For a novel written nearly 300 years ago by a dour Irish cleric with a mad-on about the material world and a satiric mindset dark enough to flirt with misanthropy, it's amazing how well Gulliver's Travels travels. Even Jack Black can't ruin the thing, although not for lack of trying.
And even with all those sharp satiric teeth completely pulled, reducing it to gummy sentimentality, the tale still has the power to enchant. This is a movie that, despite its best efforts to fail, doesn't - somehow, traces of the original magic endure.
Speaking of those best efforts, how misguided is the adaptation? Well, Jonathan Swift probably didn't know he was writing a rom-com. Here, a rotund Gulliver begins as an aging mailroom boy in the bowels of The New York Times, where, as embodied by Black, he regularly ascends to play air guitar, annoy people with his pop-eyed goofiness, and demonstrate a crush on Darcy the pretty travel editor (Amanda Peet). So starts the rom. Com to follow.
In the interim, a colleague hits the chubby one with this heaping teaspoon of scorn: "You're all talk. You'll never be any bigger than this." Oh, but don't we know better. Kiddies, you have just had your first lesson in dramatic foreshadowing.
Anyway, for reasons known best to her, the editor packs Gulliver off on assignment to the Bermuda Triangle, whereupon he tumbles through the inevitable portal and into the most famous part of the book: Part I, in the land of Lilliput. There, the telescope spins, and that lovely shift in perspective - where small is big and big is small, where the once lowly are now mighty, and majestic kings mere flies to swat - proves its staying power.
Although director Rob Letterman takes meagre advantage of the visual opportunities, and although his 3-D camera just looks like a retro-fitted irrelevance, no matter. Our perspective's disorienting spin is as engrossing as ever - especially, I suspect, to innocent young eyes.
Fun too are the Lilliputians who, as luck would have it, speak in British accents, which allows Chris O'Dowd to steal every scene he's in. O'Dowd plays a pompous little general, Edward Edwardian, but since the satire is removed, we're pretty much free to love the tiny twit, no more so than when, dawdling in a drawing room, he suddenly remembers his duty with this delicious call to arms: "Must go. Those villages shan't pillage themselves."
Meanwhile, elsewhere in Lilliput, romance blooms on a second front when Horatio the nervous commoner falls for Mary the bored princess, an amorous addition that affords two more actors - Jason Segel and Emily Blunt - the chance to totally outshine the nominal star. The conclusion is obvious: If only Gulliver would get out of his Travels, we might have had a fine movie.
Actually, I exaggerate slightly. There is one moment when Black's physical comedy meshes perfectly with Swift's metaphysical bleakness. The author, diligent readers might recall, had a fixation with bodily functions. So when enemies invade and set fire to the Lilliputian palace, who better than our omnipotent Goliath to extinguish the blaze; and what better way than to unzip, aim purposefully, and quench the flames with a yellow torrent. It's gross but funny and (so to speak) pointed too. Only then do the two Blacks, Jack's mannerisms and Jonathan's mind, find common ground.
But the chubby one is soon back to being a giant annoyance. That isn't to say that Swift, resurrected and whisked off to Hollywood (now there's an image), wouldn't have cast him. But not in Part I. He'd save him for the chapter that so few read because the satire cuts too close to the bone: Part IV, where the excrement really hits the fan. Yep, Jack Black would make a magnificent Yahoo.
- Directed by Rob Letterman
- Written by Joe Stillman and Nicholas Stoller
- Starring Jack Black, Emily Blunt and Chris O'Dowd
- Classification: PG