by Tim Ross
Jonathan Swift’s novel “Gulliver’s Travels” is one of those stories that’s so fantastical that it’s no wonder there have been only a handful of attempts to adapt it into a live-action film.
Ray Harryhausen first used his Dynamation invention for stop-motion films such as “Mighty Joe Young (1949)” and “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.” In 1960, Harryhausen adapted that technology for a loose adaptation of the Swift novel called “The 3 Worlds of Gulliver.”
In that first film, made in a more innocent time, Lemuel Gulliver is a doctor blinded by his ambition and desire for worldly goods. Once in Lilliput, he calmly speaks to his Lilliputians, helps everyone and there is little conflict until they tire of his goodness and reluctance to war with their enemies.
Fast forward 50 years to a new telling of “Gulliver’s Travels” starring Jack Black as Gulliver. Purists would see this irreverent, modern telling as an insult to Swift and Gulliver, but Black’s portrayal of the capsized giant stays true to the core message of the story – size doesn’t make the man.
I am not a Jack Black film devotee, but I found myself smiling, laughing and enjoying the film on a basic level. Except for the gratuitous ending, the film achieves what it sets out to do, delivering a comedy with a simple message.
This Gulliver is a mail room loser working for a newspaper in Manhattan. He’s on a career track to nowhere and is having trouble finding the nerve to ask out the object of his longtime affection, the paper’s travel editor, Darcy (Amanda Peet).
When he finally does find the fortitude to approach Darcy and ask for a date, he stumbles into a series of lies that lead to his applying to write a travel story. More lies sprinkled with a bit of plagiarism result in Gulliver winning the assignment, which is to investigate and write about the Bermuda Triangle.
You can guess what happens next. There actually is something strange going on in the Triangle, and Gulliver, inexplicably alone on a boat in the middle of the ocean, gets caught in an upside-down whirlpool and is transported to Lilliput.
Once there, his reactions are truer than portrayed by previous film Gullivers: Black’s Gulliver is freaked out – who wouldn’t be – as are the Lilliputians.
While in captivity he gains the trust of the only other prisoner on the island, Horatio, played with a pleasant amount of sincerity and range by Jason Segel. Horatio becomes Gulliver’s first true friend, and the self-absorbed, Star Wars loving fan-boy with an inferiority complex starts to grow up.
Some fun and creative scenes move the film along, with Gulliver putting the enterprising Lilliputians to work building him a sumptuous house and putting on plays based on what he’s told them is his life story. Of course, in his version of his life story, he’s Luke Skywalker, Jack from “Titanic” and any other interesting character he can co-opt from Hollywood.
Kudos go to the writing team of Joe Stiller and Nicholas Stoller for this nifty updating of Swift’s 17th century novel. Black’s Gulliver needs to create a life better than his real one – a reasonable parallel to Swift’s original story of Gulliver’s shallow ambitions.
“Gulliver’s Travels” pulls for the little guy, so to speak, and that’s a nice story to hear. The special effects have certainly evolved as well, with Gulliver interacting with people of various sizes in a seamless fashion.
The writers, actors and director Rob Letter (“Monsters vs. Aliens”) did not set out for Gulliver to be more than it is. It’s a fun, feel-good, 3-D movie brimming with special effects that works for a wide age range. Sometimes that is all a movie needs to be, even when it’s Oscar buzz time.