by Richard von Busack
Whether one is a fan of his or not, most would agree that Jack Black is about as big as he ought to get. The computer effects to make Black vast in the desperately edited and seemingly tampered-with Gulliver’s Travels seem like wretched excess. He already was oversized: the satanic slant of the eyebrows, the burly physique; blowing him up to 20′ feet tall flattens any charm this movie might have had.
The framing story has Black as an overaged kid in the mailroom of the fictional New York Tribune. He has a hopeless crush on the travel editor (Amanda Peet); to catch her attention, this new Gulliver cut-and-paste plagiarizes his way into a free-lance assignment and ends up lost in the Bermuda Triangle. Shipwrecked on the island of Lilliput, he meets a race of bite-sized foreigners who imprison him, until they figure out a way to use his strength to defend them from their bitter enemies.
Subplots include a badly-integrated bromance between Black and a a love-sick Lilliputan (Jason Segel) with a crush of his own on the kingdom’s princess (Emily Blunt). This romance and the giant’s presence causes political conflict with a jealous (and unfunny) general, played by Chris O’Dowd. To be scrupulously fair, parts of the script are reasonably faithful to the book. There’s a spot of historical accuracy; the English palace of Blenheim, commenced in 1705 as a gift from Queen Anne to her favorite general the Duke of Marlborough, is used as the castle of the Liliputian king (Billy Connolly). Swift lived during that reign and praised that Queen in the book. (For the record, the Lilliputans are dressed in late Victorian costumes.)
Just as Gulliver in the book staged an equestrian circus, building a trampoline with his handkerchief, Black’s Gulliver makes pageants of his favorite movies; the live action version of Star Wars with an action figure sized cast; learning of the parentage of Luke Skywalker, one of the Lilliputian royals exclaims, “It’s seemingly impossible, yet strangely inevitable!”
Close enough to Swift is a passage when Black is stranded on the here-unnamed island of Brobdingnag; it’s the film’s comedic highlight maybe because Black is temporarily cut down to size. Swift too wrote the bit that every six year old will feel has been created expressly for Black’s debonair talents: Gulliver’s particularly gross way of fighting a fire. (The bit of a Lilliputian soldier crushed by Black’s bare butt was, however, a bit of debonairness created for this movie.)
Black spins his wheels and shakes his belly, and spouts a lot of already moldy slang trying to find the laugh lines in the forced, uncomfortable dialogue. Considering that Peet and Black suggest comic possibilities as a couple—fatty and skinny in a team, matching grossness and an air of slight distaste, the sour way this movie goes about yoking them up is dismaying. Maybe it’s because the film industry does the cut and paste plagiarizing so frequently that we don’t get the full magnitude of how hard that kind of thing is to forgive in journalism.
By the time the directors haul out a giant robot (a cut and paste from Transformers), a it’s clear that the most interesting parts of this tale went missingThat is: the importance of Swift’s story as a pioneering example of what conservatives denounce as “moral relativism”. Gulliver’s voyage among giants and dwarves taught him that “undoubtedly philosophers are in the right when they tell us, that nothing is great or little otherwise than by comparison.” Swift’s satire on the peculiar stupidity of wars of religion is here just a blatant yet toothless anti-war message, carried out with Black dancing to Edwin Starr’s “War”. The heavy product placement (iPhones, Guitar Hero and Coca Cola among others) is shoved in by people blind to the implications of what happens when a cargo-bearing colossus arrives on a small island. The chances of a satire of some imperial ideas—for example, our convictions about what makes us Americans big and other people small—goes as adrift as Gulliver’s boat.