Gulliver’s Travels, a modern rehash of a classic adventure novel

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Compared to emotionally intelligent 3D animated features such as Toy Story 3 and How to Train Your Dragon, live-action kids movies tend to degenerate into a study of how many blows a man’s gonads can take before he is rendered infertile.
So imagine my surprise when Gulliver’s Travels, a modern rehash of Jonathan Swift’s classic adventure novel, turned out to be not only tolerable, but actually – *gasp* – enjoyable. Sure, it’s cheesy, predictable and features a shirtless Jack Black – not one of the most appealing sights in 3D – but it’s also genuinely amusing, visually appealing and occasionally heartfelt.
Unlike Furry Vengeance earlier this year, I also left the cinema with my soul firmly intact. And for that I am thankful. Mind you, the film is terribly dull to begin with. Set in modern-day New York, we’re introduced to Lemuel Gulliver (Black), a Star Wars-loving geek still stuck working in the dingy mail room of a notable Manhattan newspaper.
Gulliver has a big crush on Travel Editor Darcy (Amanda Peet), but rather than confront her with his feelings, he unwillingly finds himself with a writing assignment that will take him to Bermuda . Gulliver has no real aspirations to write, but considering it’s his best shot at impressing Darcy, he takes the job anyway.
And thank goodness he does, because this is where the fun begins. On his way out to sea, Gulliver encounters a fierce storm that transports him to another dimension inhabited by miniature people still living under an 18th century-styled English monarchy (a welcome throwback to Swift’s original, which is otherwise cast aside at this point).
Insignificant back in New York, Gulliver is now a giant, and after rescuing the Princess (Emily Blunt) of Lilliput from a French invasion, he is treated like a god. Thankfully, the inevitable bout of toilet humour is flushed out of Jack Black’s system early on – quite literally, might I add – allowing writers Joe Stillman (Planet 51) and Nicholas Stoller (Get Him to the Greek) to find a genuine sense of humour as the film progresses. If it’s not poking harmless fun at the petite size of the Lilliputians and ye’ olde English accents,
Stoller’s and Stillman’s screenplay is filled with a number of clever pop-culture references – not mere one-liners; they actually work their way into the story – that do well to pander toward older audiences. While it mightn’t be consistently funny, it is consistently entertaining.
Forever stuck playing himself, Jack Black (Year One) lends his childish portrayal of Gulliver the kind of boundless enthusiasm needed to win over our affection. I wish the same could be said about Emily Blunt (The Wolfman) as Princess Mary, who seems lost in front of the blue screen and unsure of her comedic delivery. She is actively being chased by Jason Segel (Despicable Me) as the kind-hearted villager Horatio, but considering the two have approximately three short-lived scenes together, it’s hard to find much joy in their inevitable union.
Still, it’s a lot of fun watching Chris O’Dowd as the conceited army general Edward seethe at the sight of his lady being courted by Horatio, not to mention his military prestige being overshadowed by the almighty Gulliver. O’Dowd, of TV’s The IT Crowd fame, steals ever scene he’s in, perfectly countering Black’s tomfoolery with his tongue-in-cheek severity.
Here’s something of a revelation; the 3D is better employed here than it was in Tron: Legacy. Whereas the murky hues of Tron lacked immersive qualities, Gulliver’s bright and colourful setting has been wonderfully realised by director Rob Letterman (Monsters vs. Aliens), who soaks in the stately splendour of Lilliput through the necessary use of long shots (necessary because the giant Gulliver would otherwise spill out of the frame).
It works surprisingly well, not only because it lends Black a monstrous presence that automatically makes each shot visually dynamic, but also because it gives a discernable depth to the frame that works wonders in 3D. Reader, this wasn’t supposed to happen. The trailers for Gulliver’s Travels promised a painfully unfunny stinker aimed to milk leftover Christmas money from unsuspecting parents.
But lo and behold, this is one of those rare instances where the best bits weren’t shown in the trailer.Gulliver’s Travels is by no means high-brow entertainment, but it is entertainment.