Black plays a postal room worker in a publishing house who begins the film by being overlooked for a managerial position in favour of an employee on his first day and decides to change his life, and win the heart of Amanda Peet’s Travel Editor by applying for a travel writer’s position. One night of cribbing from the Time Out and Lonely Planet websites and he gets his first assignment – to investigate the Bermuda Triangle and so we are on our way.
A fancy visual effect later and Gulliver wakes to find himself on a mysterious island, tied down by an army of tiny people. From this point on two things happen: any meaningful connection to Jonathan Swift’s novel is lost and Jack Black leads an almost inexplicable collision of pantomime and pop culture with few redeeming features.
Arriving in Lilliput Black wins over the King and Queen (Billy Connolly and Catherine Tate) and their daughter (Emily Blunt) but immediately enrages the captain of the guard, and the Princess’s fiance, played by Chris O’Dowd. With Jason Segel appearing as a man imprisoned for falling in love with the Princess you can easily guess how this one plays out, but people have made great things with far less. How does Gulliver’s Travels fare?
What script there is exists to pepper a staggering level of platitudinous bilge into an idea of Swift’s tale without any kind of worth or weight to it; logic is stomped underfoot as the narrative lurches from one point to the next without warning. It’s an uneven journey we are on together and while the visual effects are diverting the script is woefully uninspired; both your face and your palm will be numb by the end of the film.
Any trace of satire is swept away in favour of a barrage of pop culture references (as opposed to jokes) and Gulliver’s Travels becomes a strange live action version of a Shrek film. The sharp blade of Swift’s wit is blunted repeatedly by an overriding crassness, it consoles itself with drenching Billy Connolly in a jet stream of urine and inserting trailer friendly moments with Jack Black using the Lilliputians as foosball players, or daubing them in Kiss makeup for a real life version of Guitar Hero – all of these ideas are fine, but never amount to anything other than a slap around the face for the audience members who may have dozed off while the film plays out.
Amanda Peet appears as Gulliver’s unattainable love interest and is typically charming, given that she’s asked to do very little here other than be the focus of Gulliver’s affections, play angry at the plagiarism element, then arrives in Lilliput (don’t ask) to need rescuing and finally watch as Gulliver believes in himself and overcomes an enormous evil robot. Like Blunt, Connolly and Tate she is given so little room to move and is criminally underused.
Enlisting some one of the finest British comic talent to accompany Mr. Black on his adventure should provide a decent comedic front to balance the wild yahooing of Black’s Gulliver and Blunt and O’Dowd do very well with the material, with O’Dowd in particular standing out from the crowd, adding a dash of Python to his Pantomime, but it is of little consequence as he is forced into a Wallace and Gromit-esque robot by journey’s end.
Emily Blunt’s character is drawn from the richest variety of pantomime with mood swings like a pendulum in a hurricane, her princess glides through the motions with a few good comedy moments and Jason Segel, playing her lovestruck admirer, was perhaps the only genuinely affecting performance in the whole shebang.
On the plus side Blenheim Palace looks very pretty.
I believe the intentions of Rob Letterman and the writers Nicholas Stoller and Joe Stillman were good, but this particular road to hell is a massively uneven one, with misstep after misstep and at the end all we have is an inexplicable song and dance number. There is no definitive adaptation of Swift’s classic novel and while a family-friendly comedy starring Jack Black was never going to delve into the satirical depths of the source material there’s no excuse for this comedy wasteland. The film aims low and fails to meet its potential at every turn. It could have been a lot of fun, but the good time the cast were having on set failed to make the journey back from Lilliput.
Gulliver’s Travels in out in the UK on Boxing Day.