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Roger Moore, McClatchy Newspapers, Published December 24 2010

Jack and the giant mess

MOVIE REVIEW

“Gulliver’s Travels”

It begins with a very short cartoon starring that pre-historic “Ice Age” squirrel and ends with a big song-and-dance number. But no, “Gulliver’s Travels” isn’t all filler. Even though it sometimes seems that way.

This Jack Black vehicle plays to a few of Black’s strengths – his physicality, his musicality, his eyebrows. But even at 83 minutes (plus a three-minute cartoon), it’s a drag, another 3-D movie for kids in which the 3-D adds nothing, merely subtracting from parents’ wallets. What’s most surprising about this version of a big man among Lilliputians is how little film technology has improved, over the 115 years of cinema, in the art of putting that life-sized person in that teeny, tiny world.

Black plays Lemuel Gulliver, a lonely “Star Wars”-obsessed loser, stuck 10 years in the mail room at a publishing house. When he finally gets up the nerve to ask out travel editor Darcy (Amanda Peet), he backs himself into an assignment. Yeah, he’s a writer. Yeah, he’s traveled.

“I had no idea you wrote. Or traveled!”

A little Internet cut-and-paste plagiarism gives him credibility, and she’s convinced he’s the right guy to send on a “Bermuda Triangle” travel story. And that’s when his rented trawler, the “Knotferseil,” is sucked into a whirlpool and dropped, with Gulliver, in a land of English-accented Lilliputians, ruled by Billy Connolly, with Emily Blunt as a prissy princess and Chris O’Dowd as an arrogant Gen. Edward Edwardian, suitor to the princess.

Alas, poor Horatio (Jason Segel) is but a commoner, lacking the pedigree or “act of valor” to make him worthy to pursue that same princess.

Gulliver copes with Lilliput the way he coped with his real life – with exaggeration. On his island, Manhattan, he was president – “President Awesome.” And after he bails Lilliput out of a conflict with rival state Blefescu, all things Gulliver become cool in Lilliput. Army platoons do close-order drill on his back as a massage. He’s able to throw a “Lillipalooza” where Lilliputian versions of his favorite bands hit the stage. And his life story, a mash-up of “Star Wars” origin myth and “Titanic” (which this “King of the World” survived), becomes Lilliput’s new West End hit.

The lies and intellectual property theft pile up, but Gulliver is on a roll, helping Horatio woo the princess (Blunt is properly dotty, Segel quite dull) by stealing the balcony scene from “Romeo and Juliet,” with Gulliver as offstage Cyrano, feeding Horatio lines.

“You don’t have to be rich to be my girl, you don’t have to be cool to rule my world ...”

But sooner or later, the lies will be revealed and Gulliver will have his Lilliput-up-or-shut-up moment.

Jonathan Swift’s classic satire long ago lost the satiric sting it packed in the 18th century. Like “Alice in Wonderland,” it’s now just a simple children’s “fish out of water” fantasy, with Black/Gulliver riffing on our pop culture in this alien world.

The moral of the story is now “I’m a big shot for the first time in my life.”

Rob Letterman’s film manages a few cute moments and an interesting non-starter – Gulliver’s visit to “the island where we dare not go” (think gigantic little girl, Gulliver in her dollhouse). The villains are weak, and the narrative has little drive to it.

And when your big laugh is how a big guy with fully functioning kidneys might put out a little bitty fire, well ... .