Gulliver's Travels Review
Gulliver's Travels fared extremely well at UK cinemas over the Christmas and New Year period, raking in over £12m in three weeks – enough to overtake its main competition in the family movie marketplace, the third in the Chronicles of Narnia series. Proof, if proof were needed, that quality has no bearing whatsoever on a film's financial success, as Jack Black's version of Jonathan Swift's enduring satire is a hopelessly botched slacker comedy that struggles to raise even a smile. The dearth of family-friendly comedies is the only conceivable reason for its success; even the Americans smelt a stinker and gave it a wide berth at the box office, resulting in dismal returns there – despite the additional premium on 3D ticket prices.
Jack Black plays Lemuel Gulliver, except of course he doesn't – Jack Black plays Jack Black, and his performance is the slippery rock to which the film desperately clings. The story begins and ends in New York City where Gulliver works in a travel magazine's mailroom, sorting and delivering the post - the smallest man in a big town. Stuck in this dead-end job and secretly in love with Darcy (Amanda Peet), the magazine’s editor, Lemuel lacks the confidence to do anything about either issue, preferring instead to bury his head in the sand and carry on playing Guitar Hero. Spurred on by his assistant being promoted above him on his first day, and desperate to be noticed by Darcy, Gulliver forges an article of his own and is rewarded with a writing assignment about a tour company's new Bermuda Triangle package. Naturally the Triangle does its work and he finds himself shipwrecked on the island of Lilliput; and the small man from Manhattan suddenly finds himself as the biggest man in town.
It's a rare privilege to see a comedy that misfires quite so badly throughout its sub-90 minute running time. Black can be very funny, but in this world of special effects where the citizens of Lilliput are added in post-production, depriving him of other actors to bounce off, you can almost sense his boredom. Bereft of any genuinely funny lines in a dull and unimaginative script, his Lemuel is unlikeable and lifeless. It's easy to imagine the film being pitched to the studio: “We put Jack Black in to a world of small people where he gets to be king!” Presumably the assumption was that this ingenious scenario would magic laughs out of thin air. Sadly it didn't happen. Director Rob Letterman resorts to scoring a few easy points, like having the Lilliputians re-enact famous movies as scenes from Gulliver's imagined life in the real world – even the Titanic spoof falls flat, which takes some doing.
The film fails not only as a comedy, but also as basic family entertainment. Not once does the world of Lilliput convince or inspire wonder, as everyone looks as though they are acting opposite a tennis ball on a stick. The mildly diverting climax sees Gulliver taking on a robot bigger even than him, which might be just about enough to re-engage the kids but to everyone else will seem desperate and stupid. The performances from a largely British supporting cast (Emily Blunt, Billy Connolly, James Corden, Catherine Tate) are merely serviceable at best. Connolly and Tate suffer the most – being urinated on by a giant-sized Jack Black must surely count as a career low-point for both. Only Chris O'Dowd salvages any honour, taking the character of General Edward, vying with Jason Segel's commoner for the affections of Blunt's princess, to never-before-seen levels of comic pomposity.
Running before the main feature is a short cartoon starring Scrat, the squirrel-like star of the Ice Age movies. It won't be keeping Pixar staff awake at nights with worry, but at least it does its job and leaves with its dignity intact, which is more than can be said of the dud accompanying it.