(2010) Comic Fantasy (20th Century Fox) Jack Black, Jason Segel, Emily Blunt, Amanda Peet, Billy Connolly, Chris O’Dowd, T.J. Miller, James Corden, Catherine Tate, Emmanuel Quatra, Olly Alexander, Richard Laing. Directed by Rob Letterman
The dreaded updating of a classic usually spells utter disaster. When moving Jonathan Swift’s iconic novel into the 21st century, will the filmmakers retain its essence or go for the cheap laughs?
Score one for the cheap laughs. Lemuel Gulliver (Black) – and I find it unbelievable that not a single joke was made about someone with the unfortunate first name of “Lemuel” – has been working in the mail room of the New York Tribune for ten years; for nearly that long he’s had a crush on the comely travel editor Darcy Silverman (Peet). He’s been content to worship from afar and play Guitar Hero on the job. When he trains a new young buck in the mail room (Miller), he is mortified to discover that his trainee has been promoted to the Mail Room manager, which sucks big time.
Then again, Lemuel is too afraid to even talk to other employees at the paper, let alone approach them about career advice. On the spur of the moment, he picks up an application for the position of travel writer and Darcy urges him to submit some samples. Lemuel spends the entire night trying to write some scintillating prose – only to discover that he has no game. Desperate, he plagiarizes sections from Frommer’s Guide and other travel icons and gets the job. Darcy sends him out to Bermuda to check out a tour into the legendary Bermuda Triangle.
He falls asleep at the wheel of the boat (apparently this tour comes sans guides) and is steered directly into a gigantic waterspout. When he awakens, the boat is wrecked and he has been tied up by lots of tiny little people, led by a tiny little General Edward (O’Dowd) who takes him to the King of Lilliput (Connolly) and his MILF queen (Tate). The giant Lemuel is chained in a cave along with Lilliput’s only other offender, Horatio (Segel) who had the effrontery to glance soulfully at Princess Mary (Blunt) who happens to be Edward’s betrothed.
When the sworn enemies of Lilliput, Blefuscia, attack, it is Gulliver who comes to the rescue. The grateful king pardons Gulliver and makes him “vice-general” of the army which doesn’t sit well with the pompous Edward. He plots to allow the entire fleet of Blefuscia attack but Gulliver inexplicably saves the day again. Edward defects in disgrace and guilds a giant robot which he defeats Gulliver with. Gulliver reveals himself to be a lowly coward and a liar (having told the Lilliputians outrageous tales of his life) and is exiled to the Island They Dare Not Travel To, which turns out to be inhabited by giants (by Gulliver’s standards – to the Lilliputians everyone’s a giant). However, Darcy has washed up on the shores of Lilliput having set out after Gulliver. Can the disgraced protector find his inner giant?
If you loved the Jonathan Swift novel, keep walking when you get to the box office; other than having a Lemuel Gulliver wash up on the shores of Lilliput and be tied up by its army, there is almost no relationship between the book and the movie. What this is mostly is a Jack Black vehicle, designed to showcase his talents as a comedian and his usual shtick. The jokes are mainly unfunny; playing foosball with Lilliputians, having Lilliputians re-enact scenes from Star Wars and Titanic and claiming that these are moments from his own life; hardy har har har.
While I was a big fan of Black in High Fidelity, I have to admit that he was a bit tiresome here. When you look at comedians who inhabit a certain persona (like Jim Carrey and Robin Williams), they become like one-trick ponies, constantly reprising the same role in movie after movie. It works for the first few films of their career but eventually the audience gets tired of it. Sometimes, as in the case of Williams, they broaden their range and make movies that are more mature but when they don’t, they tend to fall by the wayside much faster.
I have to admit the visuals here are pretty good. Lilliput has a quasi-Victorian feel. In some ways, it’s almost steampunk and that’s not a bad thing – I kind of wish they had pushed in that direction a little bit further. However, and I must emphasize this, what they have works just fine as it is.
Besides Black, you have the very likable Segel as the second banana and the lovely Blunt and Peet both make fine romantic foils, but this is clearly Black’s show. Even Connolly, one of the most brilliant comedic minds of the past decade, is curiously humorless in his role.
As comedies go this is pretty mediocre stuff. I can’t really recommend it with too much enthusiasm, although I can’t really say “avoid it at all costs” either. It’s just kind of there as an alternative when you want something light and brainless and seeing Tangled for the umpteenth time is not in the cards.
REASONS TO GO: It’s a nice-looking movie and there are some funny moments as well as some heart-warming moments.
REASONS TO STAY: Jumps the shark with the musical number at the end. Too much mugging from Jack Black and not enough real human emotion. The film felt more like a product.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of crude humor (Jack Black is not going to get any points from firefighters) and some mildly bad words but otherwise, pretty much suitable for everyone.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Emily Blunt was originally cast as the Black Widow in Iron Man 2 but backed out to do this movie.
HOME OR THEATER: I imagine the scale of the visuals looks better on a big screen than a small one, but hey, they’re little people – on a smaller TV screen they still look little.
FINAL RATING: 5/10