“We’re the little people,” Jack Black says to a fellow mail room employee in Rob Letterman’s version of “Gulliver’s Travels,” which opens wide across the Metroplex tomorrow. Black is called Lemuel Gulliver in the film, a nod to the narrator of Jonathan Swift’s savage satire, first published in 1726. Little else about the new version could be considered a tribute, however.
Oh, Gulliver ends up shipwrecked on the island of Lilliput, all right, where he is reckoned a giant among the six-inch high (give or take an inch) inhabitants and honored for his size and strength. Yet the new film lacks any desire to explore the satirical possibilities of its source material or update the story in any meaningful way. Instead, it seems that the filmmakers counted on the combination of live action and computer-generated imagery to dazzle the audience into overlooking the crushing lack of amusing dialogue or interesting characters.
To be fair, it’s not entirely bereft of charm and invention. But it’s a close call.
In Black’s interpretation of the role, as written for the screen by Joe Stillman and Nicholas Stoller, Gulliver is a prototypical “nice guy,” unwilling or unable to promote himself. As a result, he’s been toiling in the mail room of a Manhattan-based magazine for 10 years, the last five of which he’s spent yearning for travel editor Darcy Silverman (Amanda Peet).
When a go-getter joins the mail room, Gulliver endeavors to tamp down his expectations, but the new guy has Gulliver’s number, calling him out for his inability to ask the apparently ready-and-willing Darcy to go out with him. It’s not discernible exactly why Darcy would be open to his advances — she’s polite and pleasant to him, but he doesn’t seem to have any positive qualities except for his “niceness.” In any event, the new guy immediately gets Gulliver’s job. Spurred by this “outing,” Gulliver tries once again to ask Darcy out, only to find himself applying instead for work as a travel writer.
Unable to provide Darcy with the writing sample she requests by the next day, Gulliver plagiarizes other travel publications and passes the work off as his own. Surprised that Gulliver can actually “write,” Darcy offers him a low-priority assignment that no one else wants. Gulliver takes the job, ends up in the Bermuda Triangle, and is shipwrecked on the afore-mentioned island of Lilliput.
This modern Gulliver lacks ambition, drive and determination, as well as a core moral principle: honesty. By living an unexamined life, he’s not being honest with himself; by lying to Darcy, he’s not being honest to others.
On Lilliput, he awakens in captivity and is eventually led by General Edward (Chris O’Dowd) before King Theodore (Billy O’Connelly) and Queen Isabelle (Catherine Tate). He wins favor with the court by dropping his shorts and urinating on a fire, which saves the life of the King, who overlooks the whole “drenched in urine” thing to proclaim him the country’s savior.
Thus ennobled, Gulliver becomes the toast of the town and begins passing off legendary stories such as “Star Wars” and “Titanic” as incidents from his own fabulous life. General Edward is not amused, especially when Gulliver helps new little buddy Horatio (Jason Segel) romance Princess Mary (Emily Blunt).
In other words, Gulliver still lacks ambition, drive or determination — he adores the idea that the Lilliputians are willing to do absolutely everything for him and build giant structures to accommodate his needs and whims — and is still unable to tell the truth. Clearly, he must learn these things; this is a movie aimed at children, after all.
Unfortunately, the movie itself lacks ambition, drive or determination. It proceeds from scene to scene, in no particular hurry to get where it’s going. If the individual episodes were witty, or if fewer than 9 out of 10 gags fell flat, maybe some enjoyment could have been wrung out of the experience.
It’s not that the actors aren’t trying. You can see that in the way that Connelly, Blunt, and Tate desperately try to give their lines comedic zing, as if sheer enthusiasm would make up for jokes and character bits that aren’t funny. Jack Black simply doesn’t have the range to make his character empathetic or believable.
Sadly, the only inventive moments of the film come via the merging of live action and CGI. It does look cool and more believable than ever to see a giant man towering over little people. Even with that, however, it’s difficult to tell at times if the tiny little sets are real (and seen from a distance) or simply CGI creation. The air of artificiality should make us believe in a magical fantasy; instead, it all seems fake.
As it is, neither the journey nor the destination of “Gulliver’s Travels” are worth the time.
“Gulliver’s Travels” opens wide across the Metroplex tomorrow.