With Jack Black, Amanda Peet, Emily Blunt, Jason Segal, Billy Connolly. Directed by Rob Letterman. Rated PG for brief rude humor, mild language and action. 93 minutes.
With the exception of “The School of Rock,” one is hard-pressed to come up with a movie starring Jack Black that is not a punitive sentence to watch. Go ahead and count “Kung Fu Panda” if you must, but that was a cartoon and he was part of the voice cast, which is quite different. In spite of the cartoonish script and the flat performances, GULLIVER’S TRAVELS is a live action film, although it might be more accurate to call it dead on arrival.
Lemuel Gulliver (Black) works in the mailroom of a present-day New York City newspaper. There, no one remarks on his having the same name as one of the most famous literary characters in history, so one can only assume we are in alternate universe where Jonathan Swift was never born (and, consequently, cannot roll over in his grave). Trying to impress the paper’s travel editor Darcy Silverman (Amanda Peet) on whom he has a crush, he pretends to be an aspiring writer. She sends him on an assignment to explore the Bermuda Triangle. When he does so, his boat is caught in a storm and he ends up the captive of little tiny people in the kingdom of Lilliput.
Other than the name and the low comedy incident where Gulliver puts out a fire by emptying his bladder, the similarities are few and far between the novel and the movie. Instead we see Gulliver sell the Lilliputians on the idea that he’s something like a cross between Superman, Barack Obama, and Leonardo DiCaprio. He even has his wee followers construct a theater where they recreate stories from “his” life, which play much like “Star Wars” and “Titanic.”
He also intervenes in the love life of Princess Mary (Emily Blunt) who is pledged to pompous General Edward (Chris O’Dowd), but really belongs with the commoner Horatio (Jason Segal). By the time Gulliver and General Edward, the latter in a robot outfit that looks like a reject from the “Transformers” movies, are battling it out, you’ll be checking your watch certain that time has stopped moving. Fortunately, the movie lasts only 93 minutes and does come to an end, but the pain of may linger for days.
From the insipid script to Black’s inability to convey a character with whom even the least grinchy among us might sympathize, it’s just one wrong move after another. Not even Billy Connolly, as the king of Lilliput, is able to enliven the proceedings, and the notion that someone like Amanda Peet’s character might actually be attracted to a loser like Black’s Gulliver may be the biggest joke of all. Add to that the wholly unnecessary 3D which often reminds us that actors are standing in front of special screens so that the tiny Lilliputians can share the frame with the seemingly gigantic Gulliver. So we see a character in 3D standing in front of a screen featuring a character in 2D. And they charge extra for this?
2010 will be remembered in cinema annals as a terrible movie year in spite of the few bright spots. It’s fitting that it ends with a gargantuan Christmas turkey like “Gulliver’s Travels.”•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.