Look, I fully realize that getting worked up over the latest Jack Black movie isn’t worth the energy expended. Quite simply, the makers of this big-screen adaptation of Gulliver’s Travels never intended for their movie to be analyzed in comparison to its literary source material. Instead, this movie was conceived solely with the visual effects in mind, and the filmmakers intended to cash in upon the only memory — the sketched image of the titular character held captive by the Lilliputians and their tiny ropes — that most of us gleaned from Jonathon Swift’s novel.
Swift, of course, was an unrepentant misanthropist whose four-part 18th century novel etched a sharp-witted satire upon the hypocrisy of human nature and its justifications for a multitude of atrocities against fellow man. Now, director Rob Letterman (Monsters vs. Aliens, where size truly was the name of the game) has taken the basic visual from the sketch, dropped the satire, and merely helmed an unintentional mockery of 3D effects set against a green screen. To be completely fair, the movie also borrows the bit from the book where Gulliver puts out a fire with a river of urine, so I suppose that it’s not a complete wash.
Nightmare city, folks.
Now, Swift’s Gulliver (who was a husband and father) was certainly no hero, but his general lack of ambition and overriding sense of inertia communicated the individual’s alienation from English society. In the movie, Gulliver is initially portrayed as the clichéd lazy mailroom worker, but it turns out that he’s quite motivated by one thing in life: the quest to get laid. As a lowly employee of the New York Times, Gulliver will do anything to impress travel writer Darcy Silverman (Amanda Peet), who decides to take a gamble and send Gulliver on a writing assignment in the Bermuda Triangle, where he encounters a storm and wakes up in the infamous Lilliputian beach scene. From that point on, the movie is a series of sight gags to reenforce the “He’s really big” and “They’re really small” concepts. Naturally, the film dumps the novel’s complex structure (wherein Gulliver returns home before embarking upon each leg of his journey) in favor of condensing everything into one long voyage where the emphasis rests with the titular character’s time among the wee people, where he’s initially feared but then elevated to a godlike status and even serves as the primary weapon against the Blefuscudian navy. Naturally, Gulliver eventually wears out his welcome and is forced to leave the Lilliputians, which creates a strong feeling of empathy within all audience members who’ve long since grown tired of Black.
As an on-screen presence, Jack Black is always overbearing; even when he’s merely invisible voice talent (Kung Fu Panda), subtlety has never been one of his strengths. So Black’s presence in a movie where he’s the biggest thing around (most of the time, anyway) is just too much. That is, unless Black is your particular cuppa; in that case and by all means, feel free to buy at ticket to watch the schlub who already saw fit to remove his shirt once (Nacho Libre) now does so in 3D. The effect of fitting a monstrous Black into the frame with the Lilliputians is not awe-inspiring but simply nauseating. When Gulliver is banished, the tale moves onto Brobdingnag, where Gulliver is the small one among giants. Yet, somehow, a Lilliputian has tagged along for comparative purposes, and the resulting long shot is a cheap-looking one that nicely summarizes the entire feel of the movie as one big (emphasis on the “big”) gimmick.
Then again, fans of Black’s schtick will appreciate his repeat performance of mugging for the camera. Presumably, Black was cast for both his size and his pluckiness, the latter of which would ideally amuse the kiddies. For the adults, there are pop culture references galore, which include Gulliver’s self-embellishment through Star Wars lore and the Prince lyrics that Gulliver uses to help humble commoner Horatio (Jason Segel) court Princess Mary (Emily Blunt). If the very presence of Segel and Blunt isn’t enough to cause a double dose of sorrow, well, Billy Connelly also comes along for the ride as King Theodore. (Apparently, the shame of Boondock Saints II: All Saint’s Day just wasn’t enough, eh?) Forgive me for mentally checking out on this one, but at a certain point, hot-chick Darcy crosses over into the new dimension, and a tiny man disappears into Jack Black’s butt crack. That pretty much says it all in regard to Gulliver’s Travels.
Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She and her little black heart can be found at agentbedhead.com.