GULLIVERS TRAVELS is a distressingly wretched updating of Jonathan Swifts classic tale. Denuded of Swifts deadly satire, it has become a dull vehicle for Jack Black to mug and frolic and generally find a million ways to not be entertaining.
He plays the eponymous Gulliver, first name Lemuel, in a world where Swift never wrote a novel with such a character. This Gulliver has spent 10 contented years in the mail room of a fictitious New York newspaper. During orientation for the new guy, he explains that they are the little people, hence, should never bother the big people to whom the mail is delivered. That applies even to Darcy (Amanda Peet), the adorable travel editor on whom Gulliver has been crushing for many years of that decade. One thing leads to another, and Gulliver plagiarizes his way to an assignment that takes him to the Bermuda Triangle, where he is efficiently water-spouted to the island of Lilliput, there to transform Swifts wickedly brilliant satire into a waste of everyones time as the story quickly devolves into a sub-par adventure with stilted characters, situations, and dialogue.
At 12 times the size of the Lilliputians, Gulliver is finally a big man, though dubbed The Beast and put into chains. His huge size soon proves to be the making of him. He foils a kidnap attempt on Princess Mary (Emily Blunt), and uses the best, if least couth, method of putting out the fire started by the would-be kidnappers in the palace. As the islands savior, he ingratiates himself with the royal family, and offers up wooing tips to Horatio (Jason Segal), the commoner in love with Princess Mary. He also earns the enmity of Princess Marys fiance, General Edward (Chris ODowd), by replacing him as the object of hero worship by the royal family and the population at large.
A few of the classic Gulliver moments are included, Gulliver awakening to the Lilliputians having tied him down, for example. There is far more modernizing of the story to capture the attention of the youngsters for whom extracting sunbeams from cucumbers would not be appealing, as least according to the thinking of the filmmakers. There is the media room in Gullivers hip new house, where scenes from pop culture classics are played out in real time on a stage to the delight of Gulliver and the locals. The composite shots of a monumental Black amid diminutive everyone else are nicely done, with the camera angles launched from all the most correct angles to emphasize the difference in statures. The same can be said for Gullivers brief sojourn in the never-named Brobdingnag, where he becomes the literal plaything of a (relatively) little girl with an astonishingly well-furnished doll house. It is, alas, all for naught. Black seems to be having a good time, but everyone else, particularly Segal, looks stricken, as though mortified to have discovered the mess in which they find themselves. Sloppy editing makes the sudden shift of the Lilliputian wardrobe from vaguely 19th-century, to Flashdance-chic a bit jarring, as though a reminder of the putative chic that said film inspired wouldnt be jarring enough. The sudden shift to modern vernacular, some of it actually current, though most hailing from the time of the ci-mentioned flick, is also inexplicable. The most disturbing example comes when Gulliver is coaching Horatio as he pitches woo at Princess Mary, starting with what might be Shakespeare and ending with a recitation of the lyrics to Kiss by Prince. Including dancing. It doesnt work. It goes so far beyond not working that it is painful to watch, as are the insistent close-ups of Blacks eye. There would be less information in a retinal scan and in a much more palatable form.
GULLIVERS TRAVELS fails so miserably that it lands squarely on the list of 2010s worst flicks. Oblivious and off the mark, it is a violation of a superb story and an affront to those who love it. The cruelest blow, however, is in the form of the clever animated short, SCRATS CONTINENTAL CRACK-UP, that precedes the fiasco. Offering a novel explanation of plate tectonics, it sacrifices scientific accuracy for another sprightly tale of hope and failure as Scrats eternal quest for an acorn leads him to the center of the earth, the results of which have global implications. Its almost worth the price of admission to see the short, and then politely excuse oneself before the mood can be darkened by the main feature.