Jonathan Swift’s novel Gulliver’s Travels, a parody of the popular travel literature at the time, has been endlessly adapted since it was first published back in 1726. A satire on British society and human nature in general, Gulliver’s travels took him to lands of giants, pirates…and even Japan. However, it is his voyage to Lilliput, a place full of folk so small that Gulliver is treated as a giant, that struck a chord in the hearts and minds of people all over the world. From Georges Méliès 1902 Le Voyage de Gulliver à Lilliput et chez les géants, through Disney’s 1934 Gulliver Mickey and a 1996 live action television mini-series with Ted Danson, Gulliver has well and truly travelled cinematically.
Lemuel Gulliver (Jack Black, Year One) is a low-level mail worker at a New York newspaper, too slack and insecure to speak with his travel journalist crush Darcy (Amanda Peet, Please Give). When new mail room employee Dan (T.J. Miller, Unstoppable) begins and immediately takes over Gulliver’s job, he is motivated to go and speak with Darcy. An improbable series of events takes place when he inadvertently volunteers for a travel assignment, faking his credentials to impress Darcy. He is soon on a boat to the Bermuda Triangle. Running into a storm, Gulliver is washed ashore in Lilliput, the land of the very little people. At first treated as a monster, Gulliver is hailed as a hero when he puts out a royal fire with some quick thinking and his own urine (no, really). Befriended by Horatio (Jason Segal, TV’s How I Met Your Mother), a commoner who is in love with Princess Mary (Emily Blunt, Wild Target), Gulliver soon slides into the slacker he was back home, much to delight of rival General Edward (Chris O’Dowd, The IT Crowd) who sees Gulliver as a rival to his authority.
Gulliver’s Travels aims for the basest level comedy. If Black evacuating his bladder on the royals wasn’t enough evidence, the prosecution would like to present Exhibit B: Butt-Crack Man. Yes, there is someone listed in the credits as Butt-Crack Man (played by recognisable character actor Joe Lo Truglio, Reno 911 and the forthcoming Paul). His entire function, you guessed it, is to disappear up Jack Black’s crack. Content to be a pastiche of physical gags from other films – through the motif of Jack’s storytelling, references to Fox’s The Empire Strikes Back, Avatar, Titanic and countless other Fox films – Gulliver’s Travels never aims for anything but the lowest common denominator. Then again, if you had the rights to some of the highest grossing films of all time, then you’d probably brag about it too. That said, they do remind us of films that we’d rather be watching at that time.
The acting, for want of a better word, is bizarre. Populated with a collection of British actors, including Billy Connolly (The X-Files: I Want to Believe), James Corden (Gavin & Stacey) and Catherine Tate (Doctor Who), it is almost as if director Rob Letterman asked them to channel their inner puppet. Every line is read with a level of awkwardness not found since Orson Welles was asked to sell frozen peas, and Letterman (having previously helmed the animated Shark’s Tale and Monsters Vs Aliens) is clearly out of his depth with live actors. Remember how uncomfortable that scene in Alice in Wonderland was, where Johnny Depp danced (or more accurately ‘funderwhacked’)? Imagine that for an entire film, and you get an idea of what the performances in this film are like. Perhaps the presence of so many Brits convinced Letterman this was a pantomime, as one half expects Emily Blunt to turn to camera and proclaim “Oh no you didn’t!”. It isn’t entirely clear what Billy Connolly is doing either, but it definitely isn’t acting. Maybe this is why ING dumped him in favour of a camp orange orangutan for their savings commercials? Even the natural comic timing of Jason Segel is lost in an attempt to be an English moppet, leaving a massive gap for anybody over the age of 5 in the audience. Black, of course, continues to play that role he’s done since High Fidelity, complete with air guitar and obligatory musical number. We’re on to you, Jackie boy!
It’s worth mentioning that there is also a short film that screens with Gulliver’s Travels called Scrat’s Continental Crack-up, a spin-off from the animated Ice Age film series. This is actually quite an amusing short from a seemingly ubiquitous avatar for Fox. You may think you know the history of continental drift, but forget all that. In Scrat’s pursuit of his most sought after possession, he manges to singled-handedly alter the course of Earth’s history. Over the course of three minutes, it manages to cram in more successful physical gags than the entire 85 minutes of the feature film it accompanies.
The Reel Bits: Despite transplanting Swift’s tale to the modern age, Gulliver’s Travels is no is no giant amongst comedies. The less-discerning kids might like it though.
Gulliver’s Travels was released on 26 December 2010 in Australia from Twentieth Century Fox.