Gulliver’s Travels Review

Jack Black’s latest film is unique for being an adaptation of Gulliver’s Travels that features Lilliput constructed to look like Times Square, a re-enactment of one of the closing scenes from Titanic, and a peculiar rendition of Prince’s Kiss. If that hasn’t put across that this is a modern day bastardisation of Jonathan Swift’s classic novel, then you’ll realise it after the appearance of an Armoured Mecha.

Lemuel Gulliver (Jack Black) works in the mailroom of a newspaper company, and has done so for a very long time (his office includes numerous pictures of him with all his former co-workers). He has a crush on travel editor Darcy (Amanda Peet), and stumbles when trying to ask her out, inadvertently applying for one of her travel writing assignments. When Darcy asks him to provide a sample of his writing work, he instead recalls those three magic words that many a university student relies upon, ‘copy and paste.’ Impressed with what she reads, Darcy gives him a written task about the secret behind the Bermuda Triangle. After taking a boat there, Gulliver is sucked into a whirlpool. He wakes to find himself tied down on a beach… and there are a lot of very tiny people around him.

Directed by Rob Letterman, having previously helmed animated films Shark Tale and Monsters vs. Aliens, his first live action feature doesn’t really deserve the title bestowed upon it. The film stays mostly in Lilliput. Written by Joe Stillman and Nicholas Stoller, it’s as if they already had one half of a fantasy film in mind, and from out of nowhere they decide to set it in the world of Gulliver’s Travels.

With the present day setting, the film is filled with iconic modern references, most likely done in an effort to appeal to a wider audience. Gulliver’s room and his work office is littered with posters and toys as a precursor to upcoming events; be it Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction or plugging the video game Guitar Hero. Films such as Star Wars, Titanic and Avatar are also conveniently lampooned, given that they all just so happen to be from the same studio, 20th Century Fox.

Jack Black, as Lemuel Gulliver, is essentially playing himself, while Amanda Peet’s inclusion as Darcy merely serves as an incentive for Gulliver to get out of the mailroom. Jason Segel as Horatio and Emily Blunt as Princess Mary, serve a predictable subplot as two friends trying to become something more, as Gulliver offers advice to Horatio when it comes to courting (apparently Lilliput has an official courting doctrine).

The majority of the film was shot in the UK, with Oxfordshire’s Blenheim Palace standing in for the Palace of Lilliput. This also makes for a largely British cast of comedy actors, consisting of Billy Connelly as King Theodore, Catherine Tate as his Queen Isabelle, and James Cordan as Jinks. It’s rather unfortunate that they seldom get an opportunity to show off their talent. Fair play to The IT Crowd’s Chris O’Dowd though, for playing General Edward seriously straight, reaching borderline deadpan levels.

Gulliver’s Travels is a film that sounds ideal for 3D. As a 3D conversion, it’s thankfully not a rush job that ruined the likes of Clash of the Titans and The Last Airbender. It’s merely okay, yet as expected, there are no jumpy ‘out-of-the-screen’ moments. However, as with the majority of conversions, after the first few minutes, you just don’t notice the effect so much, only how needlessly light your wallet is. The special effects overall are reasonably good too. The Armoured Mecha itself doesn’t look all that bad, but it clearly belongs in another film altogether.

The film does include a slightly loose account from Swift’s novel of Gulliver’s trip to Brobdingnag, known here as the ‘island where we dare not go.’ It makes for the most humorous moment in the film, where Gulliver is dressed as a doll while he’s looked after by a young girl – presumably the film’s equivalent of Glumdalclitch (for anyone who has read the novel), though she’s more of a horrid brat here. The cringe-worthy highpoint comes when Gulliver gets Lilliput and neighbouring nation Blefuscu to make peace and forget their (never-revealed) differences, with a song and dance number of Edwin Starr’s War.

Clearly Letterman’s intention is an overly-cooked family friendly film, where the cheese has burnt. It might have been more interesting to have Black playing a (differently named) character, who recalls and references moments from Swift’s story once ending up in Lilliput, realising that it truly exists after all, maybe even meeting others that have found their way to this other world before him. The film hints at this momentarily during Gulliver’s ‘short-lived’ meet with a pilot.

To be fair, I’m obviously not the target audience here. While the children in my screening laughed, it was in sparse moderation. I honestly wouldn’t recommend taking kids to see it, unless you’d like to punish them. And anyone writing about Gulliver’s Travels at school would do well to avoid this film altogether.

If you must experience Gulliver’s Travels, and can’t contend with reading a book (we’ve all been there), then I’d recommend the TV miniseries from the 1990’s, with Ted Danson, if you can find it. In my opinion, as the best adaptation of the book, it’s also funnier.

I’ve nothing against children’s films, but this felt like it was pandering to the lowest common denominator, and I’m sure they’ll be happy to have this spoon-fed into their mouths.

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