Travel writer Lemuel Gulliver (Jack Black) takes an assignment in Bermuda, but ends up on the island of Liliput, where he towers over its tiny citizens.
In the determinedly adolescent Gulliver’s Travels, the central conceit is that Jack Black’s titular everyman is rendered a giant when he finds himself in a land populated by tiny people. The portly comic towers above them, and the populace look up at him with a mixture of curiosity and awe. Yet isn’t this the same concept that fuels most Jack Black films? Are the tiny citizens of Lilliput that different to the straitlaced students Black’s substitute teacher seized upon in School of Rock? As he does so often, Black sucks the energy out of scenes by so completely dominating them – you feel like you can’t breathe and in the absence of choice for the audience, his humour becomes a form of shtick. It’s just that this time, with its shrunken, superimposed backgrounds and supporting cast, the green screen makes the disconnect tangible.
First published in 1726, and reportedly never out of print since, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels was a satire of human morality that placed the protagonist in a variety of fantastic worlds (Lilliput was just the first) where he grew ever more dismayed by extremities that ranged from overt dedication to science to racial discrimination; for a Church of England clergyman Swift was quite the pessimist. By contrast, this latest adaptation, a live action debut of sorts for Shark Tale and Monsters vs. Aliens director Rob Letterman, is squarely aimed at young audiences. It is a children’s film, and not the highest-minded of them, as demonstrated by Gulliver one-upping the Lilliput fire brigade by outing out a regal blaze with a stream of urine (yes, Hollywood really pissed on Billy Connolly this time).
The moral is repeatedly made explicit in the establishing scenes, where Black’s Lemuel Gulliver patrols the halls of a New York publishing house as a mail room staffer. 'We’re the little people," he tells a new co-worker; 'You’re never going to get any bigger than this," he is later assured. When he finally tries to impress the travel editor (Amanda Peet, in another thankless role) he’s besotted with, Gulliver ends up on assignment in the Bermuda triangle, where upon shipwreck delivers him to Lilliput.
But the story dawdles on his inevitable redemption, simply because the boorish version of Black is the filmmaker’s default setting. He’s a slob with a Star Wars fixation and Lilliput, with its Edwardian monarchy and starched manners, doesn’t really change him. A succession of visual gags establish the country as a cogs and gears play land for Gulliver, with miniature versions of KISS performing for him while he lies about his Manhattan credentials. The idea that Gulliver is a force of social change – he’s like Elvis Presley arriving in 1955 America – is never pursued, and instead the film makes do with cutting to brief assemblages of Black’s now timeworn antics or an over the top vocal performance whenever the mood flags (which is repeatedly).
Black’s co-stars make perfunctory appearances, with Jason Segel as the commoner Gulliver councils in his bid to woo Emily Blunt’s Lilliputian princess. Billy Connolly and Catherine Tate – Hollywood must have British actors for anything remotely related to royalty – at least understand that their job is essentially to provide reaction shots and brief diversions; the latter does a masterful Windsor-via-Harlem line reading of the phrase 'it’s on".
Per current Hollywood trends, the movie was ratcheted to 3D during post-production, so if you’ve ever wanted to see Jack Black’s bulbous stomach blobbing towards you, you’ve now got your chance. More amusing are the earlier scenes, where the process has to make do with the cubicles of a standard office floor plan – it’s not the most exciting environment for 3D, and if nothing else it makes clear that David Mamet’s classic plays aren’t going to prosper if converted.
As for Jack Black, this is another tiring indulgence of a persona that has never surpassed its offbeat, high wire debut in Stephen Frears’ High Fidelity 10 years ago. It’s a long way from a Chicago record store to the kingdom of Lilliput, and while Jack Black is still big, the pictures actually have got smaller.