I attended a preview screening of Gulliver’s Travels about a week prior to it opening nationally. Most film screenings are theaters full of families who have scored free tickets through newspaper advertisements, radio promotions or similar, with a small number of seats reserved for us critics. The more base and crude the film, the more this can feel like the studio manipulating us reviewers: critics generally prefer complex, sophisticated films that tap into the rich language of cinema, but jam a theater full of people seeing a movie for free and it’s date night, paid by Paramount, Universal, Fox, Miramax, or similar.
Gulliver’s Travels was exactly the kind of film where this proved important, because there were many times during the screening of this sophomoric movie that I cringed, even as the majority of the audience laughed or cheered. The example that stands out is when Gulliver (Jack Black) first arrives at the miniature kingdom of Lilliput and puts out a raging palace fire by dropping his shorts and urinating. That’s the level of sophistication that scriptwriters Joe Stillman and Nicholas Stoller targeted in this crude adaptation of the splendid Swiftian story from the early 1700s.
Black is mailroom clerk and general shlub Lemuel Gulliver, the least important employee at the New York Tribune. He’s in love with travel section editor Darcy Silverman (Amanda Peet). After straight-arrow new hire Dan (local Denver comedian T.J. Miller) goes from Gulliver’s sole employee to his boss in a single day, Gulliver fumbles an attempt to ask Darcy out by instead applying for a travel writing assignment. His assignment? Head down to the Bermuda Triangle and unearth its secrets.
Thus begins a ridiculously improbable sequence of events that lands him on the island of Lilliput, a place where everything is 1/12th normal size, including the daft love triangle of Princess Mary (Emily Blunt), pompous General Edward (Chris O’Dowd) and imprisoned commoner Horatio (Jason Segel). The story is so predictable that the only pleasure in the film is the special visual effects, and they are impressive, done by the effects team that created the far more entertaining Night At the Museum movies.
I’ll be blunt: Gulliver’s Travels isn’t worth your time unless you’re a fan of either Jack Black or computer graphics. I wouldn’t even rent this unless you’re entertaining a basement full of teen boys. Black has the ability to make smart, thoughtful comedies, but it’s been a painfully long time since Be Kind Rewind and King Kong.
One of the great current debates in Hollywood is about 3D films. On one side are producers like James Cameron (Avatar), who swears every film will be in 3D within a few years. If Gulliver’s Travels is anything to go by, however, 3D is going to die a slow, unhappy death and be a forgotten side note in cinematic history, as the red/blue 3D technology was in the late 1950’s. Gulliver’s Travels was the worst, least effective 3D I’ve seen this year, and that includes the poorly retrofit 3D of Clash of the Titans (see my review) and lazy 3D of the otherwise creative film Alice in Wonderland (again, see my review).
There were scenes during Gulliver’s Travels that I removed my 3D glasses and found that the image on screen had no 3D component whatsoever. The glasses were accomplishing nothing because there wasn’t any difference between the left and right eye view. So what’s the point? Just to pump up ticket prices and artificially raise per-ticket revenue? With films like this, those more expensive 3D tickets are a complete rip-off.
Horatio (Jason Segel) and Gulliver (Jack Black) fist bump in “Gulliver’s Travels”
The entire story played like a comic book too, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. The cast included some excellent actors, including Emily Blunt (The Devil Wears Prada), Jason Segel (Forgetting Sarah Marshall), Amanda Peet (Syriana) and even Jack Black, who was far superior in Peter Jackson’s sloppy King Kong remake, but director Rob Letterman never gave any of the cast roles to work with, and the characters are all instead so one dimensional that you can predict their on-screen pratfalls within seconds of their introduction. It’s foolish to expect depth in a comedy of this nature, but having everything be so tediously predictable just makes the storyline even more boring, with no surprises, no twists, and no unexpected sequences.
When Gulliver coaches Horatio on how to woo Princess Mary, for example, the outcome is a given: she’ll be surprised, amused and find him a far more interesting suitor than the ridiculously inept and self-important General Edward. But what if Edward would have been a likable character who reveals a darker side to Mary when in private, or if Horatio wasn’t the most handsome man in the kingdom, but a peasant with a warm heart?
Which leads us to the special effects. I’m a fan of special effects, no question, and that’s one reason I really enjoyed Tron: Legacy
(see my glowing review
). It offered up a rather complex storyline, a visually stunning world and some quite credible performances. The effects aided the story but just as Avatar
was an engaging, if predictable, film even in 2D, Tron: Legacy
used its visual effects to help tell the story. In Gulliver’s Travels
, however, the visual effects are
the story, a fundamental problem that no amount of crude humor from Black or throwaway attempts at a more serious commentary on war between the Lilliputians and Blefuscians can mask.
Having said all of that, there were some amusing scenes and the film was escapism at its most pure: best seen after you shut off the critical thinking part of your brain. If impressive visual effects and a few chuckles are sufficient for you to be entertained, then you might just be the target audience for this expensive mess of a comedy. Just don’t see it in 3D.