inexplicably regarded as a children’s fairy tale despite not containing a single sentence appropriate (or, for the most part, readable) for anyone under the age of 15. People make a big deal about the disturbing content found in the stories of the brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen — and they’re not wrong, but the key difference here is that Gulliver’s Travels was never intended for children. It used the Lilliputians, Brobdingnagians, and Laputans to reflect the overarching views of contemporary English politicos, ending in the misanthropic notion that Gulliver lives out the rest of his years in his horse stables, because humans are intolerable but his beloved, horse-like Houyhnhnms are an intelligent, advanced race far superior to our own.
It’s insane to think an innocuous Jack Black comedy aimed at the same kids who fell for him in the infinitely better School of Rock would retain the satirical edge of Jonathan Swift’s novel. The Jack Black of Tenacious D and High Fidelity might have made that movie, updating the satirical targets in the same way this film updates the character of Lemuel Gulliver into a sad-sack loser of a writer. But this is a big-budget studio film designed to appeal to a broader base via fart- and urine-based humor. (To the film’s credit, though, the pissing-out-a-fire gag does come directly from the novel, which sort of pulled off The Simpsons’ trick of combining lowbrow, groundling humor and highbrow social commentary.)
Like most of the adaptations to come before it, this film only adapts the Lilliput section of the novel. Black plays his usual slacker self, though a bit sadder, who washes up on a hidden island of miniature people after going through some sort of portal while traveling in the Bermuda Triangle (no, really). Seen as a giant and a threat by the citizens of Lilliput, they try to hold him captive. They fail, of course, but when he uses his size to (sometimes inadvertently) heroically save Lilliputians from disasters like the aforementioned fire, he’s regarded as a hero and ingratiates himself to the Lilliputian royalty.
In addition to operating as a Jack Black vehicle, the film tries to mine some A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court-type humor by making Lilliput resemble a 17th-century kingdom. A king and queen (Billy Connolly and Catherine Tate) reign somewhat ineptly, and Gulliver ends up in a somewhat demented but rarely funny love triangle with Princess Mary (Emily Blunt) and stuffy soldier Edward (Chris O’Dowd).
Really, there’s not much plot here. The film exists primarily as a showcase for cartoonish comedy and special effects — to the degree that it probably should have been a cartoon — and it surrounds the usually reliable Black with ringers like Jason Segel, Romany Malco, T.J. Miller, and the aforementioned Connolly and Tate. Unfortunately, the script by Joe Stillman (who co-wrote the first two Shrek films and the unwatchable Planet 51) and Nicholas Stoller (who directed Forgetting Sarah Marshall, but also wrote and directed Get Him to the Greek) lets them down. Never using Black to his full potential, the film mainly combines stale fish-out-of-water comedy with never-funny gross-out gags.
Desperately trying to salvage something from the lackluster script, director Rob Letterman (a veteran of DreamWorks Animation films, yet another sign that perhaps this should have been a cartoon) focuses more energy on the special effects than on the comedic pacing and what little story exists to string everything together. Some of the special effects are quite good, but they lack the immersive quality of Lord of the Rings, which it draws immediate comparisons to by simple virtue of the fact that it draws so much attention to the ability to combine giants and tiny people on the same screen at the same time, seeming to fully interact.
Whereas the Lord of the Rings films rarely drew attention to their effects, using them only to enhance a rich fantasy universe populated by well-developed characters and a complex (some might say convoluted) plot, Gulliver’s Travels really wants us to be impressed, trying too hard to look like it’s not trying too hard. It walks the precarious line between parodying recent blockbusters (like Transformers, an obvious choice for a film about a giant) and outright stealing from them. (Full disclosure: I did not see this movie in 3-D, so there’s the slim possibility that three dimensions will make the film more immersive. Unfortunately, it won’t make the film’s flaws any less apparent.)
Sadly, much as I usually enjoy Jack Black, this film tries hard to please everyone but ends up not providing much of anything for any member of the audience. I can’t say that surprises me, but it certainly disappoints me.
D. B. Bates is a freelance script reader and writer.