We can blame Stephen Frears for the travesty that is “Gulliver’s Travels.” Frears didn’t director or work on this big budget 3D adaptation of Jonathan Swift’s satiric novel. In fact he might not have been within a hundred miles of the set, but ten years ago he cast Jack Black in “High Fidelity,” a movie that showcased the actor’s unhinged brand of humor and made him a star. Black had kicked around Hollywood previously, taking small roles in movies like “The Jackal” and “Enemy of the State,” but Frears gave voice to Black’s now trademarked manic enfant terrible act. Since then there’s been good moments—“School of Rock,” “Kung Fu Panda”—some bad moments—“Envy” and “Year One” and now a downright ugly film—“Gulliver’s Travels.”
Black plays Lemuel Gulliver, a ten year mail room veteran at a big publishing company with only one ambition—to date Darcy (Amanda Peet) a pretty magazine travel editor. When he finally works up the courage to ask her out a misunderstanding leads to him being offered a travel writing assignment instead. Sent to the Bermuda Triangle, he gets sucked into a vortex and lands in Lilliput, a miniature kingdom under constant attack by a neighbouring nation. When Gulliver helps defend the diminutive country he becomes a hero to all except the scheming General Edward (Chris O’Dowd) who will stop at nothing to cut the giant down to size.
At one point during the action Jack Black cracks a joke and follows the punch line with, “Does that translate? Is that a joke here?” a question he probably should have asked after initially reading the script. The satiric tone of the novel has been surgically removed, replaced with “Star Wars” references, a lame musical number and Black’s incessant mugging. I get that this has been reinvented with a young audience in mind, but dumbing down a classic novel like this just seems wrong. It’s like watching “King Lear” interpreted by The Three Stooges with Larry, Curly and Moe as Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. It just doesn’t fit. Perhaps a title change might have been in order. May I suggest “Gulliver’s Twaddle”?
The problem doesn’t lie completely with the script. It’s terrible to be sure, but its Black’s antics that really sink the movie. He dominates the movie, and not just because he is twenty times the size of his co-stars. Perhaps it’s just that a little bit of his hyperactive slacker routine goes a long way or perhaps that we’re weary of his overgrown kid shtick. What once seemed so fresh now seems tired and worse, not funny.
“Gulliver’s Travels” suffers from some dodgy special effects, a dreary script and an over abundance of Black, and for that I blame Stephen Frears.