REVIEW: Gulliver's Travels Is Silly, Sweet and Not Too Oversized
Lilliputian light and unconcerned about it, Gulliver's Travels clears enough antic elbow room for its liberal adaptation of Jonathan Swift's classic novel to do its thing without too much offense and then pretty much disappears. Directed by Rob Letterman (Shark Tale and Monsters vs. Aliens), the film turns Swift's hero into the male comedic mainstay of the day -- a schlubby, pop culture-obsessed man-child with no prospects and tics and references where a personality should be. Which is to say: Jack Black. The joke is obvious, and Black has used his maniacal, delusional grin to make it for years: I think I'm way bigger than I am. And yet Gulliver's journey yields a little more than the basic, bland yuk of a mail-room jockey who can barely look his comely co-worker (Amanda Peet) in the eye becoming a terrifying and potent giant in cargo shorts and Chucks.
An employee at the "New York Tribune," Gulliver intends to ask Peet's friendly travel editor out after a dejecting day at the office, but winds up with an assignment instead. After impressing her with a plagiarized writing sample, Gulliver is sent on a solo boat trip into the Bermuda Triangle, presumably to fill some column inches in the Sunday edition. A liquid hurricane seems to spell his doom, but instead Gulliver wakes up in Lilliput, where he's being restrained by a small -- very small -- army of locals. The Lilliputians are proud and industrious; they eventually contain Gulliver and make him their slave. A monarchy with a king (Billy Connolly), a princess (Emily Blunt in Bananarama eyeliner), her sketchy suitor (Chris O'Dowd), and a more worthy suitor with the misfortune of being a commoner (Jason Segel), Lilliput seems to thrive on its rivalry with a neighboring kingdom, which gives Gulliver a chance to redeem himself: One stomp of his foot and a war is pretty much won.
The Lilliputians find Gulliver inherently fascinating, but in trying to tell them the story of his life, he conflates the stories of things like Star Wars and Titanic with fabrications about his one true love at home. Given power and means, his imagination proves pretty lame: He uses Lilliputians to reenact favorite movie scenes and video games, and to construct a human foosball table; he feeds Segel's humble commoner Prince lyrics to woo the princess, then tells him to lay some game on her to mess with her head. What's more, he tells everyone these stories and inventions are his creations, which on some level we pop-culture vultures believe them to be, such is their penetration into our psyches and self-conception.
Attending the comic (and limply satiric) value in building a Times Square filled with Gulliver's face grafted to iconic images is the sadness of his essential emptiness. Eventually all is revealed -- in a truly absurd clash with a Transformer built from a design found in one of Gulliver's gaming magazines -- and Gulliver is shamed. He must look to his own resources for the right thing to do, as well as get in touch with his inner vanquisher. It's all sweet and very, very silly. I was surprised by the subtleties -- both comedic and thematic -- Letterman slips into this goof of a family film: It may all be relative, as Gulliver learns, but a smile is a smile, just the same.