If you’ve seen one Jack Black movie, you’ve seen them all. The man rants, raves and plays up his fatness – and “Gulliver’s Travels” is no exception.
An adaptation of Jonathan Swift’s 18th century novel about a shipwrecked man who comes across numerous extraordinary lands, this version starring Black shares very little with the original – it’s all been updated and set in New York City, with a different occupation, personality and motivation for Gulliver. He doesn’t visit as many places, he doesn’t interact with as many people and his relationship with those he does meet is certainly different – not only has “Gulliver’s Travels” been watered down, it’s been water-clogged with unnecessary 3-D, sloppy writing and an overwhelming smugness. Black’s here for a paycheck, and we’re supposed to giggle at his unkempt outside and gushy inside while paying way too much for shoddy effects.
Say nay, people. Say nay immediately.
The film begins with Lemuel Gulliver (Black), a worker in the New York Tribune’s mail room who goes only by his last name and has had the same lowly position seemingly forever. He’s perfectly content acting out scenes from “Star Wars” with action figures in a super-cramped apartment and playing “Guitar Hero” at work, but when new guy Dan (T.J. Miller) gets promoted after only two days on the job and becomes Gulliver’s boss, Gulliver realizes he has to change. After getting torn down by Dan – who gives him a solid chewing-out about how pathetic his life is – Gulliver decides to finally ask out Tribune travel editor Darcy (Amanda Peet), whom he’s crushed on for five years.
But Gulliver can’t work up the nerve. Instead, he digs an even bigger hole for himself by volunteering to do an assignment for her, plagiarizing a bunch of different publications to make some writing samples and venturing out to the Bermuda Triangle for a story. Completely unprepared – he doesn’t even know how to work the boat – Gulliver gets caught in a storm and through some magical column of water (no details given; it’s just a crazy Bermuda Triangle thing) is transported to Lilliput, an island full of supremely little people. Each measuring about six inches, the citizens of Lilliput are first horrified by Gulliver, nicknaming him the Beast and locking him up in a dungeon. Get this, though: They totally befriend him after he saves their king! You know, by peeing on the guy.
Yes, we’re supposed to believe that the Lilliputians would totally be OK with a huge guy urinating all over them. With that, Gulliver becomes their hero – King Benjamin (Billy Connolly) invites him to a ball, Princess Mary (Emily Blunt) reveres his tales of heroism and his friend Horatio (Jason Segel) from the dungeons is also let free, accompanying him in the good life by playing “Guitar Hero,” or pretending to control the actions of Lilliputians dressed up like members of Kiss.
In fact, Gulliver spends most of his days doing nothing, much to the ire of General Edward (Chris O’Dowd), leader of Lilliput’s military. He originally found Gulliver washed ashore and refuses to believe that he was the president of his land, the focus of “The Empire Strikes Back” or a valiant warrior – all lies Gulliver tells Lilliputians to get them to like him. And when Edward finds a way to prove Gulliver’s dishonesty and cast doubt over the reputation he’s built for himself, he takes it, leading to danger both for Gulliver and the kingdom as a whole.
Grievous differences from Swift’s original novel aside, there’s just no magic here. The film establishes that Gulliver is a total loser in real life, so his attempts to become cool to the Lilliputians by fabricating stories make sense – but isn’t it giving the little people too little credit by making them believe all of Gulliver’s outlandish tales, like coming back to life after dying during the sinking of the Titanic? Sure, the Lilliputians are great builders, but could they really create a humongous home for Gulliver, complete with a working coffee machine and picturesque balcony, after only a few days? And lastly, who would truly forgive someone, and then adore them, after being urinated upon? Even with suspension of disbelief, “Gulliver’s Travels” is a stretch.
Also completely unbelievable is Gulliver’s relationship with Darcy, which goes from her not really noticing him, to hating him for lying to her about his writing experience, to suddenly being enamored with him after only a few hours together on Lilliput. Sure, tons of movies have happy romantic endings, but the vast deviations in Darcy’s personality make her inclusion little more than a marker for Gulliver’s confidence – not a character, but just another checkmark on the to-do list when it comes to making Gulliver feel better about himself.
Blunt and Segel are totally wasted here (Segel’s shaky accent is especially frustrating), as is the 3-D – who really wants to pay extra to see a shirtless Black deflect cannonballs with his flab? Blech.
That’s about all the violence there is – Gulliver also has two silly fights with Edward, which include a few wedgies, and encounters a skeleton, whose head rolls around. He curses a bit with words like “ass,” and there’s some mild sexual content, like Edward complimenting Princess Mary’s breasts and Gulliver encouraging Horatio to call her sexy. Lastly, and most sadly, there’s also a scene of Black’s half-naked behind, in which a Lilliputian unfortunately disappears. For kids, Black’s physical comedy may be funny, but the really hilarious moments – like Black in a frilly lace dress, forced to play tea time with a giant – come after more than an hour, far too long to wait.
By the time Black gets around to singing near the film’s conclusion, you’ll welcome the amusement. His rendition of “War,” the song made famous by Edwin Starr and later covered by Bruce Springsteen, is an enjoyable distraction, especially since Lilliput’s soldiers all join in with choreographed dance steps. But if you just wanted to watch Black sing, pop “High Fidelity” into the DVD player. It’s not as kid-friendly, but it’s certainly better for your intelligence.