Film Review: Gulliver's Travels

Jonathan Swift’s witty 18th-century satire becomes a witless 21st-century star vehicle for Jack Black and his by-now stale shtick.

The Jonathan Swift-penned comic travelogue Gulliver’s Travels has been required reading since it was first published in 1726, so the odds are good that the original novel will outlast its latest—and most misguided—film adaptation in the popular memory. Like many of the previous screen versions, this new Gulliver, which stars Jack Black as the titular explorer, focuses almost exclusively on his adventures in the diminutive land of Lilliput, where no citizen measures more than six inches high. (In the book, Gulliver visits several other worlds after leaving Lilliput behind, including the giant-sized territory of Brobdingnag—which is briefly glimpsed in the movie—the flying island of Laputa, and a nation populated by Houyhnhnms and Yahoos.) Also like most of its predecessors, the film lacks Swift’s famous satiric bite, instead using the material as the basis for an F/X-laden, pratfall-heavy, family-friendly fantasy comedy.

It’s safe to say that Swift wouldn’t have written a scene where his hero plays a rousing game of foosball against the Lilliputian soccer team, receives the mother of all wedgies from a giant robot or takes a massive leak on the royal family’s castle in order to put out a raging fire. (Actually, that last bit does come straight out of the book—brilliant wit though he was, the author had no compunction about employing the odd bit of toilet humor now and then. Let’s face it, piss jokes are guaranteed to get audiences laughing no matter the era.)

As the aforementioned foosball game and wedgie-giving giant robot suggest, this particular telling of Gulliver’s Travels takes place in the present day. And that’s not the only significant change screenwriters Joe Stillman and Nicholas Stoller have made to the text. Gulliver himself is no longer an experienced explorer, but a lowly mailroom guy at a major New York newspaper who talks himself into a travel-writing assignment in order to impress the pretty editor (Amanda Peet) he’s been crushing on for years.

Dispatched to the heart of the Bermuda Triangle, his boat capsizes in a freak tropical storm and he wakes up on the beaches of Lilliput, pinned beneath ropes while the realm’s ranking military officer General Edward (Chris O’Dowd) interrogates him. Deemed a “beast,” Gulliver is thrown in prison, where he befriends Horatio (Jason Segel), a kindly soul Edward locked up for daring to make eyes at his bride-to-be, Princess Mary (Emily Blunt, whose primary character trait is a taste for plunging necklines). But the jolly, if slovenly, giant redeems himself when he rescues the Princess and her parents (Billy Connolly and Catherine Tate, both skilled comics stranded in superfluous roles) from an invading force of Blefuscians, Lilliput’s sworn enemies. Now hailed as a conquering hero, Gulliver takes advantage of his newfound fame by living large in ways he never could back at home.

Gulliver’s Travels marks the live-action directorial debut of Rob Letterman, who previously co-directed the DreamWorks Animation hits Shark Tale and Monsters vs. Aliens. As with other animators who have made the leap to live action, he doesn’t seem entirely certain how to take advantage of the new medium. Maybe it’s a simple case of inexperience or maybe his creativity was limited by the production’s technical demands, but either way Gulliver’s Travels’ bland visuals make it a less-than-transporting fantasy romp. It doesn’t help that the movie feels as though it’s been heavily reworked in the editing room, with several subplots involving the supporting characters noticeably truncated in order to keep the spotlight centered on Black’s wild-man antics. (The 3D conversion must have been rushed as well—the images are often blurry, even with the glasses on.)

Too bad that the film’s designated main attraction is also its biggest failing. Once a reliably live-wire comic presence, Black’s shtick has become predictable and tired. He still trots out the same moves—the pop-eyed double takes, the manic grin, the impromptu renditions of classic-rock standards (in this case, Prince’s “Kiss” and Edwin Starr’s “War”)—but the spontaneity is long gone. Handed material that’s been strenuously reshaped to play to his strengths, Black just goes through the motions. In a movie where he’s literally meant to be larger than life, he’s never seemed smaller.