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Movie Review: ‘Gulliver’s Travels’

December 22, 2010
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Even in a bad Jack Black film, I can usually find humor and warmth in his characters. He has built a career out of being the idiot with a heart of gold and most of the time he manages to do it well. In Rob Letterman’s loose adaptation of Gulliver’s Travels, however, Black falls short. All of his usual quirky qualities are here: he sports tee shirts and crazed eyes while looking for excuses to sing and play air guitar, but something is missing. Black certainly has heart, but he lacks his normal charm and zany wackiness. Every opportunity the film, and Black, is given to shine is lost to an obvious joke and results in a compulsive unevenness throughout the film.

Black’s character Lemuel Gulliver is a Guitar Hero playing, Star Wars loving, mail room clerk. He is also head over heels for a girl. This girl, Darcy Silverman is a travel writer, played by Amanda Peet, and her depth goes no deeper than being really nice. While he has been pining over her for half a decade, he has not yet mustered the courage to ask her on a formal date and instead opts to walk past her office every day with nothing more to offer her than awkward conversation and the hopes of office mail. While she does not notice his never-ending affections, she is disgustingly sweet to the self-conscious mail boy nonetheless.

The complexities of his character are condensed into a brief monologue by his co-worker, Dan (T.J. Miller), who determines that Lemuel has reached his peak and is not going anywhere in his life, career or love. In an attempt to prove Dan wrong, Lemuel vows to ask his dream girl out, but instead  gets nervous and requests an application to travel write. This inevitably culminates into his first writing assignment: a trip to the Bermuda triangle. While he is still lacking a date, his job status has potentially improved, which he hopes will assist in landing him a date. However, through a twist of fate, some weak writing and an inverted whirlpool, Lemuel ends up stranded in a strange land. Knocked unconscious from the tumultuous journey, he awakens to find himself captured and bound by the minuscule people of Lilliput. They recognize him as a threat due to his massive size and attempt to hold him as prisoner. In case anyone was curious, this is where the faithfulness to Swift’s original novel begins and ends. Not that this matters, I doubt anyone expected a Jack Black vehicle to be a biting satire about human nature, but I thought I would mention it regardless.

With time, however, Lemuel befriends the people of Lilliput and it is in the characterizations of these little people that the film truly has potential. The isle of Lilliput is written as an exaggerated utopian society and its inhabitants are completely altruistic, honest and a lot of other synonyms for good. There are moments were the innocence of these characters is completely charming and pushed just to the point of satire. Some scenes truly are funny, but the momentum is never held and inescapably falls flat for majority of the film. Lemuel makes fast friends with one of the island’s citizens, the only person, other than Lemuel, who has been sent to prison. This convict is Horatio (Jason Segal) and his crime is asking a princess on a date, which is not allowed for someone so low in status. Segal oozes the Lilliputians’ inherent decency and his love for Princess Mary, played by a comically naïve Emily Blunt, parallels Gulliver’s adoration for Darcy. Horatio is too shy to address Mary again and this creates an opportunity for Lemuel to prove to himself, as well as to Horatio, that getting the girl has little to do with status and more to do with just asking her out. This creates the plot for the majority of the film.

Of course, every movie needs to have a bad guy and this one is no exception with Chris O’Dowd playing General Edward. As far as I can tell, he is the only indecent inhabitant on Lilliput and O’Dowd plays him with gusto. General Edward is intent on having power, wealth and status above everything else and his implicit treachery is a sheer joy to watch. Sometimes it is fun to see a bad guy with no more depth than the fact that he is evil, however, even O’Dowd cannot save the mediocrity of this film.

There is, as expected, a good smattering of mildly crude humor. In fact, I was surprised to find that the film maintained its PG rating. If more energy had been spent building on the comical decency of the Lilliputians and less on cheap jokes this might have resulted in a “gem” of a film. Unfortunately, all the sweetness and charm is lost on silly pop culture references and butt crack jokes. While everything in the film is completely harmless and the demographic that it is intended for will probably embrace it, there is little here for ages beyond 7-12 and I can’t imagine that many parents will be happy to give over their hard earned cash for this adventure.

Rating: 2/5. Gulliver’s Travels is rated PG. Directed by Rob Letterman. Starring: Jack Black, Jason Segal, Emily Blunt and Chris O’Dowd.

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