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.
How to Train your Dragon, the latest film from Dreamworks Animation, tells the story of Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), a young Viking and the only son of village chief, blacksmith and single dad Stoick The Vast (Gerard Butler).
Hiccup is a disappointment to his father because he’s a klutz and not interested in slaying the dragons that constantly attack their village and steal their livestock.
Hiccup is also attracted to Astrid (America Ferrera) but, a tough Viking girl, she’s only interested in boys who want to kill dragons. The story begins in earnest when Hiccup is thrown into dragon training class with Astrid and other town children, while he is secretly befriending an injured Night Fury dragon he names “Toothless”.
Cute and predictable, there’s nothing exceptional about How to Train your Dragon, but it’s still a good diversion. There’s also a dry sarcasm throughout the film that I found appealing and amusing, helping adults alleviate boredom while escorting their younger charges. For example, at the beginning of the film Hiccup explains “We’re Vikings, we have stubbornness issues” and later, one of the kids in dragon training insists “it’s only fun if you get a scar!” Worth seeing in the theater? Probably, especially if you like 3D, but it’ll be on DVD soon enough too.