Director : Rob Letterman
Screenplay : Joe Stillman and Nicholas Stoller (based on the book by Jonathan Swift)
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 2010
Stars : Jack Black (Lemuel Gulliver), Jason Segel (Horatio), Emily Blunt (Princess Mary), Amanda Peet (Darcy Silverman), Billy Connolly (King Theodore), Chris O’Dowd (General Edward), T.J. Miller (Dan), James Corden (Jinks), Catherine Tate (Queen Isabelle), Emmanuel Quatra (King Leopold), Olly Alexander (Prince August), Richard Laing (Nigel Travel Writer), David Sterne (Foreman), Stewart Scudamore (Blefuscian Captain), Jonathan Aris (Lilliputian Scientist)
As a 3-D holiday star vehicle for Jack Black, Jonathan Swift’s 18th-century satirical travelogue Gulliver’s Travels seems a supremely unlikely choice, but that was probably what drew Black to it in the first place. While the screenplay is credited to Joe Stillman (Shrek) and Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall), it might have very well been penned by Black himself, given how clearly the film caters to his various talents while also hewing closely to the Jack Black persona, especially his penchant for undercutting the haughty and mocking all that is sacred (or at least respectable). Literary purists need not apply since there is very little Swift to be found here outside of a few names and the concept of a man being washed ashore after a shipwreck and finding himself in a land where everyone is one-twelfth his size. I can’t claim to have read all of Swift’s book, but I feel I would be safe in assuming that it doesn’t include a scene in which Gulliver puts out a blaze in the royal palace by peeing on it.
Black’s character, Lemuel Gulliver, is reimagined as a modern-day underachieving mail room schlub at a major New York daily who doesn’t even have the motivation to dream of anything better than playing Guitar Hero during his down time. The only reason he plagiarizes some writing samples in order to get a gig as a travel writer covering the Bermuda Triangle is because he has been nursing a five-year crush on Darcy Silverman (Amanda Peet), the travel editor. With no experience and no writing chops, he heads out into the open ocean and finds himself sucked into a massive water funnel that deposits him in the land of Lilliput, where he is strapped down by the country’s tiny inhabitants, declared a “beast,” and accused of conspiring with their rivals in Blefuscu.
Gulliver soon proves that not only is not a danger to Lilliputians, but he can be a great asset in terms of both defending their country and also enriching their pedigreed traditions with a heavy dose of American popular culture as filtered through Gulliver’s sensibilities, which means that he casts himself as the star of everything from Star Wars to Titanic. He befriends a commoner named Horatio (Jason Segel) who was jailed for approaching Princess Mary (Emily Blunt), the bethrothed of General Edward (Chris O’Dowd), a pompous and humorless tightwad (i.e., the anti-Jack Black). Despite being a loser in the romance department, Gulliver is still more than happy to give Horatio advice on how to woo Mary, which at one point involves calling out to her using lyrics from Prince’s “Kiss.”
The manner in which that scene manages to conflate references to Romeo & Juliet, Cyrano de Bergerac, and ’80s pop music is telling, as Gulliver’s Travels plays primarily as a mish-mash comedy of cultural conflict, with Gulliver’s menacing size posing less threat to the Lilliputians than his slacker attitude, which the people happily endorse and replicate by turning their main thoroughfare into a cheesy version of Times Square starring Gulliver in every incarnation imaginable. There is a certain desperation to this enterprise, and the movie’s pop culture references are frequently its weakest link, even more so than the bland romance between Horatio and Mary. But, any time Gulliver’s Travels threatens to get too stale, Black is always on hand to charge the material with his randy comic sensibilities, which are here toned down to family-friendly PG-lite without quite losing their inherent edge. The film’s special effects aren’t always all that special, as the process shots that make Black loom 12 times larger than his newfound friends are frequently obvious, but it doesn’t really matter because Black himself is the whole show here, whether it be taking on an entire armada with his bare beer belly or belting out an impromptu version of Edwin Starr’s “War” to close the film with a comical anti-war musical number. It doesn’t really fit, but then again, nothing else really does either.
Copyright ©2010 James Kendrick
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