Gulliver's Travels

Twentieth Century Fox

Review in a Hurry: Gulliver's Travels, the original novel, is about a whole lot more than just an island of tiny people, but you'd never know that from watching this. Initially more agreeable than expected, the Jack Black-starring update of the first quarter or so of Jonathan Swift's classic satire falls completely apart by the end.

The Bigger Picture: Why does Hollywood insist upon "reinventing" classic literature when faithful adaptations would be far more interesting? We've seen Eddie Murphy as a modern Dr. Dolittle, and now Jack Black as a contemporary Gulliver...Hell, maybe Tyler Perry should don a dress for a newer, sassier Mary Poppins. It'd be every bit as irrelevant.

The Swift novel was a satire very much of its time, and involved several journeys to different islands (Ted Danson starred in a 1996 TV miniseries that has been the closest adaptation to date). While the current film has Gulliver (Black) as a modern-day mailroom clerk in Manhattan, he still finds himself in a mini-world called Lilliput (via the Bermuda Triangle) that's a steampunk-tinged parody of 18th-century pomposity and warmongering. Kids will miss this point entirely, but that's OK, because it seems the filmmakers did too.

Assuming one does not expect the cinematic version of great literature, however, things go fine for a while. Black is who he is, and even when sanitized for kiddie-flicks, he maintains a devilish charm. As a Lilliputian peasant who befriends the new "Beast," Jason Segel manages an impressive English accent. And Dinner for Schmucks' Chris O'Dowd appears to believe he's actually in a classy adaptation, playing to the hilt the kind of pompous aristocrat Swift loved to take down.

In some much-promoted scenes, Gulliver tells massive lies about his life, pretending to have been the protagonist of Titanic, Star Wars, Avatar, and Wolverine. This is indeed gratuitous corporate synergy by Fox, but for once there is an actual story-based reason for including it. The same cannot be said for the soundtrack, which would seem to have blown a large chunk of the film's budget on overly obvious classic tunes (one of which proves key to a drop-dead awful finale).

As the need for a climax approaches, the movie collapses. A brief sequence referencing one of Gulliver's non-Lilliput adventures makes no sense in this context, while a big fight scene with a transforming robot just feels way out of place (it is a cool robot in itself, but we are also meant to accept that it could be built from instructions in a gaming magazine, and is vulnerable to wedgies). We'll not spoil the ending, except to say that it's practically identical to that of all the most cynically marketed kids movies you may have seen lately.

It's too bad, because this had potential. Think of all the movies that carelessly shoehorn in current-event references whether they work or not, then realize that an updated Gulliver could have been the perfect forum to satirize modern-day war and politics. Instead, the biggest instance of fealty to source involves urination.

The 180—A Second Opinion: The 3-D effects are actually quite good, especially any scene involving masses of tiny ropes and pulleys.

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