The dozen or so screen adaptations of “Gulliver’s Travels,” drawn from Jonathan Swift’s dense, dark and misanthropic 18th century satire on human nature, have mainly cast the story as a lively children’s narrative.
Rarely have filmmakers attempted to plumb the more complex literary, political or historical depths of the classic novel. And that trend goes unbroken with the new, modern “Gulliver’s Travels” that features an oafish Jack Black as Lemuel Gulliver and casts the story as a lowbrow, slapstick slacker comedy.
Jack Black among the Lilliputians must have sounded like a hilarious concept to filmmakers determined to trade on Black’s familiar brand of bigfoot comedy. Lumbering, preening, mugging and breaking out into flights of rock ’n’ roll fancy, Black delivers a painfully chaotic performance that’s essentially a catalog of all his familiar antics, gimmicks and bad-boy shtick.
His Gulliver is a mailroom slacker at a slick New York newspaper – a tiny cog in a giant operation. Having harbored a longtime crush on pretty travel editor Darcy Silverman (Amanda Peet), Gulliver cons and bumbles his way into a trial writing assignment – traveling to the Caribbean to check out the myth of the Bermuda Triangle.
After a quick and silly setup, Gulliver is whisked away on stormy waves to the miniature land of Lilliput, where he’s first shackled and deemed “the beast” by the quaint kingdom’s tiny people. Then, a few butt-crack jokes and bodily fluid gags later, this slovenly giant in T-shirt, baggy shorts and Converse tennies is hailed as a giant savior and protector of the storybook realm against the archenemy Blefuscudians.
Director Rob Letterman (whose previous credits include animated features “Monsters vs. Aliens” and “Shark Tale”) and a pair of gag-writing scripters invest Swift’s scathing narrative with a slew of contemporary pop-culture jokes (blushes on “Star Wars” and “Titanic” and glancing references to KISS and Times Square gaudiness).
Mainly, the story is confined to Gulliver’s adventures among the Lilliputians (with a brief, amusing foray into Brobdingnag, where Black encounters giants and dons a frilly doll’s dress and … oh, don’t ask). As events swiftly get sillier and sillier and further afield from the original story, special effects come into play with the arrival of a huge, butched-up, Transformer-style robot to challenge Gulliver’s blowhard heroism.
While Black (eminently likable and capable of much better) works his usual routine as bombastic bumbler with a supposedly touching undercurrent of sincerity and vulnerability, he’s surrounded by a top-notch cast toiling in his shadow. Peet is perky but largely wasted; Billy Connolly as King Theodore and Jason Segel as tiny sidekick Horatio are pale company, and Emily Blunt as frosty Princess Mary is a dreary damsel in distress.
Only Irish comic actor Chris O’Dowd (hilarious in the BBC’s “The IT Crowd”) holds his own against Black. He plays the pompous, pint-sized General Edward, a strutting martinet in weirdly sculpted facial foliage, and delivers a few cutting lines that are faintly fitting of Swift.
But, beyond that, “Gulliver’s Travels” is sorely short on satire and its laughs are definitely Lilliputian. It’s a movie that should quickly disappear into every multiplex’s Bermuda Triangle.
- Dennis King
1 1/2 stars
Starring: Jack Black, Emily Blunt, Jason Segel, Amanda Peet, Billy Connolly
(Brief rude humor, mild language and action)