Remakes are among the hottest trends in Hollywood today. The latest to get the retread treatment is Gulliver’s Travels, a classic tale from 1726, written by Jonathan Swift, about a man who is shipwrecked on an island of very tiny people. For creating a modern-day family retelling of the story (which has been adapted for the screen many times since the 1930’s), comedian Jack Black (who has often been associated with low brow comedic films and raunchy ventures, like Tropic Thunder or Year One) is enlisted to star as the title character, Lemuel Gulliver. Instead of the story being true to its source material, there is an overwhelming amount of liberties taken to modernize the story and make it more relevant for today. For starters, Black’s Gulliver is a mail room boy at a New York newspaper whose life is going absolutely nowhere… that is until a lie to impress the girl of his dreams lands him an assignment to travel to investigate the Bermuda Triangle. It’s on this voyage that Gulliver is stranded on the island and meets the little inhabitants of Lilliput who don’t take too kindly to the “giant” at first. The end result is a silly but entertaining movie mostly aimed at young audiences.
Gulliver’s Travels not only does not do the literary work justice by any means, but it doesn’t try to take itself seriously… at all. Director Rob Letterman, who makes his live action directorial debut here after having previously helmed the animated Shark’s Tale and Monsters Vs. Aliens, basically creates a live action cartoon version of Gulliver’s. Overacting is the norm and outrageousness is the goal; Jack Black sticks to the schtick he knows best, so only diehard fans of the actor may really love the movie, but those who have no tolerance for his humor probably won’t be able to make it through the movie. To keep it more family friendly, the content is clearly subdued, but it doesn’t get away without some really rude and off-color comedy. The humor gets to be painfully ridiculous at times, but it doesn’t over step its boundaries too often. Still, you’ll find that several moments in the movie will likely inspire a raised eyebrow and a head scratch as you wonder what in the world Letterman and Black were thinking.
Pop culture references and modern media flood this update of Gulliver’s Travels. Because Letterman aims for utter silliness here, the viewer absolutely must accept the film as pure entertainment and nothing serious if they want to enjoy it even remotely. Black does his best to keep things light and fun, which young audiences are likely to embrace, while some of the crude jokes or pop culture references are likely included as self-entertainment on Black’s part or to give the parents watching the movie with their kids something to grin about. So with such, frequent mentions of Star Wars and other popular franchises like Avatar and Titanic are made, as well as other recognizable brands like Guitar Hero, iPhone, and more. Ultimately, the tone of Gulliver’s Travels is very tongue-in-cheek as its hour-and-a-half running time makes it seem like an overlong comedy sketch more than a feature film. What’s most surprising, however, is the amount of talent that was roped in for such a silly vehicle. From comedic actors like Jason Segel (who is also usually in vulgar comedies as well) and British comedienne Catherine Tate, to more serious actors like Emily Blunt, Amanda Peet and Billy Connolly, the talent is here, but the script and direction aren’t really. There is good “silly” and there is bad “silly,” and unfortunately, Gulliver’s Travels just falls somewhere in between.
Perhaps it’s the star power or the evidence that Black is having fun in the role, it’s tough to say, but this take on Gulliver’s Travels is certainly still watchable. Through all the goofiness found herein, an attempt at helping the young audience learn a lesson is still made. Themes of being honest, loyal, heroic, selfless and ambitious are all present. Black’s Gulliver lies a lot and uses the people of Lilliput to make himself feel better and more important, but he does learn a hard lesson about how wrong his actions were before the film’s end. Blunt and Segel are cute in their romantic Lilliputian roles, while Connolly, and especially Tate, aren’t given much to do during the movie. Lastly, Chris O’Dowd stars as General Edward, a Lilliputian who is jealous of the attention that Gulliver gets and becomes the film’s villain. O’Dowd overacts up a storm and is only memorable at being more irritating than anything, serving as the film’s garden variety bad guy. Otherwise, the visuals are pretty impressive for the most part in Gulliver’s Travels. The storm that shipwrecks Gulliver and the effect used to mix Black as a giant with the little Lilliputians is impressive, while other times things are more than just a little too CG to look natural (like the Lilliput Times Square and General Edward’s robot).
The content is definitely PG-grade, including several uses of the phrase “lame *ss,” which is said repeatedly in one scene as a gag to make Edward look like a fool. It may seem minor to some, but with films like this one, young kids are likely to repeat what they hear and it’s unlikely that a parent will want their child running around calling people a “lame *ss.” Otherwise, there are just a couple minor cuss words and some crude humor like Gulliver’s butt crack peeking over the top of his shorts when the Lilliputians try to pull the giant to the ground, and a scene where Gulliver drops his pants so he can put a fire out by peeing on it. In the latter, we don’t see any nudity at all, but we do see his urine dousing the fire and some characters. It just seems a bit too juvenile and inappropriate.
Overall, Gulliver’s Travels is actually adequately entertaining, but if you think about it too much, you’ll realize just how mediocre it really is. It has its moderately amusing moments and its mildly endearing moments, but the fact still remains that films like this have been made before and done a lot better. If you’re a fan of Jonathan Swift’s classic, steer very, very clear of this modern retelling as it is only loosely based on its source material. It’s certainly not a film for everyone, so really only huge Jack Black fans or fans of silly, cartoony live action movies should check in to 2010’s big screen adaptation of Gulliver’s Travels.