Forget for a moment what the new modernized version of Gulliver’s Travels does to the Jonathan Swift novel, and consider what it does to American comedy. Yes, the movie jettisons most of the actual travels to focus on the most familiar part of the story, with Gulliver (now played by Jack Black) washing ashore in Lilliput, a land of tiny people where he appears gigantic. And yes, the movie then turns this segment into a goofy fable about the dangers of lying and low self-esteem. Still, it’s galling that the movie does so by employing not just Black, but also Jason Segel and screenwriter Nicholas Stoller, who worked together on Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him to the Greek.
It is depressing, in other words, to consider that the forces behind several strong comedies from the past decade, a period when people like Judd Apatow, Will Ferrell, Adam McKay, and Seth Rogen worked to repair the state of broad comedy in U.S. cinema, still come to the same big-studio endgame: an effects-filled fantasy-comedy for kids, chasing the money made by Night at the Museum (or, reaching further back to one of the few terrific kid-friendly fantasy comedies, Ghostbusters). Those fake posters for crummy Adam Sandler movies in the background of Funny People have become a genre unto themselves.
Of course, there will always be lame big-studio comedies, just as there will always be clumsy, pointless adaptations of classic literature. But it’s particularly dispiriting to see a live wire like Black play Gulliver as yet another child-man dreamer. To fit the generic lovable-loser aesthetic, Gulliver has been redrawn as a mail room clerk who scores an unlikely travel-writing assignment from Darcy (Amanda Peet)—an editor who’s also his secret crush—that lands him in Lilliput.
The movie goes on to trot out all of the Black hallmarks—boastfulness, blustery slapstick, passionate singing, and a total lack of shame. But green-screened into the scenery with his Lilliputian buddies, including the lovelorn Horatio (Segel), Black performs in a vacuum, and often comes off like a clown at a child’s sparsely populated birthday party. With Segel serving as a straight man, the funniest performance in the movie belongs to Emily Blunt, who plays Horatio’s love interest, Princess Mary. She reads her lines with such princessy exaggeration, as if appearing in a silly school play, that she seems almost sarcastic.
This may be Blunt amusing herself (she apparently had to do this movie because of a contractual obligation), or it may be the movie demonstrating its lack of a hold on the Lilliputians, satirical or otherwise. Treated as a joke, but unevenly, they’re half old-timey and half modern wisecracky, sometimes self-aware and sometimes the object of fun.
The cartooniness makes a little more sense when you notice that director Rob Letterman and co-screenwriter Joe Stillman did time at DreamWorks Animation. Accordingly, the filmmakers wedge in some neat sight gags, like the miniature Horatio running and leaping across rooftops just to maintain a walk-and-talk with the giant Gulliver, or Gulliver engineering theatrical re-enactments of his life story that are actually scenes from Star Wars, Titanic, and other blockbuster (Fox-distributed) movies. But such occasional funny stuff seems to happen almost by accident, not inspiration. Twice in the movie, we are treated to the sight of Jack Black fighting a large Transformers-ish robot over a tiny cityscape; it should be an absurdist triumph, but the movie can’t muster even a simple Godzilla joke, instead opting for kid-pleasing wedgies and crotch punches.
The lesson behind the robot fisticuffs, and this simplified Gulliver’s Travels in general, is supposed to be that physical size matters not. Ambition, a good attitude, and honesty will make any man a king. Yet it’s difficult to ignore that instead of making any number of smaller, more idiosyncratic comedies, Black and company have opted for an expensive, not particularly handsome, and lead-footed fantasy.
As kids’ stuff, Gulliver’s Travels doesn’t reach the bottom of the barrel. There isn’t a rapping chipmunk in sight, and as wasted and misused as most of the performers are, none of them touches the sadness in the eyes of Tom Cavanagh as he plods through Yogi Bear. Children won’t mind that comedians with decent track records have so thoroughly diluted (or perhaps flat-out misunderstood) a master satirist; for that matter, neither will many adults. It’s the filmmakers who should know better—who shouldn’t jump at the chance to play scurrying Lilliputians to the lumbering 20th Century Fox giant.