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Gulliver’s Travels

December 25, 2010

Gulliver's Travels

Jack Black truly has no shame. I’ve said this about other actors like Zach Galifianakis, in the sense that they are able to embrace a role that requires them to act in a way that would normally be embarrassing. And while this is true of Jack Black, I mean it in a different sense here: he should be ashamed of himself for his part producing and starring in Gulliver’s Travels.

Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels is a classic of English literature, a biting satire that can fairly be described as one of the earliest works of science fiction. Written in four parts, it presents the narrative of Lemuel Gulliver on his travels to several remote nations of the world at the turn of the eighteenth century. Gulliver was born to a moderately well-to-do family — his father having a small estate in Nottinghamshire — and was a well-educated doctor and surgeon — having studied at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and the University of Leiden. He was conversant in nearly a dozen languages, making him familiar with most of the well-known world of the time. Time and again, he takes to the seas to see and learn more, and he writes of some of his most interesting experiences.

The most famous incident was when he was shipwrecked on the twin islands of Lilliput and Blefuscu. These two nations are very much like their contemporaries in Europe, except that their inhabitants top out at about six inches tall. Other than that, their cultures, technologies, and politics are very similar. They’re even locked in mortal opposition and perpetual war over the all-important issue of whether eggs should be broken at the larger or the smaller end. Swift used this story to great effect in trivializing (not inappropriately) the British and European issues of his day.

In the current adaptation, that’s all out the window. Jack Black’s Gulliver works in the mail room of a newspaper, where he has resigned himself to a comfortable mediocrity as one of the “little people”. Do you see what they did there? Of course you did. It’s exactly that sort of self-satisfied glibness passing as insight that replaces Swift’s actual social commentary. It’s also about as smart as the writing ever gets.

Anyway, Gulliver has a crush on Darcy (Amanda Peet), who heads up the paper’s travel section. He tries to screw up his courage and ask her out, but balks and ends up with a shot at writing an article on the Bermuda Triangle. After a bizarre storm, he wakes up washed ashore on the Lilliputian beach, taken prisoner by the self-aggrandizing General Edward (Chris O’Dowd). In prison, he makes the acquaintance of Horatio (Jason Segel), a commoner with his own above-his-station crush on Princess Mary (Emily Blunt). Gulliver’s situation turns around when he saves the princess from a Blefuscudian kidnapping and King Benjamin (Billy Connolly) from a fire. After repelling the entire Blefuscudian armada, Gulliver displaces Edward as the nation’s champion and protector, which drives the former general to the arms of his former enemies, seeking to destroy Lilliput in order to save it.

And really that’s about all there is to say about the movie. Everything else is juvenile humor and excuses for Jack Black to act zany, which gets starts out old and gets tiresome from there. Jack Black is another comedy talent like Will Ferrell who desperately needs another actor on screen with at least as much presence as he has to keep him in check. No such person is to be found anywhere near this thing, and an already-poor concept runs straight off the rails from the word go.

Worth it: not remotely.
Bechdel test: fail.

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