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Related Review:Gulliver's Travels (1939)
Contrary to popular opinion, what went wrong with the most recent reimagining of humorous satirist Jonathan Swift’s fantastical eighteenth century tome Gulliver’s Travels had nothing to do with the decision to cast Jack School of Rock Black in the role of the male lead and everything to do with the adaptation itself.
When you take into consideration the overwhelming scope of Swift’s four-part classic, it’s understandable that Gulliver screenwriters Joe Stillman (Shrek) and Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) drew from the most famous chapters of Gulliver’s for the basic structure.
Yet instead of relying on the epic source material to create an engagingly adventurous combo of live action and CGI a la Pirates of the Caribbean or The Mask of Zorro, by merely using the novel as a jumping off point, Stillman and Stoller created the blueprint for a film that’s epic for all the wrong reasons.
Having been cleverly disguised as a work of whimsy – similar to our own Wizard of Oz – over the past few centuries, Gulliver’s origins as a sharply written political allegory that satirized the British government and aristocracy have been largely forgotten thanks to its surprising popularity as a family library classic and college curriculum staple.
Nonetheless, despite the scholarly reputation of Gulliver’s Travels, Swift never shied away from scatological humor in the slightest -- opportunistically and rather brilliantly -- using the book’s cringe-worthy moments to take some of his political, ethical or moral metaphors even further.
And amusingly, whether it’s because it’d been awhile since the film critics had read the book or if they were just going from instinct, one key scene that had actually made its way from Swift’s text into the eighty-three minute film has been mistakenly cited as a crass Jack Black movie update in more than a handful of reviews.
Yet while admittedly I’ve never been a fan of bodily function gags, Swift’s knack for taking full advantage of every weapon in his arsenal – from pitch-perfect dialogue and overt symbolism – to get his point across to readers of all backgrounds is an enviable technique from which contemporary lewd, crude and rude comedy writers could learn.
And indeed, since Jack Black is typecast for the role he plays best as an “overgrown slacker man child” and as such, he’s no stranger to this mode of humor, had this adaptation stayed truer to Swift, Gulliver’s Travels might’ve served as a great transitional role for the actor to return to his roots as a character actor (Bob Roberts etc.).
Phoning in a performance is one thing and Black is definitely guilty of that charge but the characterization of the protagonist is so uninspired it’s as if the writers just put all of the characters Black played in his highest grossing movies in a blender – with several helpings of School of Rock – and then named him Lemuel Gulliver.
Happy to be seen, not heard and actually not even seen that much as newspaper mailroom employee Gulliver tells his new trainee who gets promoted above him in a single day, in a role that’s dumbed-down to embarrassing levels of idiocy that just makes you feel bad for Black, Gulliver is passive at best and dishonest at worst.
Pushed into action only if dared, after Gulliver fails to muster up the courage to ask out travel section editor Amanda Peet, the lazily ambitious man lies and plagiarizes his way into getting an assignment as a writer… accidentally and anti-heroically embarking on a hero’s journey.
After getting lost in the Bermuda Triangle, Gulliver winds up befriending the incredibly tiny townspeople who had mistakenly imprisoned him on the island of Lilliput, even going so far as to play cupid for commoner Jason Segel and princess Emily Blunt.
Overblown with special effects to the nth degree including the desperate measure of pushing the release date for the first (of four) times in order to convert the two-dimensionally filmed work to a 3D release, while the talented supporting players are mostly lost in the CGI, Chris O’Dowd and Segel manage to generate some laughter.
Unfortunately, Gulliver’s Travels plays like a silly live action cartoon all around, which makes sense because it marks Shark Tale and Monsters vs. Aliens director Rob Letterman’s first (woefully misguided) foray into live action filmmaking. As such, it’s easily upstaged by the Ice Age related tie-in short that precedes the feature film.
Although Letterman’s work is at least easier to bear on a mindlessly entertaining level than the visually impressive yet ultimately dull feature-length animated version in 1939, in the end NBC’s made-for-television miniseries still reigns supreme as the best adaptation of Swift’s opus.
And undoubtedly, one of the reasons it plays a bit better on the small screen is because the spectacle of 3D is gone. Of course, having no overwhelming distractions makes the structural shortcomings of the movie that much more apparent.
But luckily, its target audience of tots will be more than amused with Fox's 3-disc combo "Fun Pack" release that ties in with the upcoming summer travel season. The set boasts dazzling Blu-ray technical specs along with a plethora of interactive extra features and bonus versions of the movie in DVD format and portable device-ready digital copy.
However, for older viewers and/or those taller than a Lilliputian hoping for something worthy of Swift’s book, it’s a disappointing work that could’ve been so much better as a straightforward Gulliver endeavor rather than a commercially driven holiday movie kid-friendly package… with or without Jack Black.
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FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.