London: The really annoying thing about Jack Black’s ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ is not so much that it`s a bad movie — it is bad, but only run-of-the-mill bad, not epic-misfire bad — but that the movie sullies a piece of literature that has endured for nearly 300 years for the sake of a cheap kiddie flick that`ll be forgotten in a month.
With Black`s giant footprints all over it, Jonathan Swift`s tale of Gulliver’s voyages is pretty much out of bounds for any filmmakers who actually might have wanted to make a good, faithful adaptation (you never know, it could have happened).
You can hear some studio executive listening to the pitch a decade or so from now: "Gulliver? Didn`t somebody make that piece of shipboard adventure 10 or 15 years ago?"
Hollywood runs in cycles, and Black`s movie takes Gulliver off the table for a good long time.
The live-action filmmaking debut for Rob Letterman, a co-director on the animated movies ‘Shark Tale’ and ‘Monsters vs. Aliens,’ ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ is set in modern times and borrows only a few key elements from Swift`s work.
Black`s Lemuel Gulliver is a mailroom sluggard at the New York Tribune who bluffs his way into a travel-writing assignment in the Bermuda Triangle to impress Darcy (Amanda Peet), an editor on whom he has a huge crush.
Gulliver sails into some sort of vortex that transports him to an alternate world, where he washes up on Lilliput, an island of tiny people 3 inches high.
Initially imprisoned as a beast, Gulliver gabs his way into the hearts of the Lilliputians with tall tales of his exploits borrowed from ‘Star Wars,’ ‘Titanic’ and ‘Avatar’ (all movies in which ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ studio 20th Century Fox has a stake, in case anyone`s counting).
Gulliver winds up as guardian of Lilliput against the enemy Blefuscians and befriends commoner Horatio (Jason Segel), who has his own crush on Lilliput`s Princess Mary (Emily Blunt), daughter of the goodhearted king and queen (Billy Connolly and Catherine Tate).
But evil General Edward (Chris O`Dowd), displaced as his realm`s protector, plots to expose Gulliver and banish him from the land.
‘Gulliver`s Travels’ has been adapted a few times before, most notably in Max Fleischer`s 1939 animated version. Richard Harris played Gulliver in a 1977 adaptation, while Ted Danson starred in a 1996 TV version.
In Black`s version, Swift`s biting satire is softened to innocuous family fare, with enough cute little gags and mugging by Black that young children should stay interested, if not enthralled, for the movie`s brisk running time.
There`s not much there for older kids and adults, the simple-minded story from screenwriters Joe Stillman (‘Shrek’) and Nicholas Stoller (Segel`s director on ‘Forgetting Sarah Marshall’) giving Black little to do but bumble and bray.
The story is so slight — Lilliputian, really — that the clever visual effects continually dominate ‘Gulliver`s Travels.’ Black tugging an armada of Blefuscian ships or simply strolling among the sand-castle-sized buildings of Lilliput are far more interesting to watch than any of the exchanges he and the little people have among themselves.
The movie was needlessly converted to 3-D. The images are not blurry and distracting as some 3-D conversions have been, but neither are they terribly impressive, adding nothing but a few extra dollars to the price of a ticket.
‘Gulliver`s Travels’ is preceded by an animated short featuring Scrat, the squawking little guy from the ‘Ice Age’ movies, whose next feature-length instalment is due out in 2012.
Scrat`s been chasing his beloved acorn for so long, and the new short pounds him into such a pulp, that it`s all starting to seem a little sadistic.
As for ‘Gulliver`s Travels,’ maybe by the book`s 300th anniversary in 2026, it`ll be time for a new big-screen version. And maybe a new quality-over-commerce attitude will have taken hold in Hollywood then, so we`ll get a smart, classy take on Gulliver.
Ratings: Two cheers for this one.