Jack Black travels to Lilliput and regales the tiny population with his aggressive goofiness in Gulliver’s Travels, a very loose adaption of the best-known part of the Jonathan Swift book.
Thanks to Monday’s sudden appearance of winter, I spent about triple the movie’s length getting back and forth to the screening and, unfortunately, missed the opening 25 or so minutes of the movie. Fortunately, thanks to this movie’s tendency to restate the general plot in every other scene, I was able to get the gist of what I missed.
Lemuel Gulliver (Jack Black) works in the mailroom of a newspaper but is desperate to move up in the world. He cons an editor, Darcy Silverman (Amanda Peet), on whom he has a crush, to let him write a travel story and she sends him to Bermuda, where he is sucked into a vortex and washes up on the shores of Lilliput, something like late-19th-century Europe if late-19th-century Europe were populated by people the size of your average Star Wars action figure.
He is able to impress the Lilliputians with his tales of great wisdom and bravery (some of them stolen directly from movies), and King Theodore (Billy Connolly) names him the country’s protector and general. This is much to the dismay of the old general, Edward (Chris O’Dowd), who also doesn’t like the way Gulliver is encouraging everybody to think for themselves. Take Princess Mary (Emily Blunt, who I hope was paid very well for this). Edward is slated to marry her, but with Gulliver’s encouragement, commoner Horatio (Jason Segel) is attempting to win her heart. Edward is sure that Gulliver is a fraud — particularly when his stories include a section from the movie Titanic in which he actually dies — but how to prove it to the rest of the kingdom, which is happy to follow his lead? Perhaps a war with neighboring Blefuscu will show Gulliver’s weaknesses.
In the valley of the blind, Jack Black seems only half a doofus. We’ve seen this plot oodles of times before, where the person from our reality goes to an alternate world where he can pretend to be a brave spaceship captain (Galaxy Quest) or a rocking rebel (Back to the Future) only to risk being shown up as not the hero he portrayed himself as. Gulliver’s Travels approaches this story in the most conventional way, treating the symbolism of “big” and “small” as its most clever gesture. This might actually be the closest Jack Black’s ever come to putting out a movie like The Fatties, the pandering fake comedy his character from Tropic Thunder was supposed to have made. Sure, Black mugs it up in most of his roles, mixing a laid-on-thick cool-guy unearned confidence with a kind of lovable goofus. This is probably the least genuine and the most cynical that shtick has ever been.
In perhaps a handful of moments, Gulliver’s Travels has some fun with its gimmick — the tiny but industrious Lilliputians, eager to please Gulliver, outfit him with a swank pad full of all sorts of goodies, including a Foosball table featuring real people and a live version of Guitar Hero. Chuckle, chuckle. But that kind of texture to this world is used sparingly, far too sparingly to add excitement to the adventure or enjoyment to the comedy. Instead, most of the time we’re left to focus on technical problems, like some very clunky CGI to create the big Jack/little people effect and completely unnecessary 3-D.
Let me be wildly generous and say that the opening third of the movie was pure cinematic genius and by missing it I missed the greatest comedic performance since Charlie Chaplin. An “A.” The part of the movie I saw was something like a “D” — a barely getting by, I’ll-show-up-but-you-can’t-make-me-act, phoning-it-in, finished-on-the-bus-ride-in effort. So that averages out to, like, a C — a movie not really worth leaving your warm home to go into the cold world to see and not worth seeing at all if you aren’t trying to entertain a great grandma and an eight-year-old with the same activity.
Rated PG for brief rude humor, mild language and action. Directed by Rob Letterman and written by Joe Stillman and Nicholas Stoller (from the book by Jonathan Swift), Gulliver’s Travels is an hour and 25 minutes long and opens in wide release on Saturday, Dec. 25. It is distributed by 20th Century Fox.