Kids are smarter than they look. Children’s movies often pander to the lowest common denominator under the guise of “youthful simplicity,” and overworked parents are often happy to foist any piece of crap on their kids as long as it doesn’t have any sex or violence in it. Studios also know how much of a difference children can make with a movie’s first impression, and often fill press screenings with pre-teens just to give the critics a taste of the target audience.
So was it for Gulliver’s Travels, an update of the old Jonathan Swift novel retooled as a vehicle for Jack Black. If it sounds like a bad idea, you don’t know the half of it. Kids outnumbered grown-ups by a margin of five to one at the screening I attended; there is no truer testament to this film’s failures than the listless way the little tykes trudged out the parking lot afterwards. No giggles, no bouncing off the walls, no “it was funny when he peed on the fire,” just tired resignation and a burning desire to go home.
Gulliver’s Travels speaks to the worst elements of studio filmmaking: slap a recognizable label over a star’s face, fart out a half-assed script involving trite complications and simplistic moralizing, staple a pile of special effects on it, and call it a day. That it mangles the original piece beyond recognition is beside that point: all is forgiven if the laughs come steadily enough. But it can’t even muster the inspiration to let Black be funny, falling back instead on some toothless Tenacious D riffs and the odd bit of shameless mugging.
Black’s Lemuel Gulliver is retasked here as the mailroom slacker at a big New York paper, with a crush on the travel editor (Amanda Peet wasting her talent here) that prompts him to pass off some Internet puff pieces as actual writing in an effort to get a job. She sends him on assignment to the Bermuda Triangle, where a water spout lands him in the teeny little land of Lilliput… the better to pose for the ads.
The script takes a precious few efforts to match Swift’s work: peeing the fire out is straight from the text, and Gulliver makes an oh-so-brief stop at the gigantic Brobdingnagians’ island as well. But mostly, it’s just an excuse to let the star goof off while running into tiny buildings, while the computer-shrunken supporting cast plays Fairy Tale Theater. The stillborn narrative involves a princess (Emily Blunt, who should fire her agent) being wooed by a nasty suitor (Chris O’Dowd, paying the bills) while a poor commoner (Jason Segel, actually spending his paycheck in his head) pines hopeless after her. Gulliver supposedly helps them in some damn way or another while learning very important lessons about being yourself and telling the truth, and getting the pretty girl despite being an overweight slacker with absolutely nothing to offer her.
Which brings us to Black himself, a performer who I liked very much in the past and hope to do so again in the near future. Here, I just wanted to hit him. Hard. Over and over again until that hustler’s smirk and spastic twitching were beaten right out of him. It’s hard watching a man so talented be so annoying, but while his character’s foolishness might have paid dividends with a smarter script, it doesn’t make it any easier (or funnier) for hapless audience members to watch.
The remainder of the film is an utter hash, directed by Rob Letterman without the slightest sense of timing or emotional tone. Cynical references to other Fox films abound, inserted into the story with sneering derision. We’re also treated to the inevitable scene of upper-crust aristocracy parroting street lingo and the bizarre appearance of giant Lilliputian robot which I can only assume is a nod to Godzilla. Letterman did better with his previous film (2009’s Monsters Vs. Aliens), but his animator’s sensibilities come to naught here. Don’t believe me? Just ask the kids in the screening room. Their slumped little shoulders speak more to this film’s dearth of entertainment than anything any of us grown-ups could possibly say. Get used to it, kids. I promise you, it won’t be the last time Hollywood lets you down.