You may not recall much of “Gulliver’s Travels,” the 1726 fable by Jonathan Swift. Maybe you can see, in your mind’s eye, shipwrecked traveler Lemuel Gulliver on the beach, bound by hundreds of the tiny Lilliputians, residents of the first strange shore he washes up on. Or perhaps you see Gulliver, now himself small, among the giants of Brobdingnag. You don’t really have to recall much more than that from your long-ago slog through the book in high school or from one of the many filmed versions; the people behind this new 3-D version, modernized and starring Jack Black as Gulliver, certainly don’t bring much more than those two images from the book to the table. Instead, “Gulliver’s Travels” is an incredibly costly, special effects-laden plotless muddle of a film that might as well be called “In the Name of Jesus, Doesn’t the Prospect of Leaving the House and Not Having to Talk to Your Family for 90 Minutes During the Christmas Holiday Sound Appealing?”
Directed by Rob Letterman (“Monsters vs. Aliens,” “Shark Tale“), “Gulliver’s Travels” casts Black as Lemuel Gulliver, a mail room employee at a New York newspaper, who, desperate to impress comely travel editor Darcy (Amanda Peet), fibs and plagiarizes enough of a writing career to get an assignment to investigate some phenomena near the Bermuda Triangle. Adrift — literally, once he gets aboard a boat — and unprepared, Gulliver is picked up by a waterspout that deposits him in Lilliput, where everyone is one-twelfth the size of a normal human and yet 100 percent as worthy of consideration and the truth.
Neither of which Gulliver extends, fibbing himself into heroic status and saving the day in several unlikely ways. This impresses the King (Billy Connolly) and his daughter Mary (Emily Blunt) and the lowly worker Horatio (Jason Segel) he befriends; it does not impress Gen. Edward (Chris O’Dowd), the leader of the Lilliputian armies, and a bit of a blowhard and a boor. O’Dowd is a very funny actor, and his general is a fairly funny performance — imagine Michael Caine from “Zulu” as a John Cleese character — and any time O’Dowd, or anyone on-screen, does anything you might want to watch and enjoy, the film gets self-conscious and hurries to provide another pee, butt or belly joke.
Which is the strangest thing about watching “Gulliver’s Travels”: Everyone in it is really good. Connolly, Peet, O’Dowd are all comedic talents. Blunt has a real presence. Segel is somehow charming and yet foolish, silly and sincere. And while a little of Black’s boastful bragging and rubber-faced clowning goes a long way, they are hardly the worst thing in the world to watch. Nicolas Stoller and Joe Stillman have written a script full of tiresome platitudes and special effects-aided urine jokes, each there solely to move toward the closing dance number and credits with a minimum of fuss. The message of “Gulliver’s Travels” is, apparently, “Just be yourself” and “Don’t lie.” Considering that the budget for this film is tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars, I would like to let 20th Century Fox know that I will tell kids “Just be yourself” and “Don’t lie” for half of what they spent on this film and its green-screen effects and marquee-name musical numbers.
The great irony is that Swift wrote “Gulliver’s Travels” to satirize the social order of his day. Now, this 2010 version, bloated with pixels and hurling itself off the screen in 3-D, feels like an unintentional satire of modern kids-movie excesses and banality. When the film needs to end, it’s not the culmination of several plot threads; it’s a musical number, a happy sing-along version of a song released in 1969. A “giant” Lilliputian robot is added for ostensibly comedic effect. Gulliver’s journey to Brobdingnag gets short shrift. And again, the traditional problem of big-budget family entertainment arises, where the grown-up jokes are too grown-up for the younger kids in the audience and the jokes for kids are too insipid and simplistic to appeal to grown-ups. It’s as if Stoller and Stillman wrote some billboard-ready, poster-ready and trailer-ready scenes for the marketing department to use and then stopped. Like I said, you probably don’t recall much of the original “Gulliver’s Travels.” The good news is that even if you get dragged to this big-money modernization of the tale, you won’t recall much of this version, either.